Pet Parenting
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My Dog and I Bonded Deeply After Losing Our Mothers the Same Month

My German Shepherd, Lola, and I both lost our mothers to cancer, just eight days apart. The experience brought us closer together as we shared our grief and supported each other.

Kat Merrill  |  Sep 15th 2016


Imagine if your mom – your best female friend, coach, cheerleader, and champion – died unexpectedly. Now, imagine if the same thing happened to your canine best friend just eight days later.

I don’t have to imagine because that happened to me and my dog, Lola.

My mom and I were best friends as well as relatives.

My mom and I were best friends as well as relatives. (Photo courtesy Kat Merrill)

The day I went to look at two rescued German Shepherds — a mother and daughter pair — I called my father and asked him what he thought about me getting two this time instead of one. His response was immediate: “You’ll still have one in case something happens to the other.”

Those two shepherds, Lily and her daughter, Lola, were the light of my life, and that summer was one of the best I’ve ever had. But some days were bittersweet, as I had received Lily’s terminal cancer diagnosis two weeks after bringing them home. The three of us ran and played, ate ice cream (Frosty Paws for them), lounged in the sun and the shade, and had great fun. I did everything I could to make them feel wanted and loved, and to show Lily a sweet life before she left us.

But then I got the call that my mom was desperately ill, five different kinds of cancer found after a fall. Nothing could be done. She had less than two weeks to live. I rushed across the country to be by her side. She died four days later. The day after I got home, Lily died. I’m convinced she waited for me to return.

This is my favorite photo of me with my German Shepherds Lola, left, and Lily.

This is my favorite photo of me with my German Shepherds Lola, left, and Lily. (Photo courtesy Kat Merrill)

I only got out of bed the next day because Lola needed to go outside, and she needed to eat, and she needed me. I only returned to work because Lola and I needed to live indoors. I couldn’t wait to return home to her every night.

Some nights, I would find Lola lying on the carpet with her mother’s collar beside her. Sometimes it would be soaking wet, I believe from her licking. I put Lily’s collar away only twice – the day I put it on a counter, and Lola got it down and began to carry it around; and the day, two years later, when I packed it for us to move. I learned the first time that she needed to have it. From then on, I only picked it up to vacuum, and then immediately put it back down on the floor.

I knew how she felt. Some days, I would lie in bed and cry, holding something that had belonged to my mother. I needed to do that.

I remembered to eat whenever I fed Lola. She never forgot she needed to eat. I kept getting out of bed day after day because she needed me to care for her.

By Kat Merrill Even when they slept, Lily, left, and her daughter Lola seemed to need to be touching each other.

Even when they slept, Lily, left, and her daughter, Lola, seemed to need to be touching each other. (Photo by Kat Merrill)

There were days when Lola would be down and sad, and I would lift her spirits. There were days when I would be down and sad, and she would lift mine. Some days, we would both be happy and almost feel and act like our former selves. Some days, we would both be deeply sad and just curl up on the couch or in bed to feel our losses together.

In those early days after Lily died, Lola would run to some of her mother’s favorite places along our walking routes and sniff for what seemed like forever, likely taking in whatever was left of her scent. I never rushed her. I knew she needed her mom.

I had shipped some boxes of things from my mother’s house to mine, and after they had been in a spare bedroom for a short time, that room smelled like my mother. I felt truly linked with Lola every time I opened the door and inhaled deeply. I needed my mom, too.

But both of them were fading away, day by day. Some weeks, Lola didn’t pick up Lily’s collar or move it at all. Some weeks, I didn’t open that spare bedroom door, pick up the phone to dial my mom’s number, or listen to messages she had left on my voicemail.

By Kat Merrill On some days after her mom died, Lola would lie listlessly on her mother's bed, looking sad.

On some days after her mom died, Lola would lie listlessly on her mother’s bed, looking sad. (Photo by Kat Merrill)

The summer after our moms died, Lola and I did our best to be happy and carefree. We returned to some of our routines from the previous year, like fun in the sun and doggie and people ice cream, but losing our moms left a gaping hole in our lives.

We would run and play, and then Lola would stop and lie down, looking like she was remembering. She and Lily loved to run and play together, and they would chase each other endlessly with glee. I couldn’t give her that, just like she couldn’t talk to me and ease my worries or commiserate like my mom did.

But I did learn to dog wrestle with her kind of like Lily did, and I would tug at her feet playfully and growl, making her leap with joy and run away. And Lola learned to sit patiently on the couch with me while I rubbed her fur and talked to her about my sadness. We sighed a lot.

She still listens with her head tilted first to one side and then the other when I play one of the many videos I took of Lily and Lola playing together. I think it helps her to hear her mom’s bark, just like it does me to still hear my mom’s voice.

By Kat Merrill One year after Lily's death, Lola enjoys a bone in the summer sun. But her mother's last toy is always nearby.

One year after Lily’s death, Lola enjoys a bone in the summer sun. But her mother’s last toy is always nearby. (Photo by Kat Merrill)

I can’t find all the words to explain this experience. I not only lost my mom, but I also lost a beloved pup I desperately wanted. And my other beloved pup lost her mother, whom she’d been with for four years. But going through those losses together I am certain has strengthened the bond Lola and I share.

Thankfully, neither of us went through the loss of our mothers alone. Whenever I felt alone in the experience, I would be immediately reminded that I wasn’t the only one who lost her mom, wasn’t the only one hurting.

We’ve done our best to heal each other’s wounds and these days, two and a half years later, I’d say we’re doing pretty well.