Alone, together: the comfort of a pet when you’re grieving

Ginny the dog by Fiona's tribute

“People often stop us on our walks, and never once do they see Richard the widower – rather, they see the tall man with the long dog and strike up a conversation," writes Richard Littledale, whose wife Fiona passed away under our care three months ago, about his new four-legged friend.

The adjustments necessary when adapting to living alone in the home you’ve shared together with a lost loved one are many. Some are small, such as moving a picture from one room to another or rearranging the furniture; others are much bigger, such as the frightening size of an empty room or the different echo when you climb the stairs alone.

Right now, one of the adjustments I’m having to make is that I struggle to fit through doors. This is not because I’ve eaten too much, nor that I’ve somehow become incapacitated – rather, it’s because I am now trying to fit two feet and four paws through the door at the same time (I call it the ‘six-foot shuffle’!).

I have adopted a rescue dog – a lurcher named Ginny.

Recognising the stranger

When Fiona and I moved into our current home, it was always part of our dream to share it with a dog. As she became sicker and weaker, however, that was clearly going to be impossible. Yet the dog-shaped hole was still there.

Time and time again in the early weeks of bereavement, I visited our local Dogs Trust rehoming centre – always to no avail. The dogs were not right for me, or I was not right for the dog. However, a few weeks ago, that changed.

Like me, Ginny found herself adrift in a place she didn’t expect to be with no one by her side. Her past in Ireland was a mystery, her future uncertain and she was ready to make a new start. There was something about the quietness of this beautiful creature that spoke to my own, and I perhaps saw some of my own sadness reflected in her beautiful amber eyes.

A helping hand on a bumpy road

As my excitement began to mount about bringing this beautiful dog home with me, so did my anxiety. Adopting an animal is a serious commitment and a significant life change. Coming so soon after such a massive upheaval, it was sure to bring its own stress.

I began to worry about the tiniest thing, from where the dog’s bowl should be kept to where she would sleep at night and how I could organise our arrival home. As these worries ran round and round my mind, they got bigger with every lap.

Fortunately, my family were very reassuring, and the Dogs Trust were patience and understanding personified. After Ginny arrived home on the Saturday, they rang me on the Monday to see how the two of us had got on. Later that week, I was contacted by Dogs Trust’s own 24-hour vet line, which will be there for the duration of the dog’s life.

This kind of support is especially important when an emotionally vulnerable person adopts an animal.

New routines and old pleasures

Ginny has been with me for nearly a month now, and we’re getting used to each other.

One of the early casualties of bereavement is routine. The routine that was there when your loved one was well is long gone, and the routine you had when caring for them is redundant too, but at the same time creating some shape to the day just for you feels unnecessary and artificial. However, Ginny needs routine to settle into her new home.

At certain times each day, she needs to be walked and fed. It falls to me to provide these things, and so my life has a pattern once again. In return, she has given me so many things. One of them, though, is that she’s removed the discomfort I previously felt in my sitting room.

For weeks after Fiona’s death, it seemed far too big and uncomfortable; now, Ginny and I watch the television, and she acknowledges my comments and observations with a gentle snore.

Talk to the dog

On my first day back at work as a minister after three months off, Ginny came with me.

Without realising it, she was my guardian that day. Standing in the sunshine outside the church, she was happy to greet everybody as they arrived. Awkward and well-meaning enquiries about how I was feeling were eclipsed by comments about her, for which I am grateful.

People often stop us on our walks, and never once do they see Richard the widower – rather, they see the tall man with the long dog and strike up a conversation.

The walk un-walked

Ginny and I will hopefully have many years of each other’s company. She will provide loyalty, fun, hours of fascination and an enthusiastic greeting whenever we see each other. I, in turn, will provide protection, provision and the kind of reassurance she craves.

We have many miles yet to walk together. Many of them, though, will take us to the foot of a certain flowering cherry tree overlooking Beacon Hill and Watership Down in Berkshire.

Beneath it lie Fiona’s ashes and above it stretches the big sky.

Whenever we stop there, I shall tell her about the one I've lost, and she will stand beside the one she's found.

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Richard Littledale

Husband of patient

Richard Littledale

Richard's wife Fiona was cared for by Sue Ryder Hospice at Home Nurses during the last few weeks of her life. Since then, he has been chronicling his journey through grief via his personal blog