Labors of Love, Lessons of Loss: A personal journey through grief.

On Thursday, March 20th at 7:00PM, the Loudoun County community will come together for the annual Pet Remembrance Ceremony at St. James Episcopal Church in Leesburg.  Every year, this special ceremony offers comfort and healing for families who have lost or been separated from their pets.  For more information on the event, please click here

In an incredibly intimate and moving piece, Nicki Yehle, one of LVH’s technician assistants, opens up about the loss of her beloved dog Leo and her personal grieving process.  We thank Nicki for sharing her personal narrative, with hopes that it may help others find peace and guidance in times of mourning and loss.

The dynamic and powerful relationship of the human-animal bond. Image source: Nicki Yehle

The dynamic and powerful relationship of the human-animal bond.
Image source: Nicki Yehle

On September 17th, 2010, I met my soul mate. He was sitting behind the desk of my local animal shelter, greeting a couple who had come to adopt a cat.  His skin was flaky, he was missing teeth, and his ears were too big for his head; he was short, stocky, and bowlegged.

I fell hopelessly in love.

Leo, as I later named him, was a three year old, ten pound Corgi/Chihuahua mix.  He loved car rides, wearing sunglasses, smiling, and eating everything in sight.  He slept in my bed, came to work with me, and ran around on my family’s farm.  We never spent a night apart.

My little dog was my steady rock through many hard times in my life and loved me even when I didn’t feel loveable.  He was my best friend, my baby, my world, and I was incredibly lucky to share my life with him for three beautiful years.

One of Leo's favorite past times- car rides! Image source: Nicki Yehle

One of Leo’s favorite past times- car rides!
Image source: Nicki Yehle

July 31st, 2013 was a sunny summer day.  Leo and I spent the day in the barn with my mom and her dog, Maggie.  We had a great afternoon, and as it faded into evening, we went to hang out on the couch with a good book.  I was wrapped up in the story until I heard a whine, and looked up to see Leo stumble off of the couch and land on the floor, his legs trembling.

It is still too painful to go through the details of that night.   My sincere thanks goes out to Dr. Strickland and my fellow staff members at LVH, as well as the wonderful people at The Life Centre for doing all they could to save my best friend.

Unfortunately, I received a call at 4 am on August 1st, 2013.  Leo had stopped breathing on his own and was on a respirator.  I couldn’t stand the thought of him suffering any longer and made the call to humanely euthanize him.

The next few days were a blur. I stayed with my family and couldn’t eat or sleep well.  Over the next week, I received ink paw prints and hair clippings from TLC and a clay print from LVH.   I was given Leo’s ashes in a beautiful wooden urn.   Each step felt unreal and horribly painful.  I couldn’t touch his little clothes or look at his toys without breaking down in tears.


Image source: Nicki Yehle

I am so incredibly lucky to work where I do and to be surrounded by people who legitimately understood how I felt and still sometimes feel.  I got so many hugs and cards and people checking on me to make sure I was okay.   I heard stories and saw other people cry and mourn my little dog, too.  It made me realize that tiny Leo had made a bigger impact than I had realized.

As days wore into weeks, I began to go through pictures and videos I had taken of Leo.  I started posting pictures with things he had taught me to Facebook.  It was so hard, but very healing, and it felt good to share my memories with friends.

I set Leo’s favorite blanket, his two favorite stuffed animals (one of them wearing one of his little sweaters), his urn, paw prints, collar, and leash on a shelf by my bed.  It comforts me and reminds me how lucky I am to have shared my life with him.

Image source: Nicki Yehle

Image source: Nicki Yehle

Leo has been gone for seven months now, and I miss him every day.  Some days, I still wake up and expect him to be there.  But most of my memories are good ones.  He still makes me laugh.  I will never forget him and there will never be another Leo, and I’m okay with that.  Even the terrible pain of losing him doesn’t compare to the huge amount of joy, love and laughter he brought to me.

Image source: Nicki Yehle

Image source: Nicki Yehle

I’ve also learned that there is no set timeline or specific style of grief that exists.  Everyone handles pain differently.  Some people prefer to grieve quietly, while others are very open.  Some don’t want another pet for months, even years, while others need a pet right away to help them heal.  There is no right or wrong.  It’s not something that can be forced to go faster or made to disappear.  Pets, whether big or small, four legged, hoofed or winged, are parts of our family and there is absolutely nothing strange with grieving them as one would any other family member.

My biggest piece of advice would come directly from Leo: do not be afraid to love deeply and trust completely, even when you know one day it will come to an end.   Every second is worth it.

Image source: Nicki Yehle

Image source: Nicki Yehle

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