Essays
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Losing Tilly.

By: Jen Shoop

Tilly died on Friday night. Mr. Magpie and I went out for an early Valentine’s Day date and noticed she was more lethargic than usual when we returned. She passed away in our arms a few hours later — a privileged moment, to be sure, but one of the more challenging experiences of my life. I am grateful that we had the time to love on her these past two weeks, and say our goodbyes, and soothe her as she left the world. But I am heartbroken, and the grief is intense. It flipped like a switch the moment she left us: a sharp ache that would not pass. I mourn her absence acutely, and I use “acutely” both as a measure of the pain and in the narrow ways in which the grief reaches me. I find myself casting after her subconsciously: shutting certain doors and clearing plates because they were here favorite sites of mischief; waiting to hear her officious tick-tack-tick-tack paws and low grumble as the delivery man approaches; glancing into the front living room to see if she’s there in her favorite blue armchair perch. The minute I realize what I’m doing, I have to stop and wait for the wave of heartbreak to crest and crash. I climb the stairs and am paralyzed by a throb of sadness: I had just anticipated her face at the top. Or I wake in the morning and strain for her collar jangle; she was always a light sleeper, rousing as soon as we did. Mr. Magpie cleared out her toys while I took the children to Sunday Mass — I found it harder to have them around — and he told me later that he accidentally squeaked one, and “just about lost it.” If you have gone eight years being scarcely able to open a bag of chips within a mile of the house without curious paws clipping across the hardwood floor, these silences are crushing.

All day long, I feel like I’ve forgotten something. And I know what those things are: the walks in the morning, the opening of doors for her, the refilling of her water bowl, the casual “hi Tilly-too-toos” and head scratches as we’d cross paths. I had not fully appreciated how integrated pets are into our daily lives, how they become the metronome of normalcy. Whether I was sick, deep in newborn haze, grieving other losses, there were still the walks and the feeds to tend to, and those drumbeats often made life feel real while I was navigating spacewalks and surrealisms of various kinds. There was also the comfort of her constant companionship. Tilly has always been close-at-heel since I have worked from home 90% of the past eight years. I have been with her most of my waking hours — most of my sleeping hours, too — for much of the last decade. I sit here in my studio and look at the blank space on the carpet next to me: where she used to lay, and occasionally groan in relaxation, as I wrote. The house echoes with her absence.

Oh, Magpies. These are tender times.

I’m sharing the details, even the ugly ones, because I think it is important to look at death, and to feel less alone in our grief. I know many of you have endured a pet loss, and have written to say the most beautiful, empathetic, understanding things. Thank you for helping me through this time.

I also wanted to share a few notabilia I have found palliative in the past few days:

First, looking at her pictures, and I have thousands. I had thought I’d find this more lachrymose than leavening, but it has helped ease the agony. This is mainly because I took not only pictures of her in cute poses, but pictures of her in the midst of mischief — and she got up to a lot of it. There are hundreds of photos of her doing things that routinely pissed us off: refusing to drop my mitten and instead marching around Central Park in it with her mouth; swiping food off the counters; shredding towels and other toys; getting into these braying, back-talking bark sessions that I can only describe as unfiltered terrier sass (I can look at a picture and tell you if she was making that particular category of bark). I find myself smirking, or even laughing. She was such a character. If you are a pet owner, take heed: the pictures of your animals getting up to no good will one day be a ray of sunshine.

Above: two of my favorite photos of Tilly; below: the aforementioned mitten incident

Second, not pulling back from the moments of intense grief. It is human to want to avoid, or attenuate, pain, but each time I find myself recoiling from the moment by swallowing hard, or frantically looking for a distraction, I instead stop and let myself feel it all. It comes like a wave, and washes over me, and sometimes I cry, and sometimes I let out a deep sigh, and sometimes I just stand totally still. Then I take a breath and keep moving. I remind myself: grief is a permutation of love; it is nothing to be scared of. I owe Tilly this time of grief. I owe it to myself, too. I’d rather let it out now than have it come out sideways in other areas of my life.

Third, talking openly to Mr. Magpie and the children about Tilly — not being afraid to bring her up, even if it sometimes leads us to cry together. I want her to be remembered. I don’t want my children to think they must hide their sadnesses, or memories, or questions, somewhere else. Mr. Magpie will sometimes look over at me, and make a little frown, and squeeze my arm, and it’s his way of saying “I’m thinking of Tilly,” and we’ll have a moment remembering her together. We have been talking a lot with the children about what Tilly might be doing in heaven, and the specific ways in which we miss her. Emory has been drawing lots of pictures of Tilly and saying things like: “This would be more fun if Tilly was here,” and “The house is so quiet without Tilly,” and we always roundly agree and talk about what she might be doing if she were around. Hill has been asking whether Tilly can come back from heaven to visit us when she’s better, and other theologically-complex queries. These conversations can be brutal on the heart, but I always feel relieved, and a little better, afterward. It felt good, for example, to explain that God needed her in heaven, and was keeping her there. We’d see her in the afterlife.

Above: Emory’s handiwork

Fourth, leaning on other people who have been through this. Many friends and neighbors wrote notes, and dropped off gifts, and my niece drew a picture of Tilly in heaven. Our angel next door neighbors asked whether they could plant a small tree or bush in our cul de sac in her memory in a few weeks’ time. And so many Magpies wrote me the loveliest messages when I shared the sad news on Instagram over the weekend. One of them has lodged itself in my heart: “when you get to heaven, all the dogs you ever loved come running to greet you.” I cling to this promise.

Fifth, being practical about belongings. Some of you may feel differently, but I found it more maudlin to keep her toys and bowls out. We cleaned and put most of them away for a future dog, and also separated some of them out to donate to a local shelter along with unopened bags of dog food. I kept her name tag and plan to frame it on my desk, though, and I let each of the children pick a photo of Tilly to send off to the printer so I can frame them in their rooms. They picked the two below, and I thought it was sweet they wanted themselves in the photos, too:

Finally, though, and this is a big one: continue to seek joy. Feel the painful bits, yes, but keep moving. Mr. Magpie and I made a point of taking the kids out to dinner and toasting Tilly the night after she passed, and playing our usual morning board games, and celebrating the Super Bowl, and sending one another memes, and looking for any number of small ways to buoy ourselves during this time. One such: the morning after Tilly passed, Mr. Magpie’s amaryllis bloomed. We all celebrated it at the breakfast table. Life finds a way, you know?

Post-Scripts.

+In case you missed it, Tilly was diagnosed with cancer two weeks ago.

+Another beautiful thought on navigating grief: “Life rearranges itself to compensate for our losses.”

+Life also takes root around the perimeter.

+The sun still rises.

+Desiderata.

+A few thoughts I had on commemorating Tilly, beyond the generous neighbor gift of a plant in the cul de sac and the framed tag and photos: we selected a tree in our backyard with the children and called it “The Tilly Tree.” I am also very close to ordering one of these “pup tokens” — they carry most breeds and then you have your dog’s name engraved on the other side. A generous and talented Magpie, Paris of With Love by Bug is drawing a portrait of Tilly, too. And I found these pennants that I thought would be cute for my son’s room.

+Many of you recommended Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant for my children. We read it together at the breakfast table this morning and they loved it, especially “finding Tilly” on each page. The book proposes that Tilly is happy where she is now, with endless treats and enormous fields to run in, and that “she’s where she’s meant to be, with God who created her.” There is also a section in which the dogs come down, invisibly, to visit with their former owners, and I could see the wheels in mini’s head turning. “Hi, Tilly!” she said, waving out the window.

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59 thoughts on “Losing Tilly.

  1. Oh Jen, I loved this so much. As a fellow writer, I really appreciate how beautifully you write. So real, so raw — and it’s exactly how you feel after losing a pet. We fostered kittens when my children were little and adopted 3 “foster fails.” All three lived very long lives, but we lost them all within 2 years (the last, Charlotte, was 20!). I tell my kids, sometimes the only way to get through something is to just get through it. Feel the pain and allow yourself to just swim in that grief. Your advice is so healthy — don’t hide it, just feel it. It’s okay to be sad. Grief is the price we pay for true love, and pets just have a way of finding every last square inch of our hearts. It is a different and very special kind of love. Tilly was SO LUCKY to get your family to spend her life with. Thank you for sharing Tilly with us. I wish you peace and less pain as you navigate this journey with your wonderful family.

    1. Thank you so much, Kris – I appreciate the sweet words and encouragement. You are so right that the only way out is through. I feel that because I really permitted myself to grieve, to open up about Tilly with you all, to talk about her as much as we have in our home, I’m able to be less raw and more grateful right now. I do still occasionally find myself tearing up when I think of the “if Tilly were here…” moments. It still stings.

      xx

  2. I LOST MY DOG TOO RECENTLY AND KNOW EXACTLY HOW YOU FEEL. IT HAS BEEN WEIRD NOT HAVING MY BATTLE FOR 15 YEARS NOT WITH ME ANYMORE. RIP!

  3. Your piece was so beautifully written and resonated with me–I read it twice! We lost our dog Max a few weeks ago–he came into our lives when my sons were 9 and 6–they’re now 26 and 23. Our pets bear witness to every moment of our lives, and in our house it was from birthdays to baseball games, Halloweens to hurricanes, elementary school to empty-nesting, and his absence leaves the waves of heartbreak you described. Thank you for sharing how you and your family are coping and remembering Tilly.Sending hugs and love.

    1. Thank you so much for the note, Mindy – I’m so glad this resonated with you. Sending you love, too — so sorry to hear about sweet Max. You are so right that the constant, steadfast companionship through ups, downs, and the in betweens makes their absence so intense.

      xx

  4. We just lost our Duke January 23rd, He had a seizure and stopped breathing unexpectedly, I too was grateful he was in our arms. I feel all your pain, every single emotion, I too have hundreds of pictures of him and look at them and cry and laugh and smile…I framed his picture next to his ashes and have his first collar and tags hanging on the frame, each one of my kids has a special picture as well in their room.. Only pet owners understand the pain of having a being be so woven into every fiber of our life, every minute every second, as you said you can’t open a bag of chips without the pitter-patter of the paws, I can’t open a package without anticipating him running to grab at the bubble wrap. The pain is so deep and the void is like an abyss.
    Thank you for sharing, I guess misery does love company and I send you hugs in our time of grief.

    1. Oh Dina – I feel the pain in your words. I am so deeply sorry for the loss of Duke — it is so raw right now. I know your grief! I’m glad you are also finding comfort in looking through the photos. My in-laws just came by — they were like Tilly’s second parents, since they often looked after her when we were out of town, and once took her for close to a month while we were moving from NYC to DC. Anyway, it felt good to sit with them and remember Tilly in specific ways. It is good to talk about them, to look at the pictures of them. I’m so sorry, again – right there with you.

      xx

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this. We lost our beloved dog Annie this week too after having her for 16 years. This was such a beautiful reflection and put words to the often complex grief we feel when we lose a pet who was such a precious part of our life and our families. I feel your pain and am so sorry for your loss. It’s so evident how loved Tilly was, how she loved unconditionally, and what a special bond you had. How lucky she was to have you too and to get to share a beautiful life together. <3

    1. Hi Amy – I’m so sorry for the loss of your sweet Annie. I know your pain well. Sending so much love back to you — hoping you find your way to less intensity soon. I am finding that at the week mark, I am less raw. It really helps to talk about Tilly, and to look at her pictures. It’s made it feel possible to speak about her when I think of her without bursting into tears. Sending you love.

      xx

  6. Sending such love. Dogs are the rhythms of the home, and losing them can make us lose step for a time. And a dog you spend all day with is another thing altogether. I still think often of Tasha, the dog of my heart, even though my parents have had several dogs since. We had her from when I was 6 until 18, and we grew up together properly. Though my parents’ other dogs have all been loves, I was out of the house already. She was a long, lean, ice-blond golden, and she loved the water. She was in and out of my parents’ pool all summer even as an older lady. She didn’t like to be cuddled, but she was always within arm’s reach. She rarely barked, and had the most observant eyes, and a cowlick that ran all the way up the center of her nose. If I close my eyes I can still smell her particular smell. I’d gotten my appendix out unexpectedly the end of my freshman year, and that meant I was at home recuperating for her last days, instead of away at school. An unexpected gift.

    A bit of Mary Oliver for you:
    LITTLE DOG’S RHAPSODY IN THE NIGHT

    He puts his cheek against mine
    and makes small, expressive sounds.
    And when I’m awake, or awake enough

    he turns upside down, his four paws
    in the air
    and his eyes dark and fervent.

    “Tell me you love me,” he says.

    “Tell me again.”

    Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
    he gets to ask.
    I get to tell.

    ———-
    I don’t think the telling stops after they’re gone. My husband has framed pictures up of Champ and Daisy, his childhood goldens, and our son knows them on sight. “Good girl” was his first two-word phrase. I love the photos your kids chose. We will raise a glass and toast Tilly over here. x

    1. Gosh – thank you so much for these sweet notes and especially the Oliver poem. “Could there be a sweeter arrangement?” No!

      Thank you —

      xx

  7. Jen, my heart breaks for you and your family; I’m so, so sorry for your loss, and you will all be in my thoughts. I hope you know that Tilly will always be with you in those wonderful memories you have of time with her, and she’ll always be a brilliant part of your own story, and that of your family. Warmest regards and hugs.

  8. I am so sorry that Tilly has passed, wishing you and your family peace. Your words here are so true and meaningful and touched my heart, fully capturing the feeling of losing a beloved pet. I too found comfort in photos that are now treasured. I can say from experience that she will always be missed and that will make you appreciate your next wonderful pet in different ways. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    1. Thank you so much, Alexis. I love the idea that her personality will be “alive” even when we have other dogs — for example, we’ll always compare future pets to our Tilly girl, and talk about what’s different/the same. Thank you for that consoling thought.

      xx

  9. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m three years beyond the passing of our first dog, but I remember so vividly much of what you wrote above. The absence of the click clack is the loudest silence in those early days, and the water bowl that you step over for years seemingly grows in size overnight. Wishing you all peace as you navigate this loss!

  10. I am so very sorry for your loss, Jen.

    I remember you wrote somewhere else about how grief is unexpressed love — and that love is so evident in everything you wrote.

    Holding you all in my heart today. <3

  11. Oh my heart aches for you. I can feel your anguish as you so eloquently put your pain into words. The space that they occupied is so hard to fill but just remember all the joy that Tilly brought to all of your lives and yours to her.

  12. Thinking of you and your family as you grieve and adjust to Tilly’s absence – the small gaps in routine and household habits can pinch the hardest. We lost our dog of 10+ years just before Christmas and I echo so many of your emotions, especially in begrudging chuckles about stubborn, idiosyncratic, and sneaky behavior. Wishing you peace as you continue to honor her memory. The idea of a neighborhood tree/bush sounds like a beautiful tribute!

    1. Thank you so much, Erica — you get it! The begrudging chuckles, the pinching gaps in routine. Just got back from drop-off and was mentally preparing myself to head back out into the cold with Tilly for her morning constitutional. It’s just this shadow responsibility that follows me everywhere — this feeling of “the thing I need to do next” — and it’s absolutely shocking every time I must remind myself that those are no longer a part of my daily routine. It is so hard right now. Thanks for writing in.

      xx

  13. I am so sorry, what a special friend she was to your whole family and thank you for sharing how you are navigating this time. Your post reminds me to be a little more patient, and see with a little more humor, when our family dog runs off with a child’s boot, sneakily swipes something off the counter or save us from the ‘murderous Prime truck man’!

    1. Aw – this made me smile, imagining your pup doing all those irritating but in hindsight charming / funny / absurd things. We used to get flustered with Tilly, who was constantly nosing through the trash if we accidentally left a bathroom door ajar, and up on her hind legs pawing at whatever was on the kitchen counter. Now I miss those ridiculous nuisances.

      Thanks for the sweet note.

      xx

  14. What a beautiful tribute to Tilly and what a beautiful end of life for her. In tears at the thought of all the dogs you love running to greet you in heaven — how beautiful.

    1. I know – I absolutely love that image. I of course immediately think of Tilly pressing her nose to the glass window pane alongside the door, tail wagging wildly, as soon as I’d come home, even from being gone for five minutes! She would routinely stretch (downward facing dog) as we’d get out the keys to come in the door — almost like she was stretching to get ready to leap up on us? I loved that.

      xx

  15. I am oh so sorry. It sounds like each of you in your family is taking good care of one another. Your words are so wise, despite the sadness of losing Tilly. I want you to know that you are helping others who are grieving. It’s a big club with rules that are bewildering, to say the least. So thank you for sharing during this most difficult time.

    1. Thank you, Marsha – I appreciate the kind words and am touched and pleased that what I’ve written here might resonate with someone else grieving as well. You are so right — “it’s a big club with rules that are bewildering.” xx

  16. It is clear that you provided Tilly with a beautiful and happy life. I’m so very sorry she has crossed the rainbow bridge. Thanks for sharing her with us.

  17. I am so sorry to hear of Tilly’s passing. What a gift to have had that love in your family’s life as well as being able to say goodbye in your home. We had to say goodbye unexpectedly to our beloved pup a few weeks ago. After the immediate grief, it’s the unexpected things that still give me a pinch in the heart. Sending my deepest sympathy to your family, may memories of Tilly continue to give everyone a smile and take the edge off the pain.

    1. Thank you, Sandy. I feel so comforted connecting with other people who have gone through this, too — less alone. It’s a unique, pinching kind of grief — I feel her everywhere. But agree that the memories do take an edge off the pain. Looking at her photos has been a buoy.

      I also feel so lucky that we were able to say goodbye in our own home, where she was comfortable and peaceful and, well, where she generally ruled the roost 🙂 It was very intense to have her pass away in our arms but I also wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

      Thank you for the note,

      xx

  18. Thank you for sharing Tilly with us for all these years. And thank you for trusting us with your grief too, friend.

  19. So sorry for your loss. Tilly spent her whole life being adored by you all; she was lucky, and so were you to have her with you for the time you did. But are family and it’s a special kind of grief to lose them ❤️

    1. Thank you, Kathryn. I so appreciate your words. It is comforting to think that she lived a very happy (albeit too short) life.

      xx

  20. It is very sad news to hear about Tilly, she sounded like a very special dog. Thinking of you all at this difficult time.

  21. I am absolutely heartbroken for you. Your post today is lovely beyond words. Thank you so much for sharing this with your readers. And THANK YOU for an amazing site; I read your posts first thing, every day. Sending love to you and to your family.

    1. Oh Anne – Thank you so much, both for the kind words and the loyal readership. I’m so lucky to have you and all my Magpies around me at this time.

      Thank you —

      xx

    1. Thank you, Melissa – so appreciate it.

      Emory is a talented artist but I do feel I need to disclaim that we printed out the face on the printer and she colored it in 🙂

      xx

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