“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care,” Matthew 10:29.
This verse has been on my mind much lately. As a family, we suffered a great loss on August 27 when our 12-year-old Belgian Malinois mix, Nikki, died.
To understand this loss and the beauty of processes that God takes us through, I have to back up more than 30 years and start with the loss of another pet. That loss was of a much younger dog that died under much different circumstances.
Schotsi and I running wild!
The day after Thanksgiving, 1983, I had just turned 15 years old. I’d had Schotsi, a German shepherd mix, for not quite two years old and she was my baby. She was my dog, not a family dog. We were cohorts in crime and general makers of mischief.
That morning in 1983 a woman named Sandy, a good friend of my mom’s, called the house asking if it was okay if Schotsi went with her and her dog to a nearby reservoir to blow off steam. Her dog, Schweigert, was Schotsi’s age, and what with their names and all, they were destined to be besties.
I eagerly agreed since I’d largely ignored her for the week leading up to Thanksgiving; I knew that she’d have a blast and get some much needed exercise.
My favorite picture of her!
Several hours later, there was a knock on the door that I was completely unaware of. My mom must have answered. It must have been Sandy. Shattered.
The first clue I had that something was wrong was when Mom came back in the house quietly and told me that Schotsti had been hit by a car. Oddly, although they knew it immediately, Mom didn’t share the truth of the situation. All I was told was that she’d been hit. It left me with hope that she’d be okay.
What Mom and Dad were learning while I got on the phone to call a friend for emotional support was that Sandy had finished letting the dogs run outside town, and then loaded them up into her truck. Heading back into town, they were still brimming with energy so she made the fateful decision to stop at another park to let them run some more.
To get to this park, she had to make a left turn onto a side street, and as she stopped to let traffic go by, Schotsi jumped out of the truck and ran in front of a car. She’d died instantly.
The next several minutes of my ignorance are blurry. I have vague memories of walking out of a room, still on the phone, and seeing Mom’s face downcast, her shaking her head slightly. I remember losing it, sobbing hysterically. And then I remember my mom saying, “Nicolle, Sandy is about to come in and she’s a mess. She can’t see you crying like this. She feels awful already and I’m afraid of how she’ll feel.”
And so I took a deep breath, wiped my eyes, and stopped crying. I comforted Sandy when she finally came in the house; she and Dad had been taking care of Schotsi’s body.
I never got to see my puppy, never got to say goodbye. My well-intentioned parents recommended that I remember her as she was and not go out to see her. I don’t know how badly she was banged up. I just know that my parents loved me and I had to trust that she was in bad shape.
Thus began a pathological reaction in me surrounding death and dogs. Injured dogs. Hurting dogs. I couldn’t deal with it.
I remember driving with my mom a couple of years later; she worked next to the school I attended, so I rode to school with her. Suddenly a coyote ran out of a field and into oncoming traffic. I threw my hands in front of my face and screamed! I sobbed hysterically the rest of the half-hour drive, and it took almost that much more time for my utterly bewildered mother to calm me down enough for me to get out of the car.
That’s how it stood for almost three decades. We had two other dogs for a short time, but I had no emotional attachment to them. As it turned out, they weren’t ours to stay. They went on to other homes to live out their lives.
The newest member of the Walters family!
…Until 2009 when Nikki came to our family. She was a dog we were fostering for some friends, and after several months they told us that we could have her, if we wanted her. As a family, the decision was made to adopt her. She was six years old.
Around the time she turned nine or ten, I began to panic quietly inside my head. I never said anything to anyone, but I realized that she was going to stay with us and that she was going to die. And I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t handle it.
I started having weird, irrational thoughts like, “I’ve got to find someone who will take her!”
But, it was more like, “IVEGOTTOFINDSOMEONEWHOWILLTAKEHER!!!”
And, “Who will take such an old dog?” “What if I offer to pay all end-of-life expenses!”
Finally, “We never should have fostered her, let alone adopted her, in the first place.”
Enjoying a camping trip
If you noticed that Schotsi and Nikki resemble each other somewhat, you aren’t wrong. They had very similar size and builds, similar coloring, same sweet faces. The ears were totally different, but then Schotsi was still a puppy at just around two years old. It’s possible her ears would have perked up more like Nikki’s.
Needless to say, I was a mess. There was no getting out of this. Every time I looked at Nikki I felt this sick feeling.
And then one Friday night, I got a call that no one wants to get. A friend was sobbing incoherently on the other end of the line babbling something about “Rocky” and “dead” and “Dany and Lori” and “Florida.”
She was watching our pastor’s animals while he and his family were on a two-week vacation to Florida. Somehow Rocky, their dog, had gotten out of the house and run into the street, getting hit and killed by a car.
Without a second thought, I told Jamie to text me the address; I’d be right there.
After I plugged in the address on the GPS and headed the car in that direction, I started freaking out. WHAT?!?! Was I DOING?!?! I don’t DO dead dogs!!
And yet, I couldn’t let Jamie deal with this all by herself!
So I drove there as quickly as I could, with my 14-year-old son in the van with me. We’d been at the church for band practice, and there was no time for me to drive the 30 minutes north to home, then head back an hour south. Having him there made it even worse!
And yet!! And yet…better. Because I couldn’t freak out. I couldn’t sob or scream or talk myself into a lather.
I won’t go into detail about the hour spent with Jamie dealing with what there was to do. But, I will tell you this. Once again, I couldn’t break down or do anything about my feelings, because Jamie was overwrought. She needed me to be strong. She needed me to hug her and tell her that Lori still loved her. She needed me not to fall apart ugly crying.
At one point, I felt compelled to go over to Rocky’s body to address something. Hesitating, I reached out and touched him. And then I stroked his head. I sat there next to him on the ground and had absolutely no idea that a miracle was taking place.
It wasn’t until I was telling someone about the incident in the days following that it hit me like a thunderclap: in that moment, I had closure with the puppy that I’d never seen or touched in death by touching and petting a dog I didn’t really even know. Because I couldn’t allow my out-of-control emotions to run wild, I just simply stood in the face of it — God, orchestrating everything, standing there with me saying, “Just be. Just heal.”
And in the week after, I looked deep inside myself and realized that the panic about Nikki was gone. I knew that her death would be sad — would be awful for my kids who adored her — because I loved her too. But, I knew that I was okay.
It was gone.
When I left home the afternoon of August 27, Nikki was her usual self — walking stiffly because of her replaced hips, but otherwise her dignified self.
By 8:45 p.m. she was unable to walk or even sit. Being out of town, I didn’t get home until after 10 p.m., but my husband texted, then called me, around 9 p.m. I had the task of calling my good friend, Nikki’s other mom, to let her know what was going on.
In that moment — again a beautiful gift straight from the hands of God to my heart — I understood my mom who counseled her grieving daughter to stop so as not to hurt a friend.
That had always completely mystified me! My mom is an amazing mom! Not always in touch with her softer emotions, but still a very loving woman! WHYYYYYY…did she handle things that way?
As I dialed the phone, having to think about my friend’s feelings, pondering the timing of letting her know…what if this was a false alarm? I hadn’t seen Nikki’s condition yet and only had the observation of my husband. Might he not be overreacting? Even worse…what if he was right and I didn’t let her know in time?
It’s like God whispered in my ear, “Your mom didn’t know what to do about her friend either. She thought you would have plenty of time to be sad and grieve. It never occurred to her that you just wouldn’t — and would pay for it for such a large portion of your life.”
Process number two had gently produced healing in another wounded part of me.
The last hours of Nikki’s life were uneventful in that she wasn’t in pain. And yet, it was profoundly sad. She spent a restless night with my husband sleeping next to her on the floor, Jeannie — her other mom — on the couch, and me upstairs in bed.
Early the next morning, I woke hearing Jeannie and Whitney’s voices. I went rushing downstairs to find Nikki still alive but even weaker.
We had another hour to wait until the vet’s office opened, and so Jeannie, Whitney, and I just sat around Nikki, petting and loving on her. My heart battled with my head as to when to wake the kids up. I wanted them to be involved, but not to watch her struggle to breathe, helpless, as we were doing as the seconds ticked slowly by.
Suddenly, I recognized a very subtle change. I got up quickly to wake up the kids.
It was too late.
I hadn’t even gotten to the first child’s bedside when I heard Whitney say my name. I came out of the room and looked back down the stairs to see Whitney looking up at me, telling me Nikki was gone.
I immediately went into the different rooms, gently telling the kids that Nikki had just died, but that they could go say goodbye if they wanted. They all went quietly down the stairs to gather around our precious pet.
We sat together, a miserable little group, and cried. And told Nikki stories. And laughed.
At the appointed time, we wrapped Nikki’s body in a sheet to take to her to the vet, and caravanned the 30-minute drive to the office. The office staff directed us to an exam room, told us to put her in it, and then take ALL the time we needed to say goodbye.
We were there probably another hour or so … standing this time. Crying. Telling stories. Laughing. Grieving. Healing. Saying goodbye.
I knew that I wouldn’t be the one to tell the kids it was time to leave. I knew they’d make the decision. I just waited.
It was Ethan, sobbing like his heart would break, who finally wrapped the sheet back over her and started the leaving-her-there moment. I wrapped my arms around my oldest daughter, also weeping, and told her that it would never feel okay to leave Nikki here. And yet, we had to.
What a desperately sad day. And yet, I tell you this story to praise my Jesus for so many things! I just want to tell you that I don’t know what you’re dealing with in your life. I don’t know the holes or the phobias. What I know is that He has you in a process all your own. It won’t always be comfortable. Or pretty. But He will heal your wounded, even hidden, places.
And so in closing I just want to say what I am thankful for:
I am thankful that my children have come through this with a healthy understanding of death and grieving.
I’m thankful that I didn’t have to make the decision to put Nikki to sleep (another dread thought of mine even after God gave me peace).
I’m thankful that Nikki didn’t die in a vet’s office — even our vet whom I adore! She just simply hated veterinarians. With a passion. Instead she died at home with those she loved gathered around her with gentle touches.
I’m glad that she failed quickly and didn’t go downhill slowly, losing her ability to walk well before her heart gave out! As I mentioned she’d had both hips replaced before we got her, and she was getting slower and slower going up the stairs.
We’d even discussed blocking the stairs and not letting her go up to our bedroom to sleep. I think that would have broken that big ole’ heart of hers.
And, most of all I am so thankful that she shared our lives for the last six years of her life. I feel so honored and blessed that we were given the opportunity to adopt her, and I’m thankful that her first Mom was still part of her life … and that she was able to be there at the end.
As a bonus gift, it had worked out that she’d watched Nikki for us during my son’s recent wedding. She’d had a family reunion that weekend (I hadn’t known or else wouldn’t have even dared ask, let alone ask at the very last minute like I did), and so Nikki got to go and see everyone in her first family for the last time!
I know deep in my heart of hearts that this was no accident. No coincidence. The timing and all the details surrounding that last weekend were divinely aligned.
Rest in peace, Nikki dog. We’ll see you again under the chocolate tree.