circa 2004 - 2011
Heartbreak. It happens when there is loss -- a relationship, a home, a life. If you volunteer at a shelter long enough, you will experience your fair share of loss: perhaps a favorite cat or dog who is adopted-- a good outcome, but nevertheless a loss of sorts for you; a dog or cat you adored and thought would be there until he or she was adopted is euthanized for reasons that are understandable, but nevertheless he or she is gone.
Knife-in-the-gut-wrenching heartbreak is losing a being you have come to love from the depths of your being-- the dog or cat whose kennel you visit first when you come into the shelter, the dog or cat you post on FB constantly, or who may even become your profile picture for a time, the dog you walk the longest, whose habits and personality quirks you have come to know like the back of your hand. The dog to whom you bring special treats, ensure has a blanket on his or her Kuranda before you leave. The dog you talk to with that only-to-you tone of voice, not caring whether anyone overhears. The dog you pray finds a good home and gets to experience what you give them everytime you are with them, but still just a small fraction of a 24-hour day-- every moment of every day.
When this doesn't happen, there is heartbreak. The capacity for deep feeling is what makes us sensitive human beings, the quality that may be responsible for why we seek out volunteer work at an animal shelter in the first place. But there is a price for that capacity, and it is a mighty high one: pain Pain that ebbs and flows, but can often underlie everything you do. Pain that is especially sharp when you pass the kennel "your" dog used to inhabit, or when you come across a picture of them. Sometimes, it is too much to bear and we have to stop volunteering for a while. Or, for good. Sometimes, the only way to bear it is to keep going, walking more dogs, giving more of your heart. Walking through pain is the most difficult task we have as human beings. Volunteering or working at an animal shelter often necessitates that we find a way to walk through it, especially if we are committed to continuing.
It takes a certain type of human being to continue loving, opening your heart to new dogs or cats who come in, or to those who may already be there, one of whom will become your new favorite. Or maybe we will decide not to have any more favorites, to spare ourselves the risk of experiencing that degree of pain again. Usually, this option does not work out too well, for it is natural for us to be drawn to certain qualities in animals, just as we are drawn to certain qualities in humans.
Every volunteer and staff member who walks through the door is worthy of admiration, for he or she, whether consciously or not, has made a decision to open up his or her heart, making it vulnerable to hurt, but also making it capable of great joy and satisfaction: the sheer delight of seeing our favorite dog running with abandon around the wood-chipped play area, wading through tall grass, nose in the air, exhibiting curiosity when playing with a new toy or visiting a new area of the park; the satisfaction of observing them picking up good leash manners and responding to commands that will help them become more adoptable; and the unparalleled joy of forging a connection that feels strong and real, deep and authentic . . . and of perhaps getting more hugs and kisses from them than we've gotten all day from any living being. These are the reasons why we continue, even when our hearts have been broken. And they are the very experiences that will help to mend that broken heart.
Gigi was laid to rest today, after two large inoperable tumors were found lodged in her abdomen.