Foster meets dog. They fall in love.
But happily ever after is only sometimes in the picture - because we can’t keep them all.
A recent email exchange between myself and an adopter brought back the pain, the loss, and the hope in letting go of an elderly Bichon mix that I fostered — for eight months!
Below is an email, and a response (with a couple minor edits) between my best friend and I. It addresses all those tough emotions of saying goodbye. Will the adopter care for him? Will she love him as I do? Will he have the same quality of life?
But hardest of all is if the dog will feel abandoned by you.
Have I mentioned rescue work is not for the feint of heart?
My bestie and I decided to share this interchange with my awesome rescue community in hopes that it may help process that bundled mess of love and grief in giving up your beloved fosters to their forever homes.
On Monday, I took Oliver to his forever home. He had lived with us for 8 months.
It was devastating.
But first, he did go to a wonderful home, a veterinarian adopted him. She’s one of these uber women who runs a clinic, sanctuary/rescue and household all out of the same building. But he was not to become a sanctuary dog. He was to be her very own and live with her in her very own home.
But it was still hard. Very, very hard.
The drive there was awful. He slept like an angel the entire two-hour ride (insert knife).
When we arrived I just kept holding him and talking to the vet about his history. I couldn’t let him go. He’s such a soft, chubby little guy and I had just given him a bath. He has this way of almost purring in your arms.
Well the vet must have sensed I was distraught and unable to just hand him over, so she’s all like, “8 months is a long time to have a foster. He thinks he’s home.”
And of course, this summarizes the entire pain of letting go. He thinks my home is his, and I know he thinks my home is his.
“How come you don’t want to keep him?” She asks.
I wasn’t expecting that question so I fumbled over the answer. Said something lame about already having four dogs (she probably has more) the expense of keeping him (which she kindly offers to pay for), and how he doesn’t fit our lifestyle (never mind he’s perfectly content to sleep on his pillow by himself until we return from taking the other dogs for walks or runs).
I see she’s buying none of this, so I tell her truthfully that we only have 5 fosters in our entire network, and so many of the special needs dogs at the shelter don’t get to recover from injuries in a home environment because we are always maxed out with dogs. Ollie vacating means I can save another dog.
She nods. But I can see she is one of those women who could probably foster multiple dogs and still keep her sanity.
So I left feeling like a liar. Feeling inadequate. Feeling like a betrayer. And, of course, thinking of all the things I should have said. Like, WHY we had Ollie for 8 months. How we had to keep him for two months so he could get his strength up, and to heal from being hit by a car before the vet would even consider starting treatment for his heart worm. Then, the slow kill treatment itself took two months more. Then, we had to get his seizures under control, and that took tampering with different meds and different doses.
And during those early months, I’m dodging his canines because he’s half wild at first from living under an abandoned house for an entire winter. I’m changing diapers during the five to seven recovery days after every seizure. I’m crushing up his pills and mixing them with canned dog food every morning and evening under the accusing eyes of my other dogs who do not understand why the interloper is getting canned dog food while they are not. And during the time he lived with us, Jeff and I are holding him through his seizures so he won’t bonk his head on the hardwood floor, and cleaning up poo and pee afterwards. And him going all crazy for a few days after those seizures, eating gravel thinking it’s kibble and getting horrible diarrhea from it, and barking in the middle of the night, all night, for no real reason other than to announce he is awake, and ransacking every garbage can in the house. Then there is me taking him into the lawn to go potty in all kinds of weather at all hours because he refuses to step into the dew. Like, 5-6 times a day.
But there is also him snuggling on the couch with Jeff watching youtube. Him scampering around the house after a bath, and quivering his tail when food is imminent. Me carrying him outside and enjoying the feel of his soft curls and tubby body which I nourished back to health. Him fussing when Petunia, or any of the other dogs, was occupying a bed he wanted. Him, finally, FINALLY, going into the yard to do his business (still under supervision, mind you, but at least off leash).
And in the final few weeks he was here, him jumping up to put his wooly paws on my thigh while I’m at the computer because he wants lifted onto my lap.
It’s eight months later, but suddenly, he’s a new dog and ready to go to a new home.
And, of course, I’m totally in love with him.
When I got home from dropping him off, it was very dark, and late. I was exhausted, but I still had work to do. I hid everything Ollie related, like I was cleaning up after a crime or something. I washed his bowls, and put them away, fighting back tears. I stashed his diapers and put his canvas bag, now empty of his meds, into a tote in the closet - losing the battle of the tears.
I don’t know why, but I start washing the dog beds.
That night, I wake at 3 am and can’t get back to sleep. I keep seeing his curly little self with his adorable button eyes thinking he was home. Trusting me he was home.
So in the morning as I’m eating breakfast and still fighting back tears, Lilly, that damnable Lilly, comes prancing into the living room with Oliver’s canvas medication bag. I had literally stashed it into another bag and stuffed into the back of the closet. Lilly drops Oliver’s medication bag at my feet.
“Time to give Oliver his meds, mommy. Were you looking for this?”
And of course, any attempt at holding back tears at this point is pure madness. And it just gets worse as I later discover that Lilly had make a huge turd deposit in the bathroom (something she hadn’t done in months) because she feels something is very wrong. Oliver is gone. Where did he go? All Lilly ever did was pester him, but she misses him. Feels the loss in her own little puppy heart.
But know what? I keep going back to that one question: Why didn’t I keep him? I don’t know if I’m entirely happy with the answer, but this is the best one I can come up with. Because I cannot keep every foster that I welcome into my home.
As my rescue partner, a sensible, cut-to-the-chase woman once said, “That would make us hoarders.”
I mean, I gave Oliver a life even when his vet worried that the heart worm treatments weren’t worth risking it at his age and health. It was a gamble, but it worked. Little guy’s a survivor for sure.
So yeah. Been a hard week.
Love you my bestest and dearest,
You loved Ollie bear and he loved you. Your dogs gave Ollie a happy tribe and you gave him a momma. And the vet loves Ollie and she will give him a home, too.
Ollie is surrounded by so much love.
You have transformed Ollie. And now you have room for a new foster who needs you when no one else is able to help.
But you’ll have to grieve Ollie.
You’ve lost someone you cared for deeply, and more than that, who you worked so hard for when everyone else had given up.
You’re not going to be able to process this with your reasonable brain. You need to honor your love and grief.
I suggest you do a ritual that honors Ollie.
It could involve photos, candles, water, rocks. Stories. A few Ollie objects. A special spot.
Blessings and memories of past, present and future.
Statements of trust that Ollie is strong enough to make the transition from love to love.
Letting go and opening space intentionally for the new dog who needs you.
It’s like creating a container for all that struggle and celebration and love and grief for Ollie.
I think when you are done you’ll find a hopeful, raw, beautiful space in yourself all cleaned out and bright and made out of love. Your Ollie spot, all set to save another.
The guilt and uncertainty you feel about Ollie’s experience is your story. Ollie’s shown you how strong he is.
Treat that heavy thing inside you like compost.
Bury it over and over again until it falls apart and grows into something wonderful.
I spend a lot of time with uncertainty and regret. I’ve chosen a life that involves a daily dose of not knowing what the hell I’m doing, and that means doing a lot of stuff wrong.
The compost image helps me more than anything. All we can do is trust that what was sown in love will result in love, even with all the bumps along the way.
I know you’ll be ok. I love you and am more thankful for you than I can say.
Your forever friend,
A simple email from Ollie’s new mom the very next day did so much to release all the anxiety and guilt I had been holding inside. It read, “He moved right in like he has always been here snuggling on the couch at night with my husband. He is a sweetheart.”
Blessings and congratulations on your new home sweet Lamb Chop, Mr. Olliverclothesoff, our little Stay Puft Marshmallow Man…
We love you.