How a pet helped me with my grief

Jill Baker tells her story to Australian Seniors from her book A Dog Called Harry.

When her husband, George, didn’t answer the phone one morning, Jill Baker rushed back to their farm in rural Victoria to find him passed away on the bedroom floor. Within weeks, still in shock, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy followed in a year from hell. Jill, who is now 61, had been living the country dream, but after the loss of George, she made the difficult decision to move back to Melbourne. At her lowest ebb, Jill needed something to make life worth living. So she took a chance. This is her story.

So much lost. First, George and now the farm we adored. I had no idea if the sale was the worst day of my life or a shaky new beginning. As I drove back to Melbourne, I told myself it was a fresh start and hoped that if I said the phrase often enough, I might believe it one day. 

Late that night, I remembered something I had forgotten. A doctor who thought a dog might heal me and a girlfriend who knew what I needed: someone, something to love. I decided on a dog but not just any mutt. My guy had to be extraordinary. His job was to make me laugh by doing something completely bonkers. To stop me dwelling on my problems because I’d be worrying about his. He had to make me happy again. To make life worthwhile. I had no idea if any dog could do that. I fretted about the size of the task. Was I asking too much of a tiny pup? 

I first saw him online. He was so shy he dipped his head when they took his photo. A neighbour and I drove to pick my puppy up. He’d never been away from his mum before, and when they handed him to me, he trembled. 

I wasn’t just a dog owner now. I was my puppy Harry’s weight-loss consultant, his diet regulator, his portion controller, his high-intensity training coach, his green-vegie whisperer and his exercise buddy. His needs filled my days. I didn’t have time to think about my problems because I was flat out trying to sort his. It should have made me stressed but everything about it made me laugh. 

Jill Baker with her cavoodle Harry, the dog she was persuaded to take into her home after losing her husband and battling cancer.

How a companion dog helped in times of crisis

Week by week Harry’s craziness was changing me. At first it was so subtle I didn’t notice. Then I got it. I had found someone who needed to be loved as much as I did. If I was needy, Harry was needier. If no pat was forthcoming, he tapped my leg to let me know he was there and waiting. He cried if I shut him outside and howled when he heard the car start up. 

What should you expect when you decide to get a dog as a senior? 

Having Harry was a badge of honour – I was the mum of that teddy-bear puppy. Actually, I was the mum of something much more exhausting. Harry was like that shocker of all shockers – a three-year-old.

With Harry, I was finally finding city life relaxing. I allowed myself to chill for the first time. It was an incredible feeling. Harry and I didn’t have to do anything. On weekends we stayed in bed late if we wanted to. (Of course, Harry never wanted to.) We walked all afternoon even if it was pouring. 

I missed the bush, sure, but I started to love the city. I found things that reminded me of the country: a nursery selling perennials that smelt like a heady summer’s night; a farmers’ market boasting tomatoes that looked homegrown; and an egg man who sold double yolkers perfect for breakfast. 

Harry was my very best friend. He didn’t give a toss about anything bad that had happened. The simplicity of Harry’s world helped me cope with the chaos of mine. I was getting my equilibrium back. Slowly I started to think good things would happen – soon.

Look after your best friend with Seniors Pet Insurance


Image credit: Julian Kingma