It’s an odd experience to lose your dog when you’re black. Because in addition to ‘kissing’ dogs, bathing dogs in your own bathtub and a host of other things that I’ve heard “black people don’t do,” I’ve always been taught that black people don’t mourn the loss their dogs.

We had dogs growing up, but because we were black in the ’80s, those dogs were always outside. The physical barrier doubled as an emotional barrier, shielding me from feeling any unnecessary ounce of sadness when they’d pass away. This was true for Bowser, our large, old German Shepherd whose main goal (and function) was to guard the shaded corner of our patio year round. “A dog is just a dog,” my dad said as he shoveled a final resting place for Bowser at the very back of our expansive Texas plot of land. Following paternal suite, I grew to be indifferent about dogs, shrugging my shoulders and rolling my eyes whenever I’d come across overly-affectionate dog owners (who, typically in my experience, were not black).

So imagine my own surprise when I found myself to be the enamored owner of a cute and spirited German Shepherd/Beagle mix.

In addition to simply being adorable, Kenny became my companion during the most tumultuous time of my life. He stood by my side when I quit a steady-income tech job to “strike out on my own,” when I traded the familiar eight-lane streets of Houston for the subways of New York, and when I filed for divorce. Kenny was even there when I un-filed for divorce. As long as I kept him fed, watered, and run (he loved the little grass patch along the East River trail), Kenny helped me make tough life decisions.

“What should I do about this guy, pup?” Kenny raised one eyebrow, then rolled his eyes. “Ah yes, clearly I should stay away from that guy.”

“Should I work at this new startup? Will it be any better than all the other ping pong table/keg-stand bro-y tech startups around town?!” Kenny stood up, stretched his hind legs while yawning, then sat back down to curl up in his little doggy couch, finally letting out a stern sniff. “Of course it’s going to be a different startup experience, so I should go for it!”

I envisioned Kenny growing old with me and my family, jumping around a quiet, spacious apartment in the Upper West Side (a girl can dream), kids, and other adult stuff. As I saw him as more of a permanent and significant fixture in my life, I realized I had filed “a dog is just a dog” with all the other retired adages of my life. Maybe some dogs are just dogs, but not my Kenny.

So I was devastated when his bladder ruptured out of nowhere, leaving me incapable of paying the thousands of dollars for his treatment and surgeries. I was inconsolable when I realized my only option was to give him up to the emergency vet clinic.

Moreover, I’ve been dumbfounded by my own continued mourning of the loss of my dog.

Because, as I mentioned, I’m black. Black people “aren’t supposed” to mourn over anything too long, let alone a lost dog. Studies have shown that black and white people alike assume black people can take more pain in this world. So days later, why am I still in mourning, especially over an animal? ‘Get with it, Jennifer. A dog is just a dog… right?’

Photo: Courtesy of
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Epperson

In mourning for Kenny, everything has been a first. The first time I got ice from the refrigerator without him sitting up extra upright to convince me to drop a cube on the ground for him. The first time I went out for a run without grabbing his leash to accompany me. The first time I cleaned my apartment without him coming to get a whiff of my organic cleaning products, giving me the look of, “Girl, you still think that stuff is going to actually clean up this mess?!” Everything I have done since giving him up has been in the shadow of his looming absence.

And yet, I’m black. I’m a black woman who should be well-versed in suffering. Though psychological studies are beginning to disprove this assumption, I’m still operating in the mindset that I’m supposed to be able to quickly adjust to loss. Every time a close friend asks how I’m doing, I preface the update on my fragile emotional state of sadness with, “This is so weird, but…” Just as I was texting another concerned friend, “Totally weird, but-” I stopped in my text tracks.

I don’t need to make excuses for my emotions.

I don’t have to carry the unforgiving weight of societal expectations in something as intimate and raw as grieving the loss of a companion.

Though I’m not grieving his loss in the same way I’d grieve the loss of a human companion, I like to believe that my heart is big enough and smart enough to appropriately accommodate all of these feelings. I choose to believe that in 2016, we’ve progressed enough to remove “deeply experience grief” from the metaphorical list of things black people don’t do.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to put the finishing touches on my Celine Dion-backed slideshow of Kenny so that I can memorialize my companion… something we all do.

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