When their toy poodle, Sam, died in early February at age 16, Gene and Patricia Tway were devastated. The depth of their grief surprised them. He is 87 and she is 82. They would wake up sobbing and even now tears will come at times. The paw prints he left on the wood floor his last day are still there, carefully covered by a tissue, because they can't bear to wipe them up.
After Sam's death, they talked to a counselor at Tidewell Hospice, where Sam once brought cheer to patients as a pet therapy dog. They were relieved when she didn't laugh at them because they were grieving so much for a dog.
"She did not in any way put us down. She knew we were suffering," said Patricia.
Counseling for pet loss isn't listed as a hospice service, but social workers help people with all types of loss, said Tidewell social worker Cindy Gourley. Tidewell briefly experimented with starting a pet loss support group but social workers decided it would be more effective to meet one-on-one with people grieving their pets.
Losing a pet can be particularly hard for the elderly, said Gourley.
"Part of the education we do is that grief is cumulative. A more recent loss will trigger revisiting a prior loss and reawakening that prior grief," she said. "I think the elderly are sustaining lots of losses as they age."
The Tways moved to Sarasota in 1990 from Pennsylvania where they owned a china factory. She has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and also taught college.
Decades ago, the Tways lost their son when he was only age 3. As Sam's health was deteriorating, Patricia sometimes found herself calling him by her son's name.
She was surprised at how she and Gene showed so much more outward expressions of grief for Sam's death than they had when their son died. She believes the reason is that when their boy died, they were in their 20s. They were caring for their small daughter and working. Now in their 80s, they can grieve in their own time.
Throughout his life, Sam had been with the Tways every minute of every day. He was a trained hearing dog guide for Gene, which meant he was allowed everywhere, including restaurants. Sam alerted Gene to the telephone and doorbell. If he heard a smoke alarm, Sam could lead Gene to the door and, if Gene touched it and said "hot," Sam was trained to take him to another exit.
When Patricia's hearing declined, too, Sam was trained to let her know when it was time to take the tea kettle off the stove.
Sam also was part of the Tways' extensive community service. He was a certified pet therapist, visiting a hospital, four nursing homes and hospice every month with Patricia. Smart, compassionate and endearing, Sam seemed to know which patients needed the most caring and would stay longer on their laps.
Patricia made him business cards: Hi! I'm Sam. Hearing Dog Guide & Pet Therapist. Ready to make you happy!
She jokes that she became Sam's stage mother. She made him elaborate themed-costumes for his therapy dog visits and appearances at fundraisers. He was Zorro, an Egyptian pharaoh, an Indian and a host of other personas. He knew how to pull a variety of carts and did tricks.
"They did tremendous work in the community," said Gourley. When Sam's health started to decline and he died, the Tways lost that connection to meaningful work they loved. That was an additional layer of loss that is part of Sam's death, said Gourley.
The Tways are looking for new ways they can volunteer but say they won't get another dog. They are at the age when a dog might outlive them and they would worry about what would happen then. But they help their neighbor by walking his shih tzu at times and have told other neighbors they can do the same for their dogs.
Meanwhile, Gene cherishes Sam's hearing dog guide ID card that he carries in his wallet, but they have given away Sam's toys to the Humane Society. Patricia used to read in the afternoons with Sam at her side; to help her grief she has changed her routine to swimming.
And last summer, they had a party to celebrate Sam's life. There was a cake with Sam's picture on it. Thirty people came.
Things are a little better, but Patricia isn't ready to include Sam on her mental list of all the other pets she and Gene had over the years that have died.
The Tways are animal lovers and over a lifetime have had 23 dogs, along with cats and horses.
The counselor at Tidewell pointed out that Sam's death made them better people, said Patricia.
"He opened our heart to other people's grief," she said.
The little paw prints on the wood floor will stay there, a reminder of how Sam's spirit is still with them.
For more information on Tidewell Hospice grief support, call 941-894-1777 or online at www.tidewell.org.
Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.