How to Mend a Broken Heart After The Loss of a Pup
Photographer Gretchen Powers rekindles connections with family, friends, and herself through their shared love of dogs. Words and Photos by Gretchen Powers.
When I started my knitwear business, Powers Provisions, four autumns ago, the product descriptions on my website included the disclaimer: “Things you may find on your knitwear I won’t apologize for: stray hair from my pup Ella aka @lilharborseal.” She was so ingrained into every aspect of my life that there was no getting around one of her cream or camel colored hairs ending up woven into the woolen accessories I was knitting.
Ella entered my life at a time when my mental health was deteriorating. Her constant presence by my side during the seven years that followed was the thing I needed most and often took for granted. She loved scaling tall peaks and would never balk at a ten-mile day hike in the mountains chasing bunnies and eating high mountain blueberries.
When she had her first seizure last January at 11 years old, I knew our time together was running out far faster than I’d hoped. I’d often have very serious conversations with her about how she needed to live forever, during which she would appear to listen and then dash off after a lizard or squirrel.
After Ella’s cancer diagnosis, my social circle grew smaller and smaller. I stayed closer to home. I prioritized her needs over my own and I neglected my relationships with some of the people closest to me. Shortly after Ella passed, I knew I needed to hit the road and get a change of space. I had friendships to recultivate, dogs to visit, and I desperately needed to get some space from a home full of fur-covered memories.
Grief is a fickle friend. Some days it’s a whisper, and others it’s a roar blasting through my body until I’m brought to my knees. There are moments when I really just want to scream—it hurts so much and so deeply. Therapy has taught me that I have to go through grief (not over or around it) and that it’s part of the healing process. But, gosh, does it really hurt sometimes.
I feel this external pressure to be “over it” because she was “just” a dog. I can’t go for a hike without thinking how much she would love all the smells or sleep in a van without wishing she was on my sleeping bag, huddled next to me. I can’t look deep into another dog’s eyes and not try to see her in them staring back at me, begging for a treat or checking in to see if I’m okay.
The autumn desert dusk glowed with shades of mauve and ochre spilling across the canyons as I laid a piece of my sweet pup to rest. I hit the road with her ashes and memory in tow, promising myself that I would find joy where I could and experience sorrow when it bubbled up, allowing myself to just be present in the care of family and friends.
But I found Ella, in moments I least expected to, alongside dogs I know she would have loved. I pictured her trotting her way across the desert in Utah with Banjo. Claiming couch space that was usually Bennie’s in Seattle. Stalking the chickens and geese across the farm Ernest patrolled in Idaho—I would love to know what she would have thought about the pigs. Properly teaching Gwen the ropes of how to sit and beg for treats in Chicago. I gave all of these dogs, one after another, all the love I had left in my heart, over and over again. We climbed to alpine lakes, across sage brush-filled plateaus and we sat by backyard fires recounting memories and sharing laughs.
My friends and I made cups of cocoa, mugs of tea, shared stories by firelight and laughed until we cried or cried until we laughed. Human connection is important, and sharing experiences— the fastest thing to bond us—made every mile of this trip worth it.
I set out on a trip to rediscover friendships (and their pups), but the relationship that really needed tending was the one with myself. With my constant furry companion gone, I was a little lost. So with my yarn and knitting needles in tow and the rush of holiday orders around the corner, I carried this woolen security blanket of sorts from state to state, knitting hats on airplanes, in lines to get COVID tests, next to roaring fireplaces and in the cutest coffee shops, finding comfort from my anxiety and grief in stitch after stitch of cozy merino wool.
Reflecting on the month I spent on the road, I learned you can’t hide from grief regardless of where you are. But I could soothe the ache by hopping from friend to friend, rekindling connections that needed a little tending, and giving this overwhelming pool of extra love in my heart to their dogs. My heart was as chapped as my lips in the dry mainland winter air, and the hugs from friends and cuddles from their pups was the balm I applied over and over again.
While the hairs left behind by Ella are fewer and fewer, this winter season folks might find a fleck of hair off of Bennie, Dagwood, Kuma, Bucket, Kodi, Spaghetti, Griz, Penelope, Tatertot, Ernest, Gwen, Phoebe, or Tonks within the stitches of their cozy beanies. The world is better for all of the dogs we get the chance to love, for the lessons they teach us about adventure and kindness—and the people we become when we really embody those values. We are playful, present, full of gratitude, and greater for knowing and loving them.
Shop our Ella inspired sticker collection HERE