NEW PORT RICHEY — A retired cardiologist living alone on 80 acres in Hudson lost his black Labrador, a 6-year-old named Lola, last year. She died suddenly after their morning walk.
Six months later, Si Azar's 11-year-old yellow Labrador named Forrest became violently sick and was rushed to the hospital. Forrest suffered from heatstroke and, after 10 days, he died, too.
Azar's grief swallowed him. He buried them side by side on his land, but one day, he wants their remains cremated so they can be mixed with his ashes when he dies. His plot is at Trinity Memorial Gardens in New Port Richey — which is also where he goes every other week for a pet loss support group.
The group is run by Gulfside Regional Hospice and began in October with the initial plan of running for only six weeks.
Now, nearly one year later, the group is going strong. Azar is always there, along with a few other regulars and some newcomers.
They meet in a side room within Trinity's funeral home, and drink coffee and talk and cry. They bring photos of their pets — sometimes whole albums.
Peggy Hess, a social worker with Gulfside, leads the meetings. She lost her 14-year-old beagle, Kenny, more than a year ago, so she knows the pain the others are going through. She works on grief coping skills with them.
Hess said a big reason for creating this group was to give people a place to openly grieve for their pets without judgment. Many people don't understand the sadness and think people should just get over it quickly. But, to these people, their pets are like family members.
"Sometimes, even closer than family," said Pauline Szymczak, at Wednesday's meeting.
She lost her beagle, a 5-year-old named Snickers, in April. The veterinarian was not sure what caused his illness. He was bleeding and throwing up. Szymczak fed him with a syringe. His suffering came to a point where he needed to be euthanized.
Szymczak was there, holding him, and he kissed her twice and died.
"It tore my heart right out of me," she said, crying and holding a photo of him. "I never knew anything could hurt me like that."
She kept the stuffed animal he carried with him everywhere. She hugs it at night, and it still smells of him. She is tortured by having to make the decision to have him euthanized — if those two kisses meant to keep fighting.
"I feel like I let him down," she said.
"He was asking you to let him go," said Jane Marinello, who was there because of her Maltese named Morgan. Morgan, 15, recently had a stroke, and Marinello is going to the group to prepare for his death.
"I love this dog more than I love most people," she said.
Marinello and her husband had Morgan as their garden company mascot before they retired. Morgan "wrote" their company newsletters, and he travels everywhere with them. Now, Marinello wakes several times every night and feels Morgan, to make sure he's still alive.
"I know this is going to kill me when he dies," she said. "I can't stand the thought of losing him."
Three months ago, Azar heard something out on his second-story balcony. He opened the door and there was a puppy, just sitting there and crying. There are stairs to the balcony, but the gate to the deck was closed. How did the dog get up there? The other members of the group think someone, possibly knowing of Azar's pain and how he wouldn't get another dog on his own, put the puppy there.
Azar took him inside.
"He was so cute," Azar said. He took him to the veterinarian, who said the dog — likely a Pekingese — was healthy.
Azar searched for the dog's owners — all the while keeping the puppy in his basement, so he couldn't get attached to him. That didn't last long. Soon, the dog was sleeping in his bed. Azar couldn't find the owners, so he decided to keep him. He named him Mickey. Azar's face lights up when talking about him.
"He's the best puppy," he said. He's not like Lola or Forrest — both big, smart dogs. Mickey "is not as alert," Azar said. But all Mickey wants to do is to be with him, at his side, cuddling.
And that's what Azar needs, too.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.