Healing with the Love of a Puppy


SONYA COURTNEY publishes book on how a puppy carried her family through grief


By Kristin West

Photography Courtesy of Sonya Courtney


Sonya and Shawn Courtney and their two young children, Reed and Rachel, were enjoying life as a typical busy family in 2005 when Shawn caught a mild virus. Instead of recovering, Shawn felt increasingly tired. He dismissed it as normal fatigue due to their busy lifestyle, but then one morning Shawn didn’t wake up. Doctors believed the virus settled in his heart, causing heart failure.

Grief hit Sonya and her children, ages four and six, each differently as they struggled to process their devastating loss. Family, friends and neighbors rallied around them in support, and the family sought out counseling. But the loss still left a void that they couldn’t quite name.

“My husband was so happy; he made everything fun,” Sonya says. “If we did the dishes, he’d crank up the music and he just wanted us to have fun because that was his personality.” The family’s therapist suggested they bring something into their lives that would initiate that joy again.

Sonya decided to get a puppy. “I wanted to give my kids permission to feel happiness,” she says. “I know that’s what Shawn would have wanted.”

Dodger, a mild-mannered golden retriever, not only gave the family a reason to laugh and feel joy, but he also sensed when they simply needed a loving presence. “Dodger would give me the greatest gift of just being there and allowing me to grieve and cry without judgement,” Rachel says.

Reed, who admits that he hid his grief from others, says the family dog gave him an outlet. “I would bottle things up, which would lead to waves of uncontrollable sadness and feeling like I did something wrong to make this happen,” he says. “I felt like my friends wouldn’t understand or want to talk about something serious. With Dodger, I knew no matter what I told him, he would love me and be judgment free.”

Watching Dodger gently guide her family through the grief inspired Sonya to write a children’s book to help other families. “A Best Friend to Love: A story of how a puppy helped a family heal after a terrible loss” is written from the dog’s perspective and focuses on supporting common emotions that children feel when dealing with loss. “There were a lot of grief books about what happened, where did that person go, or a lot of religious books,” Sonya says. “I wanted this book to be something

that talked about the kids’ feelings instead.”

Sonya plans to publish a workbook to accompany the story later this summer, which will provide caretakers with additional questions and tools. The writing process brought the Courtney family a new level of healing, even after so many years had passed.

“It brought a lot of feelings to the surface again,” Reed says. “It was healthy for us, as a family, to take a deep dive into how we felt and realize how far we’ve come. It makes me tear up just thinking about how strong my mom is. I think this book helped her to realize her own strength as well.”

Sonya says the book’s intention is not to suggest that every grieving family get a dog, and they can find similar comfort in a stuffed animal or another person or pet with whom they feel comfortable. “For us, it was Dodger,” Sonya says. “When we looked into his eyes, we felt better. Relaxed, loved. To have this thing you can love and pour your sadness and emotions into, it’s so healing.”

Pick up your copy on amazon.com

Are your children struggling with a loss? Judi’s House can help.

The professionals at Judi’s House believe that no child should be alone as they navigate the death of a loved one. According to its Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model (CBEM), an estimated 6 million U.S. children will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18. The organization uses a research-backed approach and the shared expertise of its professionals to support grieving children and families at no cost to them. Judi’s House offers a safe space that promotes health and wellbeing, so families can heal together.

If your family or your children need help dealing with the loss of a loved one, contact Judi’s House at 720.941.033 or visit judishouse.org for more information.