When I was 17, I lost my first close family member. Her name was Sweetness. She was a honey-hued yellow Labrador Retriever who had been underfoot in our family home for nearly a decade.

Mourning the loss of a dog isn’t an acceptable excuse for truancy, so the day after we put our beloved family dog to sleep due to a lung tumor, I tried to pull myself together and headed to school. Most of my friends thought something was seriously amiss as I wandered the halls of my high school with tear-stained cheeks.

“What’s wrong?” they all asked.

I told them my dog had died. I’d hear a token, “I’m sorry,” and my peers would try to change the subject by bringing up the ills of calculus, how soggy the cafeteria pizza was, or the upcoming prom.

I’d nod and try to compose myself because quite frankly, my tearful downpour embarrassed me (of course, a lot of things embarrassed me at 17). She was only a dog, after all. There were far worse things to lose in life than a pet companion; yet, I couldn’t stop the tears from coming.

When I returned home from school that day, my mom was there (as she always was) to give me a hug and to offer solace, but the house still seemed eerily empty. Our other dog was sulking about with her tail hanging limply between her legs, missing Sweetness like the rest of us. I patted Wrigley, a black Lab, on the head and wished she’d been the dog who followed me up to my room and plopped down beside me as I doodled on my notebook and dreamt of my latest crush when I was supposed to be reading Shakespeare for AP English. But Wrigley was my mom’s shadow, so I wandered up the staircase to my bedroom alone.

My parents used to say Sweetness was a perpetual teenager. Like adolescents, she sometimes exhibited a maddening defiance when my parents tried to get her to follow simple commands like “stay” or “come.” Even when she grudgingly obeyed, she always had to get the last word in with a gruff, “Woof.”

Perhaps her own rebellious personality is what made her so drawn to me when I was in the throes of teenage angst.  Now I’m making my teenage years out to be more dramatic than they were. As far as adolescence goes, I had a relatively easy time of it. I made good grades, wasn’t deathly embarrassed of my parents, and I had a strong network of friends.

But like many teenagers, I suffered from the occasional zit as well as the heightened (and looking back, mostly ridiculous) emotions about the newest immature boy who broke my heart or the starring role I was passed up for in my high school’s latest theatre production.

Sometimes I’d retreat to my room, bury my head in my pillow and weep. The reasons for my lamentations varied, but I usually wanted no one – not even my mom whom I remained close to even when I was a hormonal teen – to disturb my self-imposed, quiet alienation.

Except for Sweetness.

Even when I was throwing myself the most melodramatic pity party, she was always invited and proved to be an acceptable companion. She’d often nudge my bedroom door open and climb on to the bed and settle her beefy body down beside me with a groan. Sometimes I’d stop my sniffles and do something more productive like pray, write in my journal, or read a book. Other times, I’d just keep crying and Sweetness would let me, without saying what I knew was true that “That boy isn’t worth it,” or “There will always be another audition,” or “You’re good enough even if you don’t get a date to prom or get elected onto student council this year.”

Maybe that’s what I liked the most about Sweetness – she didn’t say anything. She was just there. When it felt like everyone was trying to tell my how to feel and what to do with my life, she only offered me her presence and would just be on standby, occasionally thumping her otter-like tail in encouragement.

When I was with Sweetness, I’d forget about the part of me that longed to be popular like the other girls.  She accepted me exactly the way I was – whether a volcanic pimple had popped up on the tip of my nose or not. She wagged her tail just because she saw me coming along, not because I was wearing the latest fashion or dating the coolest boy in school. She followed me because I was me, one of her masters. And she gave me permission to be a child and to curl up to her like she was an oversized stuffed animal, even as I was acutely aware of the growing conflict inside me – the need to still be a kid versus the intense desire to be an adult. Like a baby’s lovey, she soaked up my tears and gave me comfort when I needed it the most.

We’re presently preparing to buy our first dog for our children. They are busy coming up with names and thrilled about the expectation of welcoming a new furry family member into the home. I’m sure the dog will bring a lot of fun (and work) into our home. It will also bring, I hope, some valuable lessons.

I look back on the way Sweetness stuck by me even when I was what my dad affectionately refers to as a “teen puke,” and I’m reminded of my Divine Master, a God who gave me a deep yearning to feel loved and accepted and is always there to fill it. I pray our own family dog will do more than offer slobbery kisses and tail wags. I hope my children will learn to not only appreciate and learn to nurture a part of God’s creation, but that they will approach God with the unassuming nature of a faithful canine companion and will find a great, timeless love in their Master.

This article originally appeared at Faith & Family LIVE!

Copyright 2012 Kate Wicker