Columnist Olivia Garcia

Last week I experienced one of the most difficult days of my adult life. I said goodbye to one of the first members of our family, our strong but loving German shepherd, Kita. She was 14 years old.

Kita led a fruitful life but her health complications and old age would remind me that our lives in this world are temporary. Her loss hit me hard. In the midst of the sadness, I found ways to reflect on how Kita shaped my family's life.

Losing your pet has to be one of the most heartbreaking moments you will ever experience. A bond is built from the moment they arrive in your home. They become your children. You learn to nurture them and set parental do's and don'ts guidelines (especially with dogs -- not sure if it's possible with independent, strong-minded cats). You watch them grow, marvel at their personalities, and accept them as kindred spirits once they reach adulthood.

Even studies and anecdotal narratives have argued that a pet companion can cheer your spirit, lower your stress level, help you strengthen bonds with others and provide other therapeutic effects.

The difficulty can arrive when it's time to bid farewell to your pet. I am no pet expert, but I have found myself thinking of different Kita moments to help me cope with the burden of her absence.

My husband, Julio, our four sons and I had a special love for Kita. She was the matriarch of our doggie clan; she was once the leading alpha and there was no reason doubt it.

She was keenly intelligent, ultra athletic and driven to work, be busy, or find things to do -- an overachiever of sorts. Sometimes, I wondered if she cared more about competing with mine or Julio's super-active schedules than relaxing and being silly with her other German shepherd pals. Lounging in the sun wasn't something she cared for -- that came in her later years when it was hard for her to do all the things she loved.

Over the years, Kita served multiple busy roles, including protector of the house. Running/hiking comrade. Kid-play partner (even if it meant the boys would climb over her, lie on her or chase her around in circles for no apparent reason). Ball catcher. Trick performer with master Julio at side. Barker at anything out of the ordinary. Teacher of the rules to doggie clan. Nurturer if she noticed one of us sad or stressed. Fruit eater. Shoe destroyer (don't get me started). And just plain loyal friend -- someone you could always count on, no matter the situation.

From the moment I met her more than 13 years ago, I always knew she would be special.

My husband and I had recently bought a home, our two teenage boys were then 1 and 3, and we were settling into our life as a family. But something was missing: a family pet.

We met Kita by accident. A dog trainer who knew Julio was going to introduce him to another German shepherd looking to be adopted. While visiting the other dog at the location, we spotted Kita from the corner of our eye. We turned to her and instantly felt a connection. The trainer shrugged and said she was adoptable although she was born with a missing back tooth, in case we were looking for perfection. We weren't. We just wanted someone to love and who was willing to return the feeling with the same might.

Kita came home with us that day, and we never looked back.

From that point forward, Kita watched me grow from a young wife and new mom to a much mature, wiser one. Meanwhile, I watched her ease her way into our hearts.

Kita became our "third" child, right after our first two sons, Diego and Mateo. Countless album pictures of those three and their adventures make me smile today. And she became an instant "big sister" to our third and fourth sons, Joaquin and Cruz, who grew up with her in her later years.

Now that she is gone, I encounter moments of sadness because I miss her more than my heart imagined. But I also find moments of joy and laughter when I realize just how much she completed this growing family of mine.

We often look to pets to train and teach them. In the end, they become our teachers.

Kita taught me to become a better wife, mom and all-around person. She showed me that family, love and loyalty are virtues to treasure -- oh, and buying more shoes to replace the ones she found so tasty.

I don't think I will ever be able to replace her. Each pet brings his or her own personality and experience to the home. But I can say I was lucky that Kita picked us as her family.

Olivia Garcia is editor of Bakersfield Life and BWell magazines, and a columnist of The Bakersfield Californian. These are her opinions, not necessarily those of The Bakersfield Californian. Send her tips at ogarcia@bakersfield.com.

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