My question is about a matter dear to my heart, and evidently, to yours. In a recent column, you said something to the effect that you'd love to find a way to heal the hole in your heart caused by the death of your dog (without replacing the pet). I lost my four-legged soul mate in August, and I'm having a very hard time dealing with his loss. I don't want to get a "replacement" dog just to heal my emotional wounds. In fact, the way I'm grieving, I don't want another pet. I can't imagine going through this pain again. I cry several times a day. I can't talk to anyone about my dog's death because I'd just break down crying. Besides, I know they wouldn't understand. I get the feeling people think I'm nuts for loving my dog the way I did. I never had kids, and I guess I do treat my pets as surrogate children. I can't help it; they're such loyal creatures. Have you come up with a way to heal the hole in your heart?

- J. via e-mail

For many queries, I must try imagine how the agonized questioner is feeling. My life has not yet been broken like theirs, so my compassion must be aided by my imagination. In your case, however, I know exactly how you've been broken by the death of your dog. Here's one method I tried to heal the hole in my heart: My wife, Betty, and I became "puppy walkers" for the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown. Our job is to take 8-week-old puppies and raise them to love people and not chase cats or balls, so that after a year they can be trained as guide dogs or canine companions.

We've seen several dogs graduate, and each time our hearts were uplifted and broken at the same time. Our first dog, a yellow lab named Topper, was an incurable cat chaser and flunked out of guide dog school. He lived out his life with us (and assorted terrified neighborhood cats).

We also inherited Miles, a Weimaraner, from our son Max. I loved both dogs, and they both died in the same year a couple of years back.

Like you, I initially felt embarrassed by the intensity of my grief.

They were "just" dogs, and I didn't want to let on that their deaths had completely broken my heart.

My advice is to never apologize for the grief you feel at the death of a pet. What you're feeling is not the loss of an animal but the loss of a living thing who loved you unconditionally and depended upon you for all its needs. To experience unconditional love is a great blessing, and the loss of such love is a great loss. What I did was to take my own advice.

When I counsel people grieving the loss of a loved one, I tell them to thank God for their pain. They usually look at me like I'm nuts, and I explain that the only way to take away their pain would be to take away the love they felt for the person who died. I ask them if they'd be willing to wipe away all their memories of that love so they wouldn't care that the person died and not feel the pain of loss. They all say they'd never want the memory of love wiped out. I tell them to be proud of their pain, treasure it and thank God for it as indisputable evidence that they had the courage to love deeply.

Loving a person is different, of course, from loving an animal, but both are acts of true love, and you should be proud of the fact that the loss you suffered has left you bereft.

I'm still wounded too deeply to take a new bundle of fur and drool into my life. My grandchildren are in L.A., and at the moment, my need to travel unencumbered is greater than my need to be licked on the nose. However, I can feel the need returning for a warm thing to sleep on my feet as I write.

After the loss of Topper and Miles, my dad died, and my heart was broken again in a much deeper way. My wife and I were able to set our pain at his passing in the context of charity and love that strangely connected us to the passing of our dogs. We contributed to name a new guide dog puppy. Dad's name was Sol, so we named the puppy "Solly." My mother joined the family as we waded into a new litter of bouncing, barking love. Solly is now training in Florida (probably learning how to tell when it's 4 p.m. so he can take his master to an Early Bird Special). I urge you to consider helping the Guide Dog Foundation.

Call Wells Jones at 631-930-9000, or write to the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, 371 E. Jericho Tpke., Smithtown, NY, 11787-2976).

Anyway, this is how holes heal. This is how love is repaid. It doesn't stop me from pulling over my car and sobbing as I remember hearing Miles' breathing his last in my arms, but it does remind me that I own this pain of lost love and am blessed by it because that's what love does to us when it comes and when it goes.

May God comfort you.