When tragedy devastated her life, Viviana Perestrelo, 29, turned to a very special friend.
Waking up in my double bed, I reached for a cuddle from my six-year-old German Shepherd, Jess. Ruffling her fur and feeling her wet nose nudge my cheek made me smile, grateful not to have woken alone.
While my partner, Kevin, and I, rescued her from an animal shelter three years earlier, Jess was the one who ended up saving me, and, without her, I wouldn’t have a reason to get up each morning.
My parents always had rescue pups while I was growing up in Portugal, so it was a prerequisite that any future partner loved dogs as much as me. Luckily, when I grilled Kevin, then 26, on our first date in 2011, he said yes, he was very much a dog person, too.
Within a few months, we’d rented a flat together in Gran Canaria, where we were based, Kevin as a pilot and me as cabin crew. We worked away too often to get a dog, but those first few years together were incredible. At work, Kevin would crack jokes, making our shifts literally fly by, and on days off we’d go hiking or swimming.
Getting settled in
By 2017, though, we’d settled in Bedford, living across the road from Kevin’s parents, Len and Carol, and I’d transferred to an office role. ‘It’s finally time to get a rescue dog,’ I beamed at Kevin one night.
He agreed, laughing when I told him I’d already been scouring the RSPCA’s website and seen the perfect pup. ‘Of course you have,’ he grinned, and shortly after, we drove to the kennels in Birmingham to visit her. Jess, then three, bounded over, giving me a lick on the hand, and we were both smitten.
‘We’ll take her,’ Kevin told the rescue workers. Kevin’s dad had grown up with a German Shepherd, so he loved the idea of following the same pattern.
The following week, we brought Jess home and spent hours chucking a ball for her in the garden, then she snuggled up by our feet while we watched TV. Only, after we’d gone to bed, we heard her whining in the kitchen.
‘She’ll soon settle,’ Kevin reassured me. But then, Jess suddenly appeared at our bedroom door. ‘She can open doors with her mouth!’ I laughed. ‘We can’t ignore her now.’
After that, I slept on the sofa with her for a couple of nights until she was used to her surroundings. Over the next months, we became one happy family. Jess adored Kevin and would sleep in his place on the bed with one of his t-shirts when he was away with work.
At weekends, we went for long walks, stopping off at the pub. Life was amazing and Kevin and I even started discussing having a baby.
One morning in September 2018, Kevin kissed me goodbye and ruffled Jess’ fur before heading off on his annual hiking trip to Wales with his best friend. ‘Text me when you get there,’ I said. ‘Will do, love you,’ Kevin replied, getting in the car.
I never got a text, and assumed he’d just forgotten, even joking to colleagues he was in for a telling off.
But that evening, when I arrived home, Jess wasn’t in the house.
I popped over to Kevin’s parents to see if they’d taken her for a walk, yet when Len answered, he looked pale and shaky. ‘Is Jess OK?’ I questioned, panicking.
‘It’s Kevin,’ Len spluttered, ushering me inside to the living room. ‘I’m so sorry. He’s gone. A car accident.’ I took a step back in shock. As Len hugged me, I couldn’t move or understand what I was hearing. I couldn’t function enough to reply.
It hadn’t occurred to me that Kevin could’ve been in trouble, but now I was being told he was dead? Len explained, through tears, how police had come to them three hours before when I hadn’t answered the door. Officers had told them Kevin was driving near Rugby, 50 miles away, when his car slid on water on the road and hit a tree, killing him instantly.
‘He can’t be gone,’ I wept, physically shaking as the grief took over me, my mind whirring with questions. Looking at the mantelpiece, I felt sick as I saw photo after photo of Kevin smiling. Kevin’s body had been taken to hospital, and with nothing to do but process the heart-wrenching news, his parents and I just sat drinking tea for hours, sobbing in bursts and trying to make sense of it. Jess sat by my feet, whimpering as she sensed my pain.
Later, my sister, Oriana, 22, arrived from London, and, while I couldn’t stomach the toast she made, she got me to shower and get into bed. Jess nuzzled into me, gently putting her paw on my chest as I cried myself to sleep. She was still there the next morning when I woke up, crying again as I remembered Kevin was gone.
My parents arrived shortly after, and we numbly started muddling through funeral arrangements. Having loved ones around helped me to keep it together, but as hundreds came to say goodbye, I couldn’t help but feel alone. Twenty-eight is too young to lose your soul mate.
Coming to terms with grief
Two weeks after the funeral, the time came when my parents had to leave me to adjust.
Len and Carol had offered to help me with the mortgage so I could stay in the house where I’d made so many memories with Kevin and Jess. Yet, grieving deeply, life no longer seemed worth living.
Every morning, when I woke up and reached over to Kevin’s side of the bed, the pain felt as fresh as ever, but then Jess would give me a nudge. Getting her fed and walked got me out of bed, into the fresh air.
And if I sat on the sofa, staring into space, she’d put her head on my lap or bring me a toy to throw. ‘You miss him, too, don’t you girl?’ I soothed when she sniffed Kevin’s pillow.
After a few weeks, I went back to work to stay busy, but it was a relief knowing I wouldn’t have to go home to an empty house, without Kevin, because Jess was always waiting for me.
Friends and family constantly texted, called and visited, but Jess was there in those moments I felt utterly alone. She’d lick my hand to let me know how much she loved me.
It’s been 18 months since Kevin died and grief still hits me daily. Some days, I feel so angry that the life Kevin and I had together has been ripped away, but then I try to remember how happy he was before he died, or when it gets too much, I take Jess out.
I can’t think too much about my future without Kevin just yet, but whatever path I take, I know Jess will be with me.
All images courtesy of Viviana Perestrelo