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How the Water Held Me in Grief

In my freedive courses I teach impermanence as the true nature of reality. A concept in Buddhism and Eastern philosophies that we must accept the impermanence of life in order to avoid suffering. The practice of non-attachment is the ability to allow everything to flow in and out of our lives without resistance.

I was always drawn to two things. The water and animals. In Utila I found my passion for freediving and I found Vicki, an isand mutt that decided in 2017 that I would be her human.

When my mother was pregnant with me my due date was July 4, 1986 and it wasn’t until July 26 that labor had to be induced because I was not in any rush to leave the watery womb where I felt so safe and comfortable. When I was two I fell into our swimming pool and sank to the bottom. My brother jumped in to save me and said my eyes were wide with wonder and I had no resistance at all. I let the water take me and felt back at home. We spent our summers at the beach in New Jersey and I would play dead man’s float with my brother just floating on our backs allowing the waves to push and pull us in whatever way they wanted to. We’d usually end up washing up to shore and swimming back out to do it again. I would always stay in the longest and my mom would practically drag me out of the water to go home so I could sleep, wake up and do it again the next morning. I was a water baby. I was obsessed with it.

Growing up I found it easier to connect to animals than people. I always had a pet and I always preferred its company to that of my peers. I struggled with depression in my teens and eventually addiction in my early twenties. The world never felt quite right to me and animals made more sense to me. They were pure.

When I came to Utila it only took a few months before Vicki found me. I was living at a dive resort on the south shore of the island, a twenty minute boat ride from town, and Vicki belonged to the care takers of a house a short walk down the beach. My first meeting with her was when her neighbors borrowed her for a day to take her to a free vet clinic I was volunteering at. Vicki was skin and bones. She was a relatively young dog around 4 years old but looked like she was on death’s door. Her skin stretched across her jutting bones and was riddled with sores that she couldn’t stop scratching. Despite her condition she was well behaved and allowed the vet to poke and prod her. She was nervous but behaved. After her examination it was determined she had heartworm disease, eurlichea (a tick borne disease) and was extremely malnourished and dehydrated. She was put on IV fluids and prescribed a slow kill method for her heartworm disease which was a daily pill.

Vicki’s owners didn’t care about her health or wellbeing so I took it upon myself to walk up the beach twice a day to bring Vicki food and her meds. She was all smiles whenever I arrived. The culture on the island is different in regards to animals. Dogs are often seen as property not family and used for protection. Vicki’s job was guard dog and she was adorably bad at it because her tail would thump wildly on the ground whenever she saw me approach the property. I never ran into the owners and I would feed Vicki on their porch where lived. She was not allowed inside and there was only a little bit of shade. The mosquitos in that area were intense as they lived close to the swampy mangroves so she was constantly being bit and scratching nonstop. Heartworm disease comes from mosquito bites so it was no surprise that Vicki had it.

I used to try to coax her off the porch to come back with me but she seemed extremely afraid to leave. One day, as if she’d been mulling it over for a while, she decided to come with me. That was the day she decided I was hers. She never wanted to go back there. She became my shadow following my every move. I wasn’t allowed to have a dog inside where I lived at the time (especially a smelly sickly dog like Vicki) but she slept on a cushion every night outside my door. She wasn’t my dog but she was. She followed me to the dock where a boat took me to work every morning (a 45 minute walk) even when I tried to promise her I would come back and to stay where the food and water was to save her energy. She wouldn’t have it. I had to be in her site as much as possible. She would stand on the dock watch me depart and wait for who knows how long before she’d head back to my room and wait outside the door. Every day when I came home she was beside herself with joy.

One weekend I decided to go to town to take my first freedive course. A weekend that changed my life in many ways. I would stay in town for a few days so I was stressed about leaving Vicki but afterall she wasn’t my dog. My freedive course set me on a path that would change my life forever. The moment I took a big breath and dove below the surface I knew that freediving was something I wanted to do forever. The experience was amazing and I signed up for the advanced course the following weekend before I headed back to the south shore. On my way back home I started to get excited to see Vicki. The boat dropped me off at the dock near her house and to my surprise I saw her at the caretakers house looking defeated. I was shocked she wasn’t waiting at my door. She noticed me and her tail started slapping the floor but she remained lying down. I was confused why she was there in the first place but also why she wasn’t running to greet me until I saw that she was tied to a pole. She knew she couldn’t get to me so she let her head fall back to the floor. I felt sick. They knew she was hanging around with me and they sent someone to bring her back and kept her tied so she wouldn’t follow me again.

I was afraid to go over because I knew the owner was unhappy that Vicki was staying by me so I went home to come up with a plan. I decided to go over with my Spanish speaking friends and try to explain to the owner that Vicki was very sick and I could help her if he sold her to me. It was never my plan to get a dog but the heartbreak I felt when I saw her tied made me realize that she was always my dog from the day we met. The owner said no and was offended that I was interfering. He told me that Vicki was his dog and if she was dying she would die with him. My heart was heavy but there was nothing I could do.

The following weekend I went back to town to take my advanced freediving course. My interest and passion for freediving was growing but I felt off because I knew Vicki was suffering. She remained on my mind. During my course the owner of the shop told me I needed to take the masters course. I only had 2 weeks left in Utila before I was heading back to the states but the offer was too tempting to pass up. I signed up with the intention to leave Utila work for four months and then come back to finish the masters course. My employers told me that plan was alright with them so I agreed and paid for the course.

When I got back from town I dreamt of Vicki the first night. In the morning when I opened my door Vicki was there wagging her tail so hard her whole body shook back and forth. She had the rope she had been tied up with still around her neck. She had chewed through it to escape and come find me. My heart was bursting and I knew I had to hide Vicki and do whatever I could to get her. She was meant to be with me. This was the sign.

I was going back and forth into town to freedive but I kept Vicki inside so the owner couldn’t get to her. I went over a few days before I was leaving for the states, now intending to take her with me, with a substantial amount of money to try again. I offered him the money and he refused. I couldn’t believe it. I was sure it would work. I told him his dog was with the vet and went back home. I started to cry uncontrollably thinking I was going to lose Vicki and she would surely die soon without proper medical treatment that she’d never get with him.

A mutual friend went to talk to him when they saw me in disarray and 45 minutes later he came back with a contract signed from the owner to approve the sale of Vicki to me. Now I was crying tears of joy and hugging Vicki telling her she was my dog. Two days later we were off to the states where she got treated for her heartworm disease.

Four months later Vicki and I came back to Honduras to do my freedive masters course. We stayed in town this time and she came with me everywhere I went. She was my shadow, my side-kick, my best friend. Within two weeks of my masters course (which was meant to be three total then back to the states) I was offered a job as a freedive instructor and the opportunity to stay in Utila and freedive every day. It wasn’t a hard decision to say yes to. I called my employers and explained the situation and they encouraged me to follow my dreams. It was as easy as that. I quit my job, cancelled my flight home and stayed in Utila.

Over the following years my bond with Vicki grew more every day. She became part of my personality. I was Erin the girl with the dog. Later I became Erin Freediver but Vicki was always a very known part of my identity here. It was rare to see me without her. She became the mascot of the dive shop. She would patiently wait around the shop for the boat to come back and come running to the dock wagging her tail when she heard us approach.

Vicki was by my side through ups and downs. Through heart breaks, a toxic work environment, the pandemic, and the extreme burnout I experienced when I opened my own freediving school by myself without any other instructors for the first year. She was my rock. The most solid thing in my life. The most meaningful connection and the most reliable love. She was everything to me. She was a part of my soul.

In October 2022 Vicki was diagnosed with malignant melonama. Throughout the years we had a few cancer scares with some questionable growths that aside from one tumor I had removed were all benign. This time the news was grim. I began researching malignant melanomas in dogs and speaking with her vet from the states and there was no good news to be found. It was a death sentence but the timing would depend on how quickly and efficiently the growths were removed. Typically the time frame was six-nine months but dogs have lived up to two years after diagnosis. The growths were not removed quickly or efficiently as the healthcare for animals in Honduras is lacking some necessary diagnostic tools to be efficient for these types of problems. The CDC banned taking dogs to the states and it would take several months to get a permit to take her there so I had no option but to do the surgery in Honduras. With no surgery the time line was only two months or so before I’d lose her.

A big part of my freediving school is teaching meditation and acceptance of impermanence, which are some of the foundations of Buddhism and Eastern philosophies. I had been meditating for seven years when Vicki’s diagnosis came back yet my world still felt like it was crumbling around me. The practice of non-attachment that I teach is easier in theory than practice. I was deeply attached to Vicki. The day I received the news I cried my heart out. Something interesting happened after that. I let myself react the day I received the news but over the next months I was present with Vicki. When I noticed emotions rising I looked over at my dog who was still with me, still happy, still healthy and I let myself be with her in the moment. I let myself enjoy every single second I had with her. I appreciated every moment, every cute thing she did, every bit of affection we shared. I wasn’t sure how much time I had with her. I was hopeful for years but a part of me knew it wasn’t realistic. A part of me knew it would happen sooner.

Nine months later Vicki’s lymph nodes below her jaw swelled up over night. They were the size of kiwis. Days later the rest of her lymph nodes swelled up as well. A clear sign that the cancer was spreading to her organs. A week later she began having difficulty breathing. It was happening so fast. I knew the moment was coming that I would have to say goodbye to my beloved best friend. I didn’t want to face it but it was coming. I found myself still staying quite present with her. My roommate and I spoiled her endlessly. She had nothing but steak dinners, tuna tataki, tons of bacon and ice cream. My parents came to visit to support me and say goodbye. I confirmed with every vet I could get a hold of that this was the right decision and that Vicki was beginning to feel discomfort that would only get worse. I made the choice to euthanize her at home with some amazing support from my friends and family. Vicki slipped away eating ice cream not even noticing what was going on. She wasn’t afraid. She trusted me with every ounce of her being and her last moments were me kissing her face telling her I love her and eating ice cream.

The days after Vicki passed away I felt immense pain. Unbearable pain. I couldn’t hold it together. All I could do was cry. It was several days before I made my way back to the ocean. My heart was completely shattered but I had to get back in the water. My lead instructor took care of all the courses for me so that I had time to grieve and on this day nothing was expected of me whatsoever. I was just free to be in the water. I did some dives and they felt easy. I pulled myself down the line to 30 meters and just let myself pause. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. It was perfect.

The ocean is healing. For people who have never had a soul connection it might be hard to understand the difficulty I’ve been having since losing Vicki. It’s now been almost three months and the pain feels as fresh as the first week. For people who have had a soul connection with a dog they will understand. Anyone in Utila whether they fully understand or not knows what she meant to me. They saw the

bond that we shared. Freediving and the life I have built here has kept me from completely losing myself to grief. When I am in the water I have glimmers. The moments where you can see that life is beautiful and meaningful even if you can’t be there with joy just yet. You know it’s waiting for you beyond the pain. There is a healing silence beneath the surface. A feeling of connection and a brief respite from the pain. Teaching is what I love and am most passionate about. Freediving and sharing its benefits through teaching will bring me back to the place of peace and joy I used to experience. It’s a slow journey back but I can’t imagine doing it without the ocean to hold space for me.

The reason I opened my school was to teach freediving with a holistic approach and explain the benefits it can have on mental health. There is something so powerful in learning to freedive and managing discomfort. It helps you to manage emotional discomfort. It helps you to find presence and connection. It helps you build a healthier life where unhealthy coping mechanisms cannot coexist or be sustainable. I want to help as many people as possible and teaching freediving with this approach is a way to make a small difference in the world. Having that mission is also driving me to move through this grief and with strength, kindness to myself, and patience I know I will get there. And while I am on the journey the ocean has space for me to let go and just be.

Written by: Erin Kneuer founder One Breath Utila Freediving

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Erin this is so powerful and beautiful I'm in tears as I know all to well the pain of loosing your animal friends. They are with us for such a short time but give us everything. I hope the love you and Vikki shared helps you find joy and love in everything around you.

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