Professor Frame – On Grief & God

     On Aug. 4, 2016, Baylor University Professor Darren Frame’s life was changed forever by the tragic loss of his son, Jared Logan Frame. After a mountain biking incident, Jared contracted an infection that exacerbated his congenital heart defect. He ultimately suffered a massive stroke that destroyed his brain function, and he died. Jared’s death brought unimaginable grief to the Frame family, but together they’ve begun the process of healing and their religion has been a cornerstone in that process. Although it was difficult for them to reconcile Jared’s death with God’s promise that all things are orchestrated for good, with time and support from their community, they’ve begun to find peace.

5 Tips from Professor Darren Frame on living with grief

  1. It doesn’t always happen to someone else. Be prepared and have your life in order.
  2. People matter more than everything else.
  3. Build a strong faith so you can withstand huge stress.
  4. Heaven is much closer than it seems.
  5. Ask yourself, “If I leave (God/my faith) what would I turn to?

Story by Hannah Neumann

     When Jared was a baby, the Frame family learned he had a minor heart defect. After a successful surgery, he lived the rest of his life without complication. He was over 6 feet tall, athletic, and all around healthy. The summer before his junior year at Baylor, he took a trip with friends to go mountain biking down ski slopes. Jared and his friends rode a lift with their bikes to the top and took off flying down the slopes. While his friends made it down, Jared wiped out, but it was nothing major. The family he was staying with brought him to the hospital for assurance, leaving with the diagnosis of a small concussion, road rash and some scraped elbows. Everything was fine.

     Until everything went black. Days after the incident, Jared, who had been feeling sick and had visited the doctor thinking he had the flu, woke up and couldn’t see.

     Realizing this was something more serious than the flu, Frame’s wife Becky immediately called Jared’s pediatrician who cared for him with his heart defect as a child, and they were told to come right away to the office. Once there, they were directed to the Mayo Clinic.

     “Right about the time we get him there the blood tests they had taken from Wednesday at the regular doctor are coming back and they say he has a really bad Staph infection that somehow he must have picked up just from this bike wreck,” Frame said. “My personal opinion is he actually got that in the initial emergency room, because it was a really weird virus that affected this heart valve of his that was messed up from birth. Somehow it glommed onto that heart valve and started throwing out blood clots in his body and that’s what caused his eyesight to go away.”

     They were at the hospital now and they had hope. Jared was placed on heavy duty antibiotics and was expected to recover. After a weekend of rest and antibiotics, he was in better spirits. His eyesight came back, and his parents were able to take him downstairs in a wheelchair to see his friends. 

     “We’re thinking OK, he’s in the hospital he’s getting better. That’s what happens when you go to the hospital, right? You get better,” Frame said. “And he was. He got his eyesight back and we’re thinking OK, it’s just a matter of time.”

     Even so, the doctors informed the family they were worried about the amount of bacteria in Jared’s body, despite the antibiotics. While this was cause for concern, nobody was prepared for what was to come.

     “We’re still thinking he’s getting better. His eyesight is back, he feels better and sooner or later it’s going to be OK,” Frame said. “Then Wednesday night he has a massive stroke caused by a blood clot that goes to his brain, and it kills half of his brain.”

     In an instant, hope was turned into fear and heartache. Things were supposed to be getting better, not worse. But, there was still hope. The doctors were going to perform brain surgery to stop the blood clot in his brain from bleeding. That night, after the surgery, Jared suffered stroke that left him brain dead. The Frame family’s life changed forever in that moment. Their son was gone. With his life in God’s hand, Frame wondered why he had to be given hope just to be left with tragedy.

     “All of that was so strange in the sense that he was getting better and then all this stuff happened and it was so much of a God thing,” Frame said. “It wasn’t like there was anybody to blame. He wasn’t even sick, and a week before he’s perfectly healthy and he just dies. Even the doctors at the Mayo said this just doesn’t happen. Usually you get better from this kind of thing. Usually antibiotics take care of it.”

     Frame felt there was nobody to blame other than the very God he previously turned to for comfort.

     “The bottom line was we didn’t have anyone to blame besides God,” Frame said. “I think that’s the hardest situation to me to be in. I think people that have cancer are probably in that boat. If you have someone that dies of cancer it’s like, ‘You didn’t do anything to have that.’ Nobody hit you in a car. Nobody gunned you down in a church in Sutherland [Springs]. None of that, it’s just you and God. To me, that’s where the why question comes in. It’s really hard to answer in terms of grief and everything. You have to gradually try to weigh off what you know about God and God’s goodness and your faith with ‘How come? What happened here?’ And, ‘How does this square with what I know about God and everything?’ It’s hard.”

      While a tragedy like this may cause some to lose faith, Frame fell further into his. It isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t always make sense, but for him, it’s the only answer.

    “I have an older son, and he still really struggles with it,” Frame said. “You know because you kind of reach out for these biblical truths that you think you know and he’s glommed onto that verse that God works all things together for good… and he says ‘How is this good?’ ‘How is this good for anyone?’ ‘Our family, Jared’s girlfriend, his friends… how is this good for anybody?’ And he can’t get over that.”

    Frame struggles to answer these same questions. Still, he knows without his faith and his God, a tragedy like this could be impossible to live with.

    “In fact sort of our anchor is in God on this,” Frame said. “That’s why building a strong faith, a personal faith is important, so that at least when something like this happens you feel like your anchored somehow, even though you still have to figure out how to answer those questions. At least you’re not saying, well I’m to the point where it’s either that I don’t believe in God anymore or I do… It’s just that I have to answer these questions of how I am going to reconcile what happened with what I know about God.”  

    As a family of faith, Frame takes comfort in knowing his son is in Heaven. For him, as a father, he says that is the ultimate goal for his children. Yet, in that thinking he is careful to still cherish life on Earth.

    “If you think that way… that all that’s important is to end up in Heaven, it trivializes what you’re going to do between here and there,” he said. “It’s like you have to get up every day, go to work, go to class, do this and that, and why bother with any of that If I’m trying to get to Heaven and that’s where it’s all at… then the rest doesn’t matter. But, it does. You’ve got a Bible full of stuff that tells you what God wants from you while you’re on Earth, so it can’t be meaningless.”

    Frame said the spiritual battle is an ongoing one, and yet, he can’t imagine where he would be if he had chosen instead to just give up on God and his faith.

    “I can’t imagine not being a Christian and going through this kind of thing, I don’t know what people do. It’s like, are you just going to think ‘OK well, I’m either going to stay mad at the doctors, or the guy who shot my child or mad about these things,’ but where is that going to take you? What do you do with that? You can’t live the rest of your life just angry with no purpose. I can’t even imagine that.”

     Frame has found a way to replace that anger with love… for God, for his family, and for his friends, who lift him up to God on the days that he can’t get there on his own. With his friends and God walking alongside him, he is able to get up each day and see a world that is a little bit brighter than the day before.

    “Eventually you run out of your own answers and you have to look to people and be supported by people,” he said. “We’ve had a great group of friends both here and in Arizona that just come alongside us all the time and they get you over that hump when you start to spiral.”


Live & Love Buoyantly

Story by Bailey Brammer | Photo by Sarah Barrientos

“He was my person. He was the one person I could be my authentic self to. Just having anxiety or bias or anything like that was out of the question. We just existed.”

Having a sibling you share everything with is not uncommon; Baylor senior Riley Gage and his brother Connor Gage certainly fell into the category of brothers who were also best friends. Their bond included a mutual love for R&B music, running and penguins, among the many other inside jokes only a sibling could understand. 

Their time together, however, was cut short much too soon. Over Labor Day weekend in 2012, 15-year-old Connor went to Possum Kingdom Lake with a group of friends and drowned after jumping into the lake. Due to an injury caused by the impact, he did not resurface. Although five years have gone by since Riley lost his brother and best friend, and he said he still deals with grief on a daily basis. 

“Grief’s a funny thing –– you have good days, you have bad days, then you have bad days where you feel like crap for having a good day because they’re not here … which you realize at the end of the day in a cold sweat in your bed,” Riley said. 

In handling the loss of his brother, Riley said he has often pictured himself as having lost a leg, and that as he moves forward, he sees himself as slowly hobbling through life. 

“You have a decision to make when something like this happens to you,” Riley said. “You can either curl up and blame everything that happens to you from there on out on that incident, or you can just accept that you’re broken but that you’re going to limp along.”

When Riley first came to Baylor as a freshman, he was presented with a new group of people to share his story with. Riley said it was easy to talk about what had happened to Connor because everyone in college is looking to make friends and build trust, and what better way to form a friendship than to confide in someone new about something traumatic?

“People are going to be naturally curious when they talk to you,” Riley said. “They’re going to want to know about you, and the family question is an inevitable question. I just spring loaded it to anybody who asked. That was different in high school because everybody knew –– it’s not like it was a revelation if I told anybody that my brother died when I was in high school. Everybody knew. Then you have the flip-flop situation where nobody knew and I told everybody. I started to realize that that was a big mistake –– to let some people in.”

Riley said he began to become more cautious about discussing Connor’s death after a few friends discounted the seriousness of his story and brought it up regularly and without proper context. A quote from Benjamin Franklin, “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment,” resonated with Riley after this happened, and he said he has since been learning who to trust with his history.

Despite encountering friends that did not have Riley’s best intentions at heart, he said found a few core individuals that have helped him through his grief, including his friend Russell Adams.

“As a friend, you can be a surrogate for your friend’s deceased loved one,” Adams said. “Give their life enough structure to empower their exploration of the world inside and outside of them. Support them as they find a new identity. Love is abstract and you will have to discover what form your friend needs.”

A major source of healing and relief for Riley has been through his profession –– carpentry. Riley said he has slowly formed his identity as someone who can create “beauty from brokenness.”

“A carpenter’s job is to take something beautiful –– a tree –– and completely destroy it, limb from limb,” Riley said. “But ever so surely, with every little piece that’s cut, every little piece that’s sanded, every little piece that’s polished, what you end up with is a lot more beautiful than what you started with. I’m a broken guy that still has beauty to give.”

Riley’s family, specifically his mother Dana Gage, has since become involved in putting an end to deaths such as Connor’s that could be prevented by wearing a life vest. The Gage’s created a nonprofit called the LV Project that has been involved in all sorts of outreach projects, focusing especially on drowning prevention. 

Every year in May, the LV Project hosts the Honor Connor Run in North Richland Hills, which features both 5K and one- mile races. The nonprofit operates on the idea that “all people can live and love buoyantly.” 

Both Riley and Dana have recently been lobbying for a bill to pass in the Texas Legislature to require all children born after 2000 to wear life vests while out on the water. While the passage of this bill would be major in preventing deaths such as Connor’s, the Gage’s want to mandate that everyone under the age of 25 wear a life vest because “drowning is never intentional … but usually preventable.”

Along with participating in projects put on by his family’s nonprofit and wearing a wristband at all times with his brother’s initials on it, Riley has also chosen to remember his brother in an extremely permanent way –– with a tattoo of a broken angel’s wing on his right shoulder.

“I dreamed of it a couple of weeks after my brother passed, and it was really just an image that emblazoned into me … the idea of a broken wing that can still fly,” Riley said. “It had to have a lot of meaning too. I got one of my friends to design it, the tattoo artists that I went to was named Connor as well, it was on my brother’s birthday… It had a lot of meaning and I got it for him.”

Above all, Riley said he believes that the best way to recognize Connor’s life, and death, is to simply continue living. 

“I think of myself as extremely happy, but it’s a conscious choice to feel that way,” Riley said. “I could easily think the other way, and I do sometimes. Ultimately, I choose to be happy, because it’s the way I feel like I can best honor him … living the life that he should have lived.”


Story by Kailee Coward | Photo Illustration by Ryan Barrett

I awoke to the sound of frantic voices whispering around the room, the hospital’s fluorescent lights illuminating the worried medical personnel as they cut my clothes in preparation for the MRI. In the next room my sister sobbed as she vomited, unaware that her bladder had burst and was releasing harmful waste into her frail 5-year-old body. 

Just a few hours earlier, we had been driving from my grandparents’ house in Arkansas to reunite with my parents in Branson, Missouri, when a drunk driver hit our car head-on, crumbling the entire front of the vehicle and sending it crashing into a ditch. Placed instantly into a state of complete shock, I am unable to recall the exact events that transpired, but was later told that my sister and my 8-year-old self were pulled out of the crumbled car as we waited for the ambulance to arrive and assess our condition. Once the medical personnel arrived at the scene, it was decided that my sister, grandmother, and I had all suffered from traumatic injuries and needed to be transported to a hospital immediately. 

Upon our arrival at a small-town hospital in rural Arkansas, an initial scan revealed fluid in my sister’s abdomen and a break in my collar-bone accompanied with many bumps and bruises. My sister and I were required to leave my grandmother behind and were airlifted to a children’s hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas, for my sister to undergo emergency surgery. 

Transported in a helicopter with only each other to find comfort in, the reality of the horrible accident and the absence of our parents began to sink in. It had become obvious that we would be forced to trust in the plan God had for us. To this day, my mother and father can recall getting the phone message that there had been a horrible accident and their presence was required immediately at the hospital. They remember the panic and desperation that set in as they realized everything was out of their control. They, too, were alone.  

The night of my sister’s surgery, I was unable to sleep, constantly pulling at the IV in my arm and rubbing my stomach. The doctors knew something was not right. Although the first MRI had revealed nothing unusual in my system, it was apparent that something had been overlooked. Placing me immediately into a second MRI, it was discovered that I had a rip in my large intestine that was leaking waste into my body.  An emergency surgery was needed for me this time, and after only two days my parents, arriving at the hospital just as my sister went into her surgery, had witnessed their two little girls both being forced to undergo emergency operations. 

As we were healing from the surgeries, we discovered that my sister had a broken leg and was required to receive a cast and use a walker to navigate down the hallways. Just after she was bandaged up, my arm was proclaimed broken, resulting in my own matching cast. 

We were positive that everything had been taken care of and the worst was behind us, but a few short days later my sister and I were declared to have contracted a rare form of a bacterial infection that would place us into multiple days of quarantine. Perhaps the worst aspect of quarantine proved to be the absence of human interaction with anyone besides our nurses and doctors. 

We were restricted to a single small room, and any guest that wished to enter, including our parents, had to wear full bodysuits and masks to protect them from the infection. As if the separation from our home and absence in the comfort of our daily lives wasn’t enough, the only interaction we were allowed was with doctors we had never met or suited bodies we couldn’t even recognize.     

In the United States, there is one death every 51 minutes due to alcohol-impaired drivers, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America notes that “20 percent of people dealing with an anxiety disorder suffer from some form of alcohol abuse or dependence.” People are often under the impression that alcohol can take away their anxiety, but in cases such as my accident, individuals can experience increased amounts of anxiety due to another person’s decision to abuse, and the consequences that result from this choice.  

As an 8-year-old child separated from her parents in the midst of a horrible accident, I was confronted with the difficult diagnosis of anxiety. Required to see a specialist once a week, I was enrolled in frequent counseling sessions. Within these sessions, I was asked to discuss my emotional responses concerning a variation of subjects, including my reactions to the accident, my feelings about my time in the hospital and my fears that I anticipated would haunt me. I soon learned that the anxiety I had developed was based upon the realization at such a young age that I couldn’t control the future, and I began to grow fearful of what fate held for me.  

The anxiety that proved to cause me so much strife in my childhood manifested itself throughout my teenage years, especially when faced with the reality of college. Having to move away from my parents reminded me of the separation that occurred during the accident. I was under the impression that without my parents, bad things such as the accident would continue to occur and I wouldn’t be equipped with the knowledge to solve these situations on my own.  

The drunk driver that may have been drinking to relieve his anxiety didn’t realize that he would pass it on to two young girls. From the time of the accident on, I was increasingly aware of my inability to control a negative situation, which resulted in me feeling fearful and apprehensive. 

However, I have come to the realization that I can’t live in an emotional environment that imprisons me. I am confident and strong enough to handle situations. The irrational fear that haunts my day has to be set aside. 

Part of my healing was realizing that in the midst of the bad, you have to choose to focus on the good. Anxiety is something that manifests itself in your emotions, and sometimes it can be difficult to cope. I had to learn to face the future with confidence and a faith that everything will turn out the way it is supposed to. There is too much life to live to be frozen in fear. I can’t control the professor that intimidates me. I can’t control what I’m invited to and what I’m not. I can’t control the number of tests and homework I’m given in a week. I can’t control the man who got behind the wheel of that car under the influence. But I can control who has influence over my opinions. I can control how I approach the activities I’m involved in. I can control how I manage my time. I can control my personal decisions on alcohol and substance abuse. I can choose to live my daily live with joyful anticipation. I can. I will. 

Facing Fears Head On

Story by Amanda Cordero | Photo by Trey Honeycutt

At 5 feet 5 inches and barely 100 pounds, Cameron Wiles is a wisp of a girl, so it is almost comical when she jumps into her white Toyota Highlander with a 20-pound bag of rice and a nervous but determined expression on her face. Almost comical. She has drawn a goofy smile on the bag and has named it Spud. It’s cute, but it’s not about cute for Wiles. She has plans to destroy Spud.

Three friends are with Wiles on this day of destruction. She wears a shirt with the words “Chill and Recognize” emblazoned on the front. Chill and Recognize. Chill and Recognize. Chill and Recognize. It’s a mantra. She wants to let the world – and herself – know that she is on a mission to defeat this bag of rice, to defeat her fears. 

And so she tries. They drive to Cameron Park and find a secluded stretch of parking lot. Spud is placed down on the ground and over and over and over again, Wiles tries to run him over with her car. She misses here and there, but she also manages to run over Spud a few times. A half hour later, she throws Spud in the back of her car, his goofy smile now covered with tire marks. Wiles laughs.

 “Well, that was disappointing,” she says. She drives back, slowly, carefully. She is still scared. She is still anxious.

This, for Wiles, is her therapy session for the day. This is how she helps herself cope as she lives with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, which includes a constant fear of hitting somebody with her car. According to BeyondOCD, this form of cognitive behavioral therapy, called Exposure Response Prevention, helps patients decrease their anxiety through therapeutic exposures, such as these Cameron Park trips. 

This episode is just one of many in which Wiles has had to confront the reality of her anxiety. She started noticing symptoms of anxiety in high school.

“Five years ago, I just started getting nervous going to school,” Wiles said. “I just had this idea that other people were going to cheat off me or that I was going to cheat off other people – which I would never do. Those thoughts would bother me so much that I would not focus on the actual test material, and in turn, I didn’t do so well.”

Her anxiety touched other aspects of her life in a more serious way, though, especially when it came to driving. 

“Driving is the biggest trigger for my anxiety,” she said. “I don’t want anything to happen that is my fault. It’s more like ‘What if I do something and I don’t know it?’ I really, really don’t want to hit anyone.”

Wiles recognized that she needed to learn how to handle her anxiety, especially with the reality of college looming closer. The summer before her senior year, Wiles visited Chicago for a month. That’s when, and where, things shifted for her. 

“I ended up talking to my aunt about everything. And she said, ‘If you don’t tell your parents, I’m going to,’” Wiles said. “She ultimately realized how big of a problem it was, and she was the extra boost I needed to tell my mom.”

Two weeks after she returned from her Chicago trip, Wiles’ parents found her a psychologist. Wiles and her parents didn’t recognize the full extent of her anxiety; for them, this was just how she was wired. 

“My psychologist said, ‘Look, you have pretty severe anxiety,’” she said. “And then there was the OCD – that was surprising.”

While Wiles understood she was struggling with anxious thoughts and feelings, the diagnosis was something she hadn’t considered.

“OCD goes hand-in-hand with anxiety,” she said. “If you have anxiety, you don’t necessarily have OCD, but if you have OCD, you have anxiety.”

Armed with her official diagnosis and its complications, Wiles found relief and comfort. 

“Once I had a label for it, it was a huge weight off my chest,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, other people have this too.’ So I started doing research.”

Wiles immersed herself in learning more about her mental health. She read books, watched movies and talked to people. She went through ERP. 

“What [ERP] does is it exposes you to your fears, your worries, and your obsessions,” she said. “For example, if you have a fear of leaving the stove turned on, you tell yourself that you can only check it once and not any more than that. With ERP, you take baby steps.”

Wiles’ has indeed taken baby steps. Despite her anxiety, she graduated from high school at the top of her class, but coming to Baylor posed its own challenges and required its own new baby steps. 

“Cameron showed up the first day of Line Camp in tears,” said Ryan McNamara, Wiles’ Honors Line Camp leader. “But then she ended the week on a real high note and in a place of confidence. Out of all my campers, she had the most growth from this experience.”

While Line Camp helped set Wiles up for Baylor, there are still challenges she and other students with anxiety face every day. She lives in the Honors Residential College, where anxiety seems to run rampant among its residents. 

 “I see anxiety everywhere in this community,” Kaleb Loomis, chaplain for the HRC, said. “Sometimes it’s a student who is freaking out because he just got his first B on an essay or a sophomore who is really worried about getting a job after college.”

This anxiety isn’t just reserved for the HRC, however. It is  an epidemic among college students everywhere. According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is the top mental health issue among college students, with 41.6 percent of students having experienced it. 

“I think we ask students to do more now than we asked students to do 50 years ago,” Loomis said. “There’s this pressure of doing well in college, having a career after college, paying for college itself. And for many people, their world is turned upside down.”

The world may be turned upside down for many students, but there are ways to help right it again.

“Learning when to notice your anxiety is happening is the first step,” Loomis said. “And that comes through reflection and awareness and talking to people about it, whether that’s using a counseling center or meeting with a chaplain.”

Students can help others by shifting the paradigm of anxiety.

“Break down the stigma of mental health by being vulnerable with other people,” Loomis said. “Whether you have a serious mental health issue or not, or you have a sibling that does, talk to each other. That goes a long way.”

Through this vulnerability, anxiety becomes less of a seemingly isolated problem. 

 “It’s easy to think that you’re the only one affected by anxiety, but that isn’t true,” Wiles said. “It’s nice knowing that I’m not the only one.”

Similarly, students helping their friends with their mental health should recognize that they are not the only ones who can help. 

“I can walk alongside people every day,” Loomis said. “But when the situation is too severe, I can still walk with people, but I cannot be their primary source of care.”

Loomis suggests empathetic listening as a tool to help those with anxiety, to help get to the root of the issue. 

“Sometimes, anxiety isn’t a choice,” Loomis said. “Students can help each other by understanding it isn’t a choice and being willing to go along with what works best with that person.”

Wiles understands this concept firsthand. Despite the pressures of living in a community as dynamic as the HRC, she finds that the community is incredibly supportive for her needs.

 “I’m pretty good at keeping myself accountable and I need that,” Wiles said. “I told my friends that if I ask questions because I’m anxious, they have to be mean to me. They make me accountable to myself. It has to be on me.”

Wiles is doing her part to tackle not only her anxiety, but to help others learn to cope with their struggles as well. During her freshman year, Wiles and Loomis hosted an event in the HRC where they talked about mental health realities for college students. It was a powerful experience for her to see so many people come with their own set of trials and tribulations. Moments like this help Wiles lean into community and friendship to help mitigate her anxiety.

“Let your friends with anxiety know that you’re there and that you want to help,” Wiles said. “The most important thing is just being there for somebody. Let them know they’re not alone.”

That’s why, on an overcast day in early October, Cameron and her friends pile into the car and drive to Cameron Park. Her three friends cheer her on as she drives over Spud multiple times, all of them screaming. 

This is ERP at its finest, at its weirdest. She wants to know what it’s like to hit a body, or something like that – they don’t really understand exactly what Wiles is thinking. They don’t understand, but that’s okay. They just know that she needs to confront her biggest trigger. And so here they are. She is Cameron Wiles and she has anxiety. They are Cameron’s friends and  they are ready to Chill and Recognize.

She revs the cars again. She’s going for it. 

Puppy Love

Story by Meredith Wagner | Photo by Trey Honeycutt

Many who battle mental illness have been there — perched across from a well-dressed adult with a framed diploma mounted to the wall, fidgeting under the glow of an expensive, dimmed lamp. While traditional therapy has proven helpful for some, others hope for something else — something that allows for emotional support without being confined to one-hour-weekly sessions. In essence, human support doesn’t always cut it.

  This is why Audrey Hamlin, and many others, have sought refuge and long-term healing in animal therapy. Hamlin found the help she needed in the comfort of a canine companion.

 Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and suffering from regular insomnia and panic attacks, Hamlin experimented with multiple forms of therapy, but she never quite found the right fit. That is, until she adopted her dog, Gracie, a half dachshund, half wire-haired terrier. 

“I don’t wake up at 3 a.m. with panic attacks anymore,” Hamlin said. “I could sleep for the first time in months.”

The connection Hamlin has with Gracie doesn’t stem from Gracie’s ability to give advice, to respond to Hamlin’s expressions of concern, or to offer anything material. The ability for an animal to connect with humans without saying a word is arguably what makes their presence so helpful in times of stress or anguish.

“When you’re having a panic attack, you don’t want to talk to anyone, but you also don’t want to be alone,” Hamlin said. “I never have to explain to Gracie what I’m feeling. She’s just there.”

After trial and error with medication, traditional therapy and a form of exposure therapy designed to help patients with PTSD, Hamlin said she found exactly what she needed in her furry friend.      

“Gracie has been my long-term therapy solution,” she said. “A lot of the things I experienced in the first year of being diagnosed I don’t really deal with anymore.”

Gracie is classified as an Emotional Support Animal, or ESA. This means that Gracie is neither a service dog nor a therapy dog. It is important to establish the distinction between service dogs, therapy dogs and ESAs, because there are legal consequences for claiming that a dog is one or the other without proper training and paperwork. 

Service dogs undergo rigorous training catered to an individual’s direct needs. Their abilities can encompass a wide range of tasks, from detecting potentially dangerous elements in the immediate environment, to notifying bystanders if a diabetic owner’s blood sugar level needs attention, to anticipating an owner’s approaching panic attack. 

Therapy animals also undergo rigorous training. The defining factor that sets them apart is their overarching purpose in the community. Trained therapy animals often work in the community with their owners, serving groups of people instead of tending to an individual’s specific needs throughout the day. Therapy animals are trained to remain calm in stressful, loud and unfamiliar environments.

In contrast to certified service and therapy animals, emotional support animals do not need to undergo any training, and they are often recommended to an individual by a doctor. ESAs are not allowed the same freedom in society as service and therapy animals due to their lack of training. Despite this, Hamlin did not have to pay a pet deposit at her apartment, and she once took Gracie on an airplane after a recommendation from her doctor and approval from the airline.

“Sometimes people will get angry with me for having an ESA because they feel like I’m claiming to have a service animal when I don’t,” Hamlin said. “She is not a service animal. I will not literally die without her.” 

Hamlin said while Gracie is not a trained service animal, she does provide her a service. In addition to catering to certain mental illnesses, animals can play a strong role in improving lives in general.

Angel Paws, a local nonprofit of 22 members and 33 certified therapy dogs, has served the Waco community for nearly 14 years, promoting the human-animal bond through the development of Animal-Assisted Activities/Therapy programs.  

Angel Paws provides the opportunity for members of the Waco community to safely interact with dogs in a controlled environment, keeping each person’s mental, emotional and spiritual health in mind. 

“We team up with dogs to bring joy to others,” said member Jean Wesley. “The dogs can do the things we cannot do.”

The dogs of Angel Paws undergo a comprehensive training process with their handlers. Each handler is the only one allowed to legally accompany his/her animal on community outings. Member Jean Ann Jones said this is because it is important for the dogs to learn to communicate with and trust their handler. If a situation becomes noisy or chaotic, the dogs are trained to not act out on the community members, but to instead rely on their handlers for support and reassurance. 

“They need to know they can trust us to keep them out of harm,” Jones said.

Wacoans can find Angel Paws members at various locations throughout the city, including hospitals, nursing homes, addiction and abuse centers and Baylor’s campus. Angel Paws visits Moody Library twice each year to help students de-stress during finals. In the past, this has been a highly anticipated and successful event for both the organization and the students. With a long line weaving in and out of the library corridors, students seem eager to find comfort in the presence of these furry friends. 

“At Baylor, we’ve had people just sit there and cry,” Jones said. 

A canine’s inherent therapeutic qualities could very well derive from its sense of selflessness. Aside from an instinctual desire to fulfill basic needs, dogs seem to have little concern for the inconveniences of life, needing little justification for wagging their tails or giving love freely.

Former therapy dog Mr. Blue, named for his single blue eye and owned by Angel Paws member Suzi Wiseman, was working as a therapy dog up until the last day of his life.

“He was actually there with kids up until the last day, giving up himself,” Wiseman said.    

Jones emphasized the selflessness that dogs naturally embody, speaking for all of the furry members of Angel Paws. 

“For as long as they can last, they’ll give you everything they’ve got,” she said.

Another way canines heal and restore is through the care required by humans to keep them happy and healthy. Being responsible for another living being can encourage a person who is in distress to focus their attention elsewhere. 

After Angel Paws member Lynn Brown was involved in a bad accident in 2012, he adopted Tara, a 60-pound Australian Shepherd/Great Pyrenees mix. Dealing with severe pain and decreased mobility, Brown said Tara served as motivation for him to improve both his physical and mental health after the wreck. Being responsible for training Tara made him get up and move, he said. Brown has since recovered, and Tara has received her Canine Good Citizen Award and now regularly visits patients and staff at various health-care facilities and also works with anti-bullying programs in public schools. 

Dogs like Gracie, Mr. Blue and Tara are a testimony to the power of animal therapy. Simply resting with and petting an animal can provide the stress relief needed to make it through a rough day, an unexpected bout of anxiety or a long-term battle with illness, mental or otherwise. Whether someone is seeking a companion, a good listening ear or a shoulder to cry on, humans may not always be the answer. In the end, a dog might really be a man’s best friend.