What we believe about dying and death shapes our grieving process. If ageing is seen only as slowing down and falling apart, and dying only means loss, if sickness only is bad luck and sudden death only a cruel tragedy then the bereft is inconsolable. Religions and spirituality offer seeing additional dimensions, an understanding that living beings are more than their bodies, that the essence of that being lives on. Many pet parents find comfort in the thought that their beloved companion animal has crossed the rainbow bridge and resides in doggy heaven where they run free and unencumbered. Others experience the essence of their dead pet as a comforting presence or as a spirit guide offering wise counsel when needed.
In the past nine months two of my dogs died. Louie, my senior Kelpie X, had a stroke and his dying was a seven weeks long process of hospice care. Enzo – just three months before his 7th birthday – choked on the bone he was chewing and died within a minute. Two very different deaths. In this article I am sharing with you bits and pieces of my grief journey.
When Louie was dying, I bought several children’s books on the topic, I wanted inspiration on how to best talk about death and grief with my then 2-year old grandson. Good children’s books are for any age, and some of what I found in these books spoke to me deeply and provided me with warmth and comfort. My favourite is “Lifetimes” by Brian Mellonie and Robert Ingpen.
There is a beginning
and an ending for everything
that is alive.
In between is living.
These are the book’s opening lines. In simple words, with beautiful illustrations, we are being told about the different lifetimes of plants, animals and humans. It is talking about life and death in a sensitive and caring way. The rhythm of the text echoes the rhythm of life’s comings and goings. Seeing the bigger picture brings about a soothing acceptance. So simple yet so profound.
To be reminded that in the world of manifestation everything has a beginning, a middle and an end enfolds me in the mystery of life. Even though I feel sad about my loss, at the same time I feel comforted by the order of things. Death, especially caused by “an accident”, can feel so random. We try to make sense. We might wander into the mental forest of “what if”. What if I had watched Enzo chewing his bone more closely? What if I had noticed his struggle sooner? What if I hadn’t given him a bone that day? We can go to the very centre of this deep forest and still we won’t find a satisfying answer. We might find self-doubt and inner criticism. But dwell there too long and it becomes just a distraction from the heartbrokenness. Facing the sadness in the context of everything having a beginning, a middle and an end provides me with the sense that it was their time, even if I wish it wasn’t. Letting go of seeking to understand and surrendering to knowing and accepting eases my pain.
There was once a fox who lived with all the other animals in the forest.
Fox had lived a long and happy life, but now he was tired.
Very slowly, Fox made his way to his favourite spot in the clearing.
He looked at his beloved forest one last time and lay down.
Fox closed his eyes,
took a deep breath
and fell asleep
So starts another children’s book on death and grief, “The Memory Tree” by Britta Teckentrup. Beautifully illustrated as well, it’s a story about grieving together as a community. Fox’s friends think about their life with him. Their happy memories fill their sad hearts with warmth. While the animals talk, a little orange plant starts growing that grows bigger, stronger and more beautiful with each story told. It becomes a tree made from memories and full of love. The animals saw the tree and knew that Fox was still a part of them. […] The tree gave strength to everyone who had loved Fox. And so, Fox lived on in their hearts forever.
Sharing my pain of loss with others and hearing how my dog has touched their lives brings warmth and smiles amidst the tears. Looking at photos and remembering beautiful or funny moments lightens the heaviness. Speaking with others that have similar beliefs about dying and death feels nourishing and comforting.
“The Invisible Leash” by Patrice Karst is a story about celebrating love after the loss of a pet. It’s not a Leash that ties our bodies. It’s a Leash that connects our hearts. When Emily lost her cat, her grandpa told her that when you love an animal and they love you back, that gives the Invisible Leash the magic power of infinity to stretch from here all the way to the beyond. Emily explains this to her friend Zack who just lost his dog. Zack is quite sceptical because he only believes in things he can see. I love how Emily doesn’t feel rebuked and responds in kind and creative ways, helping Zack to come to his own realisations and the comfort he draws from them.
The idea that the dead are simply gone from our life and we must learn to live without them excludes everything that can’t be seen or touched. A continued presence of them in our life, albeit in a transformed and less tangible way, recognises a multi-dimensional reality and connects us with the mystery of life, not everything is knowable but that doesn’t make it less real. We are who we are in part because of the relationship we had with the animal that is now dead. Living with them has changed us, we learned things through, from and with them. They live on inside us, as part of us.
My toddler grandson wanted me to read to him “The Goodbye Book” by Todd Parr over and over again. It is a bright and colourful book with just one sentence per page, talking about different feelings you might feel when someone leaves your life, and that eventually you’ll start to feel better again, remembering the good times you had together. It is not a linear journey, some days you feel up and other days you feel down. Then the book suggests strategies of what might be helpful in the grieving process. The pages in the book about the different feelings is where my grandson wanted to linger the longest, taking in the drawings and the feeling words. Though he had known my dog Louie, he did not seem perturbed by his passing, he seemed more concerned with how I was feeling.
There are pretty much no books about death for two- and three-year olds. Dr Bonnie Zucker is a psychologist and her son was just over two years old when her mother died suddenly. Searching for books that would help her son process the loss she discovered that there were none for his developmental age. So, she wrote “Something Very Sad Happened – A Toddler’s Guide to Understanding Death.” Her book includes a section of notes to parents and caregivers on how to handle dealing with the details of loss with a two- to three-year old child. I found that section of the book really valuable, giving me insight into my grandson’s understanding of death and practical suggestions to support him appropriately.
More than 15 years ago, both my horses, Bro and Gypsy, died on the same day. It was a devastating experience and nothing had prepare me for the grief that hit me like a sledgehammer. I truly was inconsolable. I struggled functioning. A good friend of mine told me that she had connected with my dead horses’ spirits and that they were well and wanted me to be happy. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe her words but they didn’t offer me any solace at the time. For almost a year I was deeply distraught. I couldn’t even think let alone speak of them without starting to sob uncontrollably. I came to a point where I could feel how unhealthy the state I was stuck in was but I couldn’t see a way out.
What finally helped me move out of the bereft state was simple and inspired by the birthday story told for every child on their special day at the Steiner School kindergarten my stepchildren attended. It is alway personalised but let me give you just the gist of it. A big angel and a little angel in heaven are on the lookout for just the right family for the little angel to be born into. When it’s time to come into the world they stand on the heaven-side of the rainbow bridge and have a little chat. The big angel asks for the little one’s wings which she’ll look after until he returns.
I crafted my own healing inspired by this story. I scanned one of my favourite photos of Bro and Gypsy into my laptop and drew a pair of wings on each of their backs. I printed out my masterpiece and stuck it on the fridge. Suddenly I felt quite different. I was still sad but something that had been frozen inside me melted. I could speak of them and only sometimes my voice would tremble. I had placed them and finally knew their location. I felt immensely comforted and at peace. Part of me judged all of this as rather childish but the rest of me was filled with gratitude for its healing power.
Life is precious. I tend to forget that when I am caught up in the everyday hubbub. In the presence of dying and death it comes into focus again. An internal review happens and I see how much time, attention and effort I have given to things that really are not important at all in the big picture. And then regrets bubble up and with them thoughts of guilt and shame. I can get stuck there and it can become crippling. When Louie had his stroke and his life was hanging by a thread that’s exactly what happened. It was interesting to see so very clearly that my suffering was entirely self-created. Whenever I tuned into Louie, all I could feel was this all-encompassing love. My thoughts circled around questions of forgiveness. Did I deserve his love? How could I be forgiven for all the times I had been impatient with or unkind to him? I felt so ashamed. Yet, Louie’s inner state did not waver. He had forgiven all my transgressions as soon as they happened. I had to forgive myself, accept my less than perfect humanity. It took several days, I could barely stand the love Louie “beamed” at me, feeling so undeserving. My shame stood no chance against such unswerving love and eventually I was able to allow myself to be embraced and held by it. With my resistance gone, I could be present to Louie’s dying process. We took care of each other whenever one of us faltered. There was my caring for Louie’s paralysed body as well as his mind when he got agitated because of fear or confusion. He cared for me with this love he held that would calm me when I got scared or overwhelmed. When I had doubts, they would simply dissipate and leave me with the sense that “he got this.” It was a remarkable experience. Since his body died, I’ve felt his presence as a grapefruit sized sphere hovering above my left shoulder exuding All-Encompassing Love that makes me feel safe.
My first response to Enzo’s sudden death by suffocation was disbelief. How could it be??! Yet, clearly there was his lifeless body lying in the grass. I wailed and screamed “No, no, no!’ for several minutes. This just couldn’t be true. How could he be dead when he had been still so full of life minutes before?! The shock was immense. My body reacted with nausea and a splitting headache, I couldn’t eat. After the initial outrage, my mind was numb. That night I took painkillers to be able to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, things had somewhat calmed inside me but it all felt very discordant, I didn’t feel like myself. I was offered to participate in an online gathering that morning and after some hesitation I decided to look in on it. We chanted and I noticed it was making a big difference to my inner experience. The sound “mmhhhhhh” brought me back to myself, provided a focus around which I was reassembled. The sound “aahhhhhh” moved things, releasing the stuck, frozen state the shock had created. It was a gentle yet profound process, leaving me feeling very tender and peaceful at the same time.
Tears come quickly over the small, everyday things that remind me of Enzo’s physical absence. Buddhist monk Thich That Hang says to embrace your pain tenderly, to recognise it and give it your attention. You bathe your pain in gentle mindfulness and as you do that, it will lose a bit of its strength. I find this practice very helpful, so I need not run away from my pain nor overindulge it. Trying to flee or allowing it to run rampant takes a toll on mental health.
Grieving can be so exhausting, feeling drained, without motivation, directionless. It is challenging and it can make my inner critic spew its venom about being so unproductive and lazy. I know that at the heart of that inner criticism lies the concern for my well-being. It’s just based on outdated beliefs and delivered in a poor communication style. It’s ok to miss a beat – or two, or three, or however many necessary – after losing a beloved pet. Though it is so comforting to feel their continued formless presence, the absence of their physical aliveness can be heartbreaking, we long to touch them and watch them. There is emptiness that used to be occupied by their body. We miss them.
In that first shock moments after Enzo’s death I felt most distraught when I noticed that I had no sense of him, just his dead body lying next to me. He felt utterly gone. Shortly after, I perceived a warmth along my back, I felt held. As I am writing this, it occurs to me that perhaps that wasn’t Enzo’s presence at all as I’ve thought it to be so far. Instead I am inclined to attribute it to let’s call it an angel of comfort. From the next day on I perceive his essence as an about three meters tall angelic being (very bright and winged) that exudes Hope, such a deep sense of “all is well.”
Perhaps you don’t believe in angels and other spiritual beings. Perhaps you perceive them differently. How precisely can we ever know the formless and invisible? All I know is that opening myself up to different dimensions of life is enriching my experience of it. It is a source of comfort and gives me a wider context that is beneficial to my well-being. So, let me tell you about a third deceased dog’s presence in my life, Harry. I decided to euthanise Harry when he was three years old because of insurmountable, dangerous behaviour. As is easy to imagine, a decision like that can bring on a barrage of doubt and guilt. Reminding myself that I had not made that decision lightly nor hastily helped. But what blasts away any gloominess when I tune into Harry’s essence is Exuberant Joy. He doesn’t have a localised formless presence like Louie and Enzo do. Instead, Harry is everywhere.
It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die,
but retire a little from sight and afterwards return again.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Grief is an integration process of heartbreak. Though there are many observable similarities, the length and depth and width are unique and individual. I found the more I opened myself to read, think and talk about ageing, dying and death, the more I was able to discover the hidden treasures of these realms. Rather than experiencing resistance and fear, I feel at peace. That doesn’t mean I don’t also feel heartbroken at times. It’s as if that inner peace (born from acceptance) lines the container that holds my experiences – feeling sad, exhausted, gloomy, downcast, lonely, miserable, resentful, etc. I am held lovingly while these inner states come and go.
Writing this article is part of my grieving process. There will be more. For now, I pause and I am leaving you in the hands of one of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver. This is one of her poems from the book “Dog Songs”.
The first time Percy came back
The first time Percy came back
he was not sailing on a cloud.
He was loping along the sand as though
he had come a great way.
“Percy,” I cried out, and reached to him –
those white curls –
but he was unreachable. As music
is present yet you can’t touch it.
“Yes, it’s all different,” he said.
“You’re going to be very surprised.”
But I wasn’t thinking of that. I only
wanted to hold him. “Listen,” he said.
“I miss that too.
And now you’ll be telling stories
of my coming back
and they won’t be false, and they won’t be true,
but they’ll be real.”
And then, as he used to, he said, “Let’s go!”
And we walked down the beach together.