Grieving the loss of a pet: No happy endings?

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

There are no happy endings.
Endings are the saddest part,
So just give me a happy middle
And a very happy start.

Shel Silverstein

Today is the anniversary of my dog Louie’s stroke which opened the door to animal hospice care for me and put me on a healing path. A healing path? Let me explain.

Two losses in particular had a debilitating effect on my life, the death of my horses and the break-up of my first marriage. It was then that I experienced the classic phases of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. I struggled immensely and I felt estranged from myself, behaving in unfamiliar ways that frightened me with their intensity. That which usually held me together in a coherent presentation to the outer world, was no longer reliably doing so. I remember the day depression took me to the brink of not wanting to participate in life anymore but instead withdraw completely. I felt dead inside, I had no hope. It was a scary place because neither myself nor the people close to me knew that the darkness can be a place of refuge and rest, of containment and acceptance. It takes wisdom to surrender, to choose yielding. Even after the longest night, there comes a dawn. After the worst storm, the sky clears. After the most enduring winter, spring arrives. All by itself. We can count on it. I believe our inner nature operates under the same law. But I digress.

Providing comfort care for my dying dog required new understanding, a new perspective on the end of life. Gaining fresh insights goes hand in hand with letting go of previous beliefs on a topic. And that was very healing. As my perception expanded, the inner mess of undigested past losses and their corresponding unresolved grief received recognition and space. The discord disappeared, leaving peace in its wake.

Providing hospice care for Louie was a healing journey for me.

Good-byes always terrified me. It felt like the time together was invariably too short. Way too often, my enjoyment of the present was overshadowed by my anxiety of the impending end – be that minutes, hours, days, or years away.

The butterfly doesn’t count months but moments, and has time enough.

Rabindranath Tagore

Not enough is an affliction of our time. Born from consumerism is our addiction to “more”, its credo of constant growth blacks out the normal cyclical order of nature by focussing on just one aspect of it. Whether it’s products or experiences, we demand new and exciting. Junkies for what’s to come, finding it difficult to be present with what is. Always rushing, always busy. And, never enough.

On the material plane, everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. But as a culture, we abhor the last. We try to buy time, choose not to think about it. With such persistent resistance and denial, no wonder none of us knows that

Death is not the opposite of life
but a part of it.

Haruki Murakami

There are no role models and the subject is not taught in school. No wonder, we are so afraid. We are simply illiterate when it comes to dying. To further complicate things, our impression of death is strongly influenced by what we have watched on screens – TV series, movies, video games. Many are traumatised by witnessing the medically managed, outdrawn death of a loved one suffering from a terminal disease in a sterile institution. There is the belief that dying and death is a painful business.

The way I experience grief changed when my understanding of dying and death deepened. Have you noticed that usually our fear of something is worse than when what we dread finally occurs? Shrinking away and avoiding in order to protect ourselves might sometimes be a necessary survival mechanism. Too often, though, this mechanism’s usefulness has long expired and instead of benefitting, cripples us.

The inner work that happened as a by-product of doing hospice care for Louie, helped me befriend endings, so much so that I would classify Louie’s death as a happy ending, not in the Hollywood sense but as a fulfilling conclusion. The cathartic effect of the whole experience left me rather inspired. Sometimes I wonder if my enthusiasm on the subject appears morbid, if people think I am strange and perhaps a little crazy. There is an urge to shout it from the rooftops, “Dying isn’t scary!” Can you imagine?!

Even though death took Louie, much was given to me in his dying process. All things considered, I feel deeply enriched. In my sadness over the loss I experienced only acceptance. No denial, anger, bargaining or depression. A very different kind of grief compared to my past.

Enzo in 2017

Just two months ago, Enzo, another one of my dogs, died suddenly. He choked on a bone and suffocated. The shock of this event still reverberates throughout my nervous system, causing me to overreact when I notice something wrong or off with one of my dogs. My first panicked thought is, “Please don’t die on me!!!” I trust that over time this can heal as I befriend this special kind of loss – the sudden, unexpected one. At the moment, I can feel my fear. I am ok with dying when it is a process but this rug pulled from underneath surprise has me trembling and a bit unnerved. As a first response, I had only denial – utter disbelief. It lasted for several minutes and then morphed into acceptance. The pain was heart-wrenching and very physical for the rest of the day.

Despite all of that, would you believe that I feel this too was a happy ending? He died doing what he deeply enjoyed. And even though I know imagining what happened to him might conjure up a picture of a violent struggle, the reality of it was not. A violent struggle would have caught my attention earlier and perhaps I could have saved his life. As it was, my husband only noticed him moving in a strange way and though he was still alive when I came to his side and managed to pull out the lodged bone from his throat, he died a moment later. It was peaceful. Perhaps he suffered a heart attack first which made him choke on the bone. I will never know. Not that it really matters.

Having regrets is common when grieving. Not only do we wish we had more time but also perhaps that we spent what time we did have differently. The truth is we can’t change any of it. What we can do, however, is adjust our life in such a way that our future holds fewer or no regrets. Death – and any form of loss – is an invitation to pause, reflect, process, integrate and, when the time is right, remerge with a truer version of ourself. And isn’t that a happy ending in and of itself? Happy and sad are not mutually exclusive states, our capacity to feel is not a simple black and white affair but a complex dance of many shades if we allow it to be.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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