Its taken me about 5 weeks to write this blog, a tad longer than usual. At the end of June our dog, Louie, died. Just under 3 years old, up to one week before he died he’d been in rude good health. Somehow (neither ourselves nor the Vet is entirely sure what happened), he contacted Pancreatitis. 7 grueling days later, Louie was dead. Dogs get sick quickly. Normally they also recover quickly. This time it didn’t happen and there were more tears shed for that dog than at 10 funerals.
Letting Go: Over the past couple of weeks we’ve gone through the ‘letting go’ process. Physically getting rid of food and bedding. Mentally parking a million and one memories. In the short, happy time he was with us, we’d come to love Louie very much. At over 14 stone, he was a huge dog with the look and gait of a small lion. Louie thought he was human and was never happier than when he was sharing our space, watching TV or stretched out in front of the fire. Even as I write this now, I can feel a sadness welling up. You don’t expect dogs to live forever; but you expect them to live beyond their ‘teenage’ years. We feel cheated that he’s been stolen from our lives.
Moving On: People who don’t have or don’t like dogs, often cannot relate to a ‘my dog died’ story. So what, they say? It was just an animal. Get over it. Go out and buy another dog if it’s bothering you that much – almost as if the story was an interruption to ‘real’ life and the retelling was some form of attention seeking. Here’s a bit of advice to the anti-dog brigade. Next time you’re at a removal try saying to the mourners: “Ah well. At least you have a couple of other brothers” and see how that works! Yet, despite the sadness you do move on, albeit slowly. The human mind is hardwired to cope with loss. It’s part of our DNA. We get enough practice – from girls who never return phone calls to the deeper issues around loss of parents. BIG issues push small issues (like the loss of a dog) further down the page. Big issues like working through an ‘end of life’ chapter with someone you love. Many of us would welcome the opportunity to be able to help loved ones ‘move on’ (assuming that was their wish). Incredibly, we can offer more solace to a dying animal than we can to a human, which seems nuts (taking into account all of the safeguards required around this delicate issue).
Blocked Process: Despite the fact that we are programmed to ‘move on’, sometimes, the grieving process stalls and the wound will not heal. People endlessly regurgitate the loss, getting stuck in a vortex. Like a form of mental cancer, the loss pollutes all aspects of their life, becoming what psychotherapists label a fixed Gestalt; all roads (regardless of where the conversation starts) double back to this ‘black hole’ of emotional pain.
This ‘stuckness’ is not confined to bereavement. Many years ago, I worked as the Industrial Relations Manager for General Electric. In a large manufacturing site, we dealt with a myriad of complaints and requests. One employee wanted to go to mass each Sunday. Problem was, he worked shifts and was rostered for duty every 4th Sunday. We took the view that we couldn’t ‘prioritize’ going to mass over other activities (a lot of the guys played soccer on Sundays and had to miss one match a month). Before going back with the ‘no’ answer, I spoke with a Parish Priest about this dilemma and I located several ‘other’ churches where Sunday mass was available outside of his regular shift hours. But this guy became ‘fixated’ that the company were denying him the right to practice his religion– he couldn’t go to mass every Sunday in his local church. Until the day I left that company (almost 6 years later), he never gave up on the topic. He just couldn’t let it go. After about 12 months of this onslaught, when I saw him coming towards me in the factory, I’d duck into the gents or any free office – to avoid the ‘mass’ conversation. If I heard that particular tale of woe one more time, the only ‘mass’ involved would have been mass murder.
Spanish Lady: On holiday in Spain some years later, we met a woman who seemed quite ‘down in herself’ – suffering from what I now know to be the symptoms of clinical depression. After we’d gotten to know her a bit better, I spoke to her about why she was so sad. Turned out that she’d suffered a miscarriage 8 years previously and was still reeling from the impact of this. Closer to home, Linda and I had been through this wringer several times so we understood the grief involved and the sense of hopelessness which can accompany this (we never saw her again so I don’t know if there was a happy ending to that story). The central point is that we all face loss in our lives, of various forms. To be mentally healthy, we have to learn to deal with this.
Right Pace? People move through the grieving tube at different speeds. There is no benchmark here; it’s whatever is right for you. I’ve encountered some very ‘quick’ movement. Another woman (whom I know reasonably well) was telling me about her divorce. As I was commiserating, she responded: “Sure, that was weeks ago”. Hope springs eternal in the human heart and she was already looking forward. The bottom line is as follows: If you find yourself ‘stuck’ in grieving, you need to look for external support. Someone to talk to who will really listen. Someone who can untangle your thoughts and feelings to help you navigate the emotional maze. The philosopher Heidegger invented a combined word for mood and emotion Befindlichkeit that, literally translated, means “how do you find yourself?” (in English, “how are you doing?”). Someone who will not try to ‘evade’ your sorrow by turning away from it or tell you to ‘snap out of it’ as if your grief were self-inflicted. Someone who can, perhaps, guide you towards a ‘better tomorrow’, whatever that might look like. Perhaps it might look like the line from Tori Amos in Choirgirl Hotel: “Girls you’ve gotta know when it’s time to turn the page.”
Next Steps? At this moment in time, we can’t bring ourselves to think about another dog. Louie held such a big place in our hearts it almost seems disrespectful to even consider a replacement. No dog could take his place. On the other hand, Linda said that if anything happened to me… Personally, I think she’s bluffing. She’d wait a respectable 3 weeks before hitting the town. It’s not good to stay ‘down’ for too long. Who knows what new dog adventures lay ahead, unread chapters that will unfold. And, of course, I’ll keep you posted…. Until then,
PS Lighter Note
Q: What do you call a large dog that meditates?
A: Aware wolf.
Playing Chess: A man went to visit a friend and was amazed to find him playing chess with his dog. He watched the game in astonishment for a while. “I can hardly believe my eyes!” he exclaimed. “That’s the smartest dog I’ve ever seen.” “Nah, he’s not so smart,” the friend replied. “I’ve beaten him three games out of five.”
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