Grief: A Love Story

Grief: A Love Story

April 27, 2024


death, dog

Could you find me?

Would you kiss-a my eyes?

To lay me down

In silence easy

To be born again

-Van Morrison, Astral Weeks

Rocky, my heart and soul dog, transitioned into death in January. Rocky came into my life during a tough time. He quickly became my soul dog. There is no difference in grief or love when losing an animal vs. a human. Grief is grief; for many people, animals offer the safety and unconditional love that people cannot. I don't see a point in the comparison. Loss of our loved ones, regardless of species, leaves a space that can feel devastating, and coping with that resulting emptiness can feel overwhelming. This blog post is for anyone who's trying to find their way through the grief of losing a beloved. I will share the ways that I have managed to cope, however imperfectly, with death. 

Views on Death

I'll be seeing you

In all the old familiar places

That this heart of mine embraces

All day through

-Billie Holiday

Nothing has made me reflect harder on death than the inevitability of Rocky's death. I had the privilege of having time because he had a chronic illness. Not everyone gets that luxury. It was vital for me to find a way to make peace with death as a part of life so that I could cope. I was wholly and utterly overwhelmed, and I was terrified I wouldn't be ok.

Everyone has different beliefs, perspectives, and ideas about death and what happens after you die. Religion and spiritual practices can help us find ways to understand what can feel unfathomable and shrouded in mystery. I didn't grow up particularly religious, and American culture tends to fear death. So, as I prepared Rocky to transition, I looked to other cultures and practices that view death head-on with grace and acceptance. My mom has been a student of Buddhism for a while and recently took a class on death and dying. She sent me this quote: 

It is only because of our misunderstanding that we think the person we love no longer exists after they 'pass away.' This is because we are attached to one of the forms, one of the many manifestations of that person. When that form is gone, we suffer and feel sad. The person we love is still there. He is around us, within us, and smiling at us. In our delusion, we cannot recognize him, and we say: 'He no longer is.' We ask over and over, 'Where are you? Why did you leave me all alone?' Our pain is great because of our misunderstanding. But the cloud is not lost. Our beloved is not lost. The cloud is manifesting in a different form. Our beloved is manifesting in a different form. If we can understand this, then we suffer much less. -Thich Nhat Hanh

I certainly don't claim to be Buddhist, but I found so much solace and comfort in this way of thinking. I needed Rocky to never be "lost" to me, to be ok. The day before our planned home euthanasia, I visualized again and again the process. I imagined him being released from the pain and suffering of this earthly body and his spirit or essence rising and being met with the most loving, warm, safe energy the universe could offer. I imagined him- his essence staying with me after his body was driven away. I know that I suffered so much less than I would have if I believed I lost him forever. That loss, I simply couldn't live with.

I'm intentional about the language I use and try to avoid the language "I lost my dog" and instead use language that helps remind me he is still with me. His death was a startling gift. There was such intimacy in knowing what would happen (I'm convinced he knew). And it was relief from acute liver disease- a quiet, peaceful process of transition, surrounded by love.  

Grief and depression

Losing love

It is like a window into your heart

Everybody sees you're blown apart

Everybody sees the wind blow

Paul Simon, Graceland 

Rocky's death was not my first encounter with grief. My partner and I have lost three dogs in 3 years. But Rocky took up a different space in my life and in my heart, so the grief has felt more profound, more all-consuming, and more acute. Days before his death, I started to read "Grief is Love" by Marisa Renee Lee. I love this book. It felt like permission. Permission for this to be messy. Permission to throw those five states of grief (initially intended for the terminally ill) out the window. Permission for my grief to linger on long after my family and friends moved on. Permission to challenge how we view death, love, and loss in our society. Grief is love, and damn does it hurt.

Then there's the depression that makes life fall in on itself like a black hole. Everything seems insurmountable, including seeing the joy or purpose in life. Depression is different for everyone. For me, it is meant to protect my system. Speaking in language borrowed from Internal Family Systems therapy, my depression follows my grief like a firefighter, jumping in when it thinks the pain is too much, attempting to save the burning building. Depression dampens the pain of grief, but it can cause more pain- a different kind of pain by dampening the love, too. Rocky's death taught me that I would rather feel the heartbreak, the pain of separation that makes it hard to breathe, the hot tears, and the utter loneliness over dimming any feelings of love I had for him. 

Being seen

Oh, my friend, sorrow, you are relieved

I no longer need your company

And what's stuck in my throat is a mystery

And what it is

It is a heartbreaking, soul-shaking, overwhelming undertaking

That hit me once again.

-The Barr Brothers, Defibrillation

Even before Rocky passed, I planned out multiple avenues of support after his death. During my therapy session the day after, my therapist asked what I needed. I asked her if it would freak her out if I screamed. For those of us worried about how our feelings impact others or worry about being too much, I see you. I did scream, and loudly, too. I wailed from depths I didn't know were there, with tears and snot running down my face. It has been profoundly healing to be witnessed and genuinely seen in my grief. The enormity of this pain is not meant to be carried alone. Grief is meant to be held in community. Many people are uncomfortable with grief and death, and it can be hard to find support. As I get older, I am more deliberate about finding people and community- that don't just tolerate my grief but welcome it. 

Your love lives on

Nothing you would take,

Everything you gave.

Love you till I die,

Meet you on the other side. 

-Willie Nelson, Breathe 

A complex grief has bloomed from my dog's death. One part agony and another part, relief. I wonder if the death of loved ones who have higher needs, either behaviorally, emotionally, or medically, hit us differently. Taking care of Rocky eventually became a way of taking care of myself. Then, somewhere along the way, I forgot who I was without him and maybe forgot what I needed. Anyone who's shared their life with a reactive complex animal can probably relate. The love and commitment take up so much space in our lives and our hearts; you really do lose a part of yourself when they die. So what do you do with the emptiness- that window in your heart that's been blown apart? You use your love for them to find yourself again. And you grieve for as long as you need. Maybe forever. 

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