Saturday, August 09, 2008

Death Grief Guilt and Getting Over It

My dog died. He was a yellow Labrador who had been part of my life for fourteen and a half years. I loved him more deeply than most of the people in my life and this month grief has had me in its grip.

I’ve been through grief before; my father, my mother, my mother in law, my nephew. It never gets any better.

If you live long enough, everyone and everything you love will die and every time grief will ride you, wrenching bone deep sobs from you that strip you of all dignity. Letting you recover and then doing it again and again; triggering a renewed sense of loss each time you come across some small reminder of the life you shared. Grief multiplies death. It takes away everything that makes life bearable and leaves only pain.

My dog didn’t die in his sleep. He ate some wood that obstructed his bowels. It took a week of probing and x-rays and ultrasounds and eventually an operation before we finally had to have him put down. That week is etched into my memory. Why is it that the nasty, gut-wrenching things in life are so easy to recall while happiness fades like an old photograph?

I cried over my dog’s death. Cried. That doesn’t describe it. Crying sounds polite and controlled. I would stand with my eyes closed, my mouth stretched open obscenely wide, my hands by my side, my head thrown back, as great gouts of sobs forced their way out of me, taking my breath, shaking my whole body, filling my mind with nothing more or less that a howl of anger and pain and loss that, if it had words, would fire them like bullets, like grenades, like napalm at a universe that has this death in it.

You’re body won’t let you cry like that for long. It makes you rest and go through the motions of eating in between bouts of soul-crushing grief. And in those gaps when the parasite grief lets its host recover,guilt wormed its way into my mind. It became crystal clear that my selfishness, my unwillingness to accept that some things can’t be fixed, my endless ability to make facts fit my aspirations, had led to my dog spending the last days of his life in a cage in the ICU of animal hospital, in the company of strangers, combating pain until his heart could not stand it.

Guilt curled around my pain and squeezed until my previous sobs seemed mild.

My wife and I come from Irish families and so we did what we always do when grief rides us, we held a wake, just the two of us, a cluster of photo albums and bottle of Rijoa. With each sip of wine we took turns telling stories of our dog and why we loved him and what made him special. We laughed and we cried – just tears not sobs – and we let the memory of him fill us for a while.

It is a month since he died. I was scheduled for leave so I didn’t have to try and work in the immediate life-sucking period after his death. I got support, wonderful, heart-warming support, from the folks on ERWA. The periods of doing other things than grieve are getting longer. Life will return to normal soon.

Except that it won’t. The grief will visit less often. But each bout of grief leaves a scar on the heart. Our dog, who has been with us almost every day since 1993 will never be with us again. There is nothing normal about that.

Enough of sorrow. Let me spend a moment on love. Why should this dog mean so much to me?

Every morning he would wake and face the day as if it was going to be the best day he’d had so far. He was wilful and stubborn and persistent but never mean spirited or violent. He would respond to complex verbal commands but never admitted to knowing the meaning of “Bad Dog”. When my wife and I hugged he would wag his tail. If one of us was ill or sad he would lay beside us until we felt better. He loved unconditionally but was never obsequious or needy. He had a cartoon dog look that made strangers smile. He would walk into a room and expect everyone to admire him. He was everything a Labrador should be. He made me more human than I would otherwise have been. You can’t bullshit a dog. You have to be yourself and deal with what that means.

I miss him so much it hurts. It will always hurt. That seems to be the price the world extracts for letting yourself love deeply.

It may sound morbid but one impact of his death is to remind me of the reality of my own. He was with us fourteen years and yet, in retrospect, it seems like almost no time at all. In fourteen years I will be sixty five. Few of the people in my family have made it to seventy. Perhaps my dog’s last gift to me is to make me raise my head from the ruts habit and convenience and compromise have worn into my life and ask myself how I will make the next fourteen years worth living.

I don’t have the answer yet. I’m still at the point were getting through the day feels like an achievement. But I know it’s the most important question in front of me and I know that writing will be part of the solution. I’ll keep you posted.


Anonymous said...

I'm so, so sorry about your dog. The animals that share our lives are more than pets; they are members of our families. I lost my cat of 17 years a couple years ago and seeing pictures of her just today still brought tears to my eyes. The two dogs I have now love me deeply and honestly. Some of the people in my life probably do as well, but my dogs are the ones who show it every day.

iris said...

My heart hurts for and with you, Mike. Our two huskies Shiloh and Sitka and eight pound killer chichuaua, Angel are the center of our lives.

What a powerful tribute you pay your good friend in this writing. The impact of your lives together shows in your words and feelings.

blessings to you,