Last week Grief took me down, yet left a gift.
If you’re dealing with personal pain or the low-grade, chronic grief a lot of us are feeling about the world, it may be time to learn to walk with him.
I can’t tell you how to “get over” grief, but I’m learning about how to deal with his dominating, demanding presence.
Grief is one tough master. (I’ve gendered him, but you can change that if a force that takes you to your knees and threatens to flatten you to the ground feels more female to you.) He’s unyielding, sometimes cruel, and yet not without occasional kindness.
Grief took my husband and me for a wild ride last week after we decided that it was time to put down our little animal companion, Riley.
Riley was our foster-rescue dog, a sweet, gentle Springer Spaniel, who came into our lives for four months, until his dementia and neurological difficulties made life too painful for him.
Our passion for Riley defied logic. We were smitten the moment we saw him walking in circles at the park, on a leash with the woman who brought him to us from the Seattle Animal Shelter. No matter that Riley was deaf, near blind, had trouble lifting himself to walk, and at times couldn’t contain himself for more than three hours.
He became a vessel for the biggest love we could give.
When Riley looked at us with his clouded eyes, our hearts melted and all we could think of doing was showering him with the safety, care, and love that he had missed during his days of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.
Grief was watching our moves.
Grief took aim as we kept opening our hearts to our little fella. Grief knew how to pulverize us the moment that we decided that Riley’s pain and confusion had outstripped his joy in living and it was time to say goodbye.
NEVER say to anyone, “He was just a dog.” Grief doesn’t care. Grief shakes us with loss and strips from us whatever we hold precious, whether it’s a beetle or a treasured photo, lost, of a deceased grandmother.
In the soul, sorrows mingle. My mother’s long-awaited death evoked few tears (they may still come), but putting down Riley took me to a place where I couldn’t stop sobbing.
Last week I read the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, who experienced a tsunami of grief when her wife Rayna died. As she shared in a recent TED interview:
“Grief… happens upon you, it’s bigger than you. There is a humility that you have to step into, where you surrender to being moved through the landscape of grief by grief itself. And it has its own timeframe, it has its own itinerary with you, it has its own power over you, and it will come when it comes. And when it comes, it’s a bow-down. It’s a carve-out. And it comes when it wants to, and it carves you out — it comes in the middle of the night, comes in the middle of the day, comes in the middle of a meeting, comes in the middle of a meal. It arrives — it’s this tremendously forceful arrival and it cannot be resisted without you suffering more… The posture that you take is you hit your knees in absolute humility and you let it rock you until it is done with you. And it will be done with you, eventually. And when it is done, it will leave. But to stiffen, to resist, and to fight it is to hurt yourself.”
Gilbert’s words resonate as memories of Riley continue to haunt our house.
A piece of chicken fat turns into a memory of how Riley would have swallowed it whole and then licked my hand. The baby gate we put in place to keep Riley in his section of the house is down, yet I still try to step over it. After-images of Riley keep appearing: Riley stumbling to stand, Riley being carried down steps by my husband, Riley panting and turning in circles in the hall, confused by his growing dementia.
Part of me wants to numb this pain, but neither drinking nor drugs are appealing. Grief is adept at waiting out numbness. Reasoning feels equally useless. Who cares that Riley was only with us for four months or that we gave him the best life we could? That may matter, but not to Grief.
Grief comes with a gift
Bearing the pain, I walk through our vegetable garden. I notice that the colors of the leaves on the smoke bush have become more vivid. The beans I left dangling from their vines stand out like a piece of art. The rustle of the quaking aspens turns into a melody.
Words, inspired by Riley, start flooding into me and I create a small poem. Grief waits with me as I shape a blessing from Riley for my husband, another for a friend who loved our furry companion.
The power to shape and craft my words is the lifeline I need, a way to stand with my grief, neither running from it nor drowning in its waters. Creativity lifts me out of the darkness, with compassion. I do not have to produce something lasting or great, I just need to follow its suggestion and open my senses and imagination.
I follow the thread, creating other small poems, trusting that each step I take is leading me towards healing, knowing that light will follow the dark, sensing that the gashes in my heart are expanding my perspective, and giving Grief its due.
Whether you are happy with the elections or not, concerned about the Caravan of refugees coming towards the Mexican border, or not, or tracking on other sufferings, know that in today’s world, Grief is likely to be a frequent guest.
Give Grief his place at the table
It’s a small price to pay for the right to love and care deeply about the world.
Let Grief stand at your side as you dip into that place in your soul where joy and sorrow mingle and deep hope lives.
From there, you may find solace. From there, you can create.
From there may you find a place of wholeness, a rainbow within that can bear the storms.
A blessing from Riley
To the friends I met
and those I never did,
I send you blessings.
I will be watching over you.
So grateful to have received love
in your difficult world,
a chance to leave in peace
even though I couldn’t wag my tail
or say thank you.
I will be romping again
with those you have loved
in a place called Dogland.
If you listen quietly
you may hear us bark.