Like a Three-Legged Dog: Adapt and Survive

My niece’s husband’s brother (got that) has a dog named Samson; he’s an enthusiastic, loving dog. Samson has only three legs. I don’t know the story behind the loss of his right front leg, but I do know he was born with four legs and lost one to an injury. Quite the fork in the road for Samson.

Since we can’t understand how dogs rationalize, problem-solve on an intellectual level, or speak to their owners as to how to help them, Samson had to adapt to his new world on his own. His out of balance world provided quite a challenge for him.

For Samson, it was a matter of his physical survival. He had to teach himself how to balance on three legs so he could get to his food and water dishes, so he could go to the bathroom, so he could exist. And Samson did it. Samson now runs, jumps, plays and does pretty much anything a four legged dog can do. He took his problem head on, made the changes he had to make and now is a happy, fun loving dog that doesn’t seem to notice, or care, that he’s missing a leg. Samson adapted.

On the news, I saw a story about a bird that had an arrow running right through its body, but was still surviving just fine. I can’t imagine the hunter’s surprise when he shot the bird with his arrow, saw it go down and when he got to it, watched it fly away. The arrow didn’t seem to have affected the bird as it swam on a pond, its demeanor alert and attentive. The bird had learned to adapt to its altered life.

One night, when I was driving home, I looked up to the sky and saw the familiar “V” of a group (probably not what they’re officially called) of geese as they flew to who knows where. Suddenly the lead bird dove, sending the other birds into a frenzy. It dove because it was going to land on a pond. The “V” became disrupted as the other geese put on their brakes and quickly positioned themselves for a landing. It was like the fall of a house of cards. Their normal path had been changed and they were adapting. They all landed on the pond safely.

In our past lives, we were the four-legged dog, the bird without the arrow through its body, and the orderly and comfortable “V” formation. Then we got the call, the knock on the door or were there when our kids died and our lives dramatically changed direction. We lost a leg, had an arrow shot through our body and the formation of our lives fell completely apart.

As we struggled to figure out how to regain our balance and adapt to our new lives, we were no different than those animals whose lives were also disrupted. I’m sure Samson would have loved to have had his fourth leg back, the bird would have preferred a life without an arrow through its chest, and the geese in the “V” would have liked to have gone on flying in their comfortable formation. But as we know, there is no rewind in life.

If Samson sat day after day thinking, “I can’t go on without my leg,” he would have died. If the bird with the arrow said, “I can’t go on with this arrow stuck in me,” it would have died. If the geese in the “V” formation lamented the loss of their comfortable pattern, they would not have taken flight again.

As bereaved parents, we’re now in the process of adapting to our new lives. We’ve been thrown off, way off, and struggle to find our path. Each day we make decisions to find ways to move forward or we decide not to move forward and let the pain of wanting what we can’t have direct our lives. A horrible, horrible thing has happened to us and our kids. It’s up to us to take that horrible event and either blend it into our lives and find a new normal, or let it control our lives and keep us from healing.

In the beginning, our grief controls us as we move through life on a subconscious level, making decisions we sometimes don’t even remember making. That’s fine, that’s how we do it. But as we move down the road, our decisions to battle our grief and pain are made on a conscious level as to how we want to, or don’t want to, heal. Healing is a decision. Therefore, not to heal is a decision also.

When I was a combat soldier in Viet Nam, those who fought against us were my enemy and we spent each day implementing strategies to defeat them, just as they used their strategies to defeat us. Grief is no different. We must treat it as the enemy to our healing and battle it every day, or it will overrun our lives and defeat us.

If grief defeats us, it defeats our children as well. We can’t let that happen. Each day, we battle our pain and fight our fears, we bulldoze ahead a little further down the road of our new lives. The enthusiasm for our work is like the gasoline to the bulldozer of our healing. The more we pour in, the more road we open ahead of us. That enthusiasm can be found in the love for our kids.

Not all of who our kids are died when their bodies died. Think about your child. Are you thinking about a dead child? No, because you can’t have memories of someone who was never created. You’re thinking about a living child. Now, feel your love. Is that love for a child who has died or a child who has lived? A child who still lives. The answer is a living child.

Our lives can regain balance, we can adapt to that arrow and our “V” formation can find wings again. We will never live the life we once had. That’s an unchangeable and undeniable reality. To continue to long for our 4th leg or to try and pull out the arrow or make the “V” exactly as it was, will keep us from healing. If we fight for ways to transition to a new life even though we have those challenges, we honor our children and we gain strength, balance and direction.

We can be like Samson, adapt and survive. We can be like the bird and wrap healing around the arrow and we can once again take flight in search of our children’s lives, our smile and our meaning. The opportunities are there if we reach out for them.

Rob Anderson 2011

Rob Anderson

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Rob’s journey began in March of 1998 following the murder of his son, Brendon. “I fell hard, I fell fast and I fell deep, just like many other bereaved parents,” says Rob. “I began to put the pieces back together once I joined The Compassionate Friends. That support group saved my life. I could be any kind of bereaved father I wanted to be without fear of judgment or ridicule. And I was. I found a safe place to bleed out the poison of the death of my son.” Once Rob began to feel better, he gave back by writing about his journey. Numerous articles have been published. Writing turned to speaking. He presented multiple workshops at three national conventions of The Compassionate Friends. Rob has written a book titled, “Dads in Grief – Grief in Dads --- A survival guide for dads after the death of their child.” Rob is looking for a publisher.

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