There’s a kind of crying you do just once in awhile. It leaves your ribs aching, your eyes burning, and your heart so bruised that you realize you can’t live in that place of loss very long or you might break.
The last time I cried like that was eleven years ago when I lost the battle between my oncologist, my husband and me: two against one. I was going to have to do chemo this second time around and I couldn’t get out of it. I came home and cried that same cry laying on the floor of our bedroom and pounding the rug with my fists.
It happened when my little sister died too. That cry was mixed up with so much anger that I screamed. Why why why? Why the young family members like Jill and then my Jenny, taken by ovarian cancer. The fury that I felt towards the world was like a fire burning down my house trapping me inside.
But I thought that intense crying was over for me. I honestly don’t know why I thought I could get away with that, life being what it is. But I did think that. Most everybody was gone in my family and way too many friends had died. I was cried out, I told myself.
Then we brought a tiny Corgi puppy home and we named him Riley.
My husband, Patrick, and I had raised herding breeds before. We have a very big yard, we had lots of time to give…but Riley wasn’t just a puppy. He was a CORGI puppy. (Let this be a PSA: a very small dog bred for thousands of years as cattle and geese drovers in their native Wales…well, let’s just say that in certain individuals, there can be issues. That current Instagram cutie you are tracking will always try you; give you the middle finger. Remember, Queen Elizabeth has a staff for that. You may not.)
After two months, we realized that raising Riley, taking him to all his classes and training…well, the little twelve-pound bunny butt was running our life. It was impacting our health.
We talked long and hard with our dog trainer, who was extraordinarily skilled in her profession, having trained Search & Rescue dogs, Military dogs, and all manner of Herding dogs. She told us: “I know this is hard, but let me help you re-home him.”
Once we understood we were acting in Riley’s best interests, my husband and I—who were probably too old for a young puppy in the first place—cried. And, along with our amazing trainer who had contacts throughout the dog community, we began to look for a family who could give this pup some things we couldn’t. It turned out that we were going to be a conduit for Riley’s best life. He would not be our puppy this holiday season, but we would give him a loving start for somebody else.
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We are living in a pressure cooker these days. With the constant news, the horrific fires, the losses that our fellows suffer on a daily basis, sensitive people can’t help but feel beat up. Then along come the holidays where it seems the advertisers never sleep. We all know the drumbeat of artificial cheer and the attractive people surrounded by mouth watering food and appealing décor and we beat back the pressure to make our lives be like that. Because it’s not as though we aren’t aware of how we are being manipulated.
But I don’t think it’s enough to merely know, if we are grieving something fresh, like I was grieving that puppy. We have to have tools in our toolkit for the barrage, because we are up against powerful button-pushers.
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It didn’t take long. Twelve families wanted Riley, but our trainer was tough. She asked the hard questions. She winnowed it down to two families, and then to one.
The idea was to confirm that this family was exactly right, to check out the house, to see how Riley reacted to the calm adult male Corgi already there who could mentor him. And before I knew it, it was right and Riley was going right then to his new home.
It was 5:00 in the afternoon. Who would give Riley his dinner? I was supposed to come downstairs and say goodbye, help pack the car with all of Riley’s toys and his crate and his lambskin snuggly. But I couldn’t go downstairs. I was underwater and couldn’t get my breath.
I peeked out of the curtains and saw Riley being carried to the car.
That night was horrible, although I don’t know what time of day would have been better. There was a visceral pain that I had to be close to that soft puppy belly, those silky ears, and the way he would thrust his stubby legs up so I could lift him onto my lap. I wanted to watch him eat his food, roll around on his back, and make his funny puppy sounds.
Patrick said later: “Did you hear? Riley barked three times. He was saying goodbye to you.” But the sobbing would not stop. Even though I knew he would be happier where he was going, I could not stop myself from that crying…that kind of crying that you do when you are breaking open. This new loss got mixed up with a lot of old losses and pretty soon it was bigger than it had any reasonable right to be…but I couldn’t find a way out.
Grief hurts for a lot of reasons. There is pain in the present moment. Then, there is hurt that is memory.
I had that physical memory of Riley. I remembered what a sleepy baby he was when he didn’t want to go outside to pee before bed, but we had to make the trip anyway, so he’d let me carry him…breathing that puppy breath against my ear outside in the night air. Then I’d pick him back up tenderly and put him in his bed.
Then there is the pain that is the hope you hold for the future.
I imagined that Riley would fit into our household and take the place of another beloved dog, Patrick’s border collie, Fly. I imagined that Riley would get Patrick out walking as much as he did before Fly died at fifteen years old. In my mind’s eye, I saw all the neighbors coming over bringing their dogs along for a visit. We would keep extra treats in the garage, small peanut butter bones for Cheyenne, and those big chicken-flavored bones that Hogan gobbles down nearly taking your hand along with it.
None of it was real. But it hurt just the same. I had already painted that future picture and framed it on the wall.
As for the holidays…well what is better than a baby? Short of a real baby, a puppy baby could almost do. There would be photos of him to send to everyone and laughter as he tried to figure out what tinsel and ribbon and decorations he could play with. Everybody who visited would want to play with him of course.
I’m finding that this is nothing less than a reimagining of my idea of myself. Yes, we’ll find another dog. Probably this next one will be a few years older. He or she could be a different breed…who knows? The point is what happens with all the kinds of grief there are: all the things we don’t know. And we don’t like that not knowing.
I had a therapist ask me one time: Can you live with a puzzle piece missing? I thought it was a great question. She really captured for me the essence of grief.
Now that this beloved person or animal is gone: who am I?
One small answer seems to arrive in Nature herself in this season. In these shorter days and longer nights—when the veil between worlds is thin—all of nature goes inward and down into her roots to gather strength to start all over again in the spring. It is not sorrowful. It is a simple fact of life. There is no new season without a dying of the old one.
And yet, at the holidays, we often do just the opposite. We often push ourselves for a level of activity that we cannot sustain without great personal cost to ourselves. While it may be just the right thing to volunteer, if our heart calls out to help others, or to take the time to reconnect with friends we don’t often see…sometimes we are just pushing ourselves because we think we have to. Meanwhile our roots are asking to go quiet and deep into the unknown.
It does take more courage. But we will emerge stronger eventually. We may re-imagine ourselves in wholly new ways.
In the meantime, the sadness is not an unwelcome guest for the earth. She has seen it all and she can hold you.
When you need to cry, for any kind of loss, even just for your Riley, the earth can hold you.