“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” — Anatole France
I knew I was likely to outlive Mina. Mina, my soul, my support, the unconditional love in my life, and yes, my dog. I knew she would die some day and that scared the shit out of me.
I know loss. I know grief to be painful, long, and unpredictable – just when you think you’re through the other side, round it circles around again to punch you in the heart. The older she got, the more anxious I got. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, I thought. I just get too attached.
So I called my friend Tracy Davis.
Tracy is a death doula. A doula helps families with the birthing process. A death doula helps with… well, you know. She also shares her life with her partner Will and their dog Lanny, so I knew she wouldn’t tell me to get a grip, that Mina was “just a dog”.
I told her I wasn’t sure that was true.
“People are afraid of attachment because it leads to vulnerability. Facing the death of a loved-one, you are going to be at your most vulnerable. And vulnerability is terrifying, because there is no way through that grief – I can’t eat enough cookie dough, I can’t drink enough wine… There is no way except to feel it and there is nothing comfortable about that.”
That was exactly my point, I told her. I wasn’t sure I could do it. I mean, how do you prepare for that kind of grief?
Her voice got really soft.
“How you prepare for grief is, you practice vulnerability.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant. She looked at her hands for a moment, took a deep breath and continued.
“When Lanny was diagnosed with kidney failure, I wrote a letter and read it to her. Will thought I had lost my mind, I think” she chuckled, “but I swear Lanny listened very intently. I was able to say to her ‘you have changed my life’. It was a difficult letter to write but it started the path to healing for me by consciously giving meaning to the relationship.”
“I’m really focused on each day with her now and being very intentional: I’m putting her sweater on her more, I spend quality time with her. I am really being present and being the best human I can be to her.”
Being the best human I can be.
That got me thinking. Actually, it got me feeling.
That evening I took Mina to her favourite place in the world (the lake) and let her swim until the moon rose over the trees. Watching her smile, I promised myself I would give her as many moments of joy as I could. I drank her in and loved her up.
I also decided to face The Day. I called our vet and they invited me to visit the “comfort room”. It’s a calming space with a couch, an area rug and a little electric fireplace. They told me what to expect. I made a plan to sit on the floor and hold her. I chose her blanket and a song I would whisper to her.
Tracy was right. I couldn’t love her more, but maybe I could love her better. She left us one sunny Spring day. My heart broke into a million pieces. Tracy brought homemade soup and we planted a cherry blossom tree that would bloom every Spring. I cried every morning and every night for weeks.
But I also felt a peace over it all like the moon that rose over her lake every evening. I had given her all the love I had in my heart and soul. She showed me unconditional love and for her, I was brave and practiced vulnerability.
I still practice vulnerability. I practice living and loving wholeheartedly. Ultimately, Mina – a dog – made me a better human.
And if this pain is the price I must pay for that love, I gladly pay it.
- Aim to minimize regret – don’t put off spending quality time with your companions to tomorrow.
- Be intentional with the time you do spend.
- As painful as it might be, you might find it healing to take a day to make the hard decisions now. Talk to your vet, to people you trust. You don’t want to be making those decisions while in heartbreak.
- You don’t have to wait for a painful diagnosis to take the time to get close to your companion and express to them what they mean to you. It might feel silly at first, but believe me, they won’t judge you as harshly as you’re judging yourself.
- According to an article that reviewed multiple studies and was published in the journal Society & Animals in 2002, the death of a companion animal can be as devastating as the loss of a human significant other. So if you’ve already experienced loss, be gentle with yourself. And stay close to people who understand.
Photo credit: Ran