May 13, 2015

How My Dogs Led the Way Through Grief

dogs cheryl strayed wild quote

There has been a great deal of loss in my life in the past five years, seeming to culminate after the big one - my mother's death in 2010 - with the deaths of a childhood friend, both of my old dogs and the letting go of my illustrious dream of a young dressage horse to bring up in 2013. I tend to have a delayed emotional reaction to things, which helps to explain why the end of 2013 into early 2014 were an especially dark time for me, and at which point my long-term relationship also disintegrated. Chance, fate, the universe - what have you - gave me two gifts around that same time. The first was Cheryl Strayed's book Wild, which I'd had on my shelf for years but was drawn to read as my fourth Mother's Day as a motherless daughter approached. While I was in no position to abandon my life in Denver and seek out identity and solitude in an existential wilderness expedition like the author, what the book gave me was permission to still not be okay, as Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail four years after losing her mother to lung cancer. Our lives were different, but our mothers were radiant forces whose absence could not be quantified and which defined our unwillingly transformed selves. I clung to her words with such desperate gratitude, and the book and subsequent film remain deeply important to me.

The second gift was a red and white gremlin-eared dog with an endearing smile from a tropical island who had suffered hardship and loss of her own. I truly did intend to love her and let her go in order to continue fostering more dogs, but Boca's nurturing presence was an incredible comfort to me and from the beginning she seemed to know she was already home. In the way she intuited when I was having an especially difficult or lonely night and fit herself against me and pressed her chin to my heart, she offered a kind of mothering I had been missing. She was a perfect counterpoint to Ruby's intensity and whether hiking with both dogs or taking Boca on a solo walk, her cheerful untroubled personality was a balm to my anxieties. Boca was the sugar to Ruby's spice and the honey to my tea - she completed us in a way that made me feel sorry for who we were without her. The timing of her arrival into Colorado - into my life - was almost uncanny in its significance. I had no idea how much I would need her, how much I had been needing her.

There isn't a day that goes by that I don't miss my mother in ways vast and mundane. I wish she could have met Ruby and Boca and that we could have seen Wild together. It's incomprehensible sometimes that I still have to live the rest of my life without her. Surviving her loss prepared me in a way for the ones that inevitably follow and the ones that blindside in the midst of spring, but each one references the last until sometimes it can feel too much to bear. What keeps me asking, reaching, loving is the promise of two delighted faces every time I come home, two sweet warm bodies curled next to me every time I go to sleep. Every day, we walk and play and share and rescue each other. They've been witness to the discovery of strength I didn't know I had, wells of devotion to other living creatures I'd only ever skimmed the surface of before. The weight of loss is something I'll always carry, but with the journey flanked by two remarkable dogs who have taught me so much about love, acceptance, resilience and joy as well as forming my own small family that my mother would have been proud of, the weight is a little bit lighter.

25 comments:

  1. I feel such a strong connection to Laika and I wonder if it might be for some of the same reasons. I lost my mother at a very young age and have since found myself always surrounded by at least one dog that takes on the role as a true companion - someone that's completely loyal, loving, and there for you. After you lose someone so close it can be hard to get back to a state where you feel connected with others and I know my dogs throughout the years have kept me motivated to get out there to meet new people and try new things. I have not read Wild but I'm putting it on my list; sounds like it might have a lot of the same sentiment Tracks has which I found to be quite amazing.

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    1. I think when we are struggling it is a comfort to have our animals close - they don't require us to say anything and the love is so easy to feel. I just watched the movie version of 'Tracks' recently and want to read the book as well.

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  2. Incredible blog. Good thing I'm working at home as I'm now all teary. The loss of my mother 6 years ago has left the same huge gap in my life and although I have several dogs there is one that I'm certain has helped me through and continues to each day. My Saluki came to me just a month or two after the loss of my mother. There is something about her very balanced energy and her way of knowing just when I need her close. It is why she is a therapy dog now and we visit the library helping children with reading which is a tribute to my mother who so loved reading and was a huge patron of the library system. Darn it...most be something in the air but I'm still all teary.....

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Linda, and I loved discussing therapy dogs with you on Saturday! Each dog seems to have its own special talents.

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  3. I'm so sorry for your losses of the last few years.

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  4. Beautiful job of describing this connection that is bigger than loss. My dogs have walked me though so much in this life, I owe a huge debt. Thanks, you and your dogs are wonderful. Treats for everyone.

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    1. You were so right that we are always experiencing losses and gains in tandem.

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  5. What a moving, beautifully written post. Dogs are love in a fur coat, and I don't know where we'd be without them. *hugs*

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  6. It has always amazed me how all of the dogs I've ever had always seemed to know when I needed them most in times of grief and they always "said" all the right things.

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  7. What a beautiful blog post, you have me in tears. Its amazing what the power of a animal can do, they are not there to replace but inspire and uplift. They are truly teachers in life.

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  8. Very nice post, it resonated all the way through. "...she seemed to know she was already home" really got me in the heart. My sympathetic dog Zoe came in to nudge me after I read that. I also feel sorry for who we (Zack-dog and I) were before Zoe came along :->

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    1. Thank you for stopping by Leah - I love the way dogs fit into our lives in different ways.

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  9. ~Hugs~ I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm glad you have Ruby and Boca, though and I have some very similar feelings towards Phoenix even though she's more like Ruby with her complications. <3 This is a very beautiful and touching blog post!

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    1. Ruby was just what I needed in her own way, as well!

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  10. I'm so sorry for your losses. :( What a beautiful post!

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  11. This is beautiful. Gave me goosebumps. Sometimes we unknowingly find just what we need.

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  12. So beautifully written Lara. In December, I experienced my first real loss as an adult when my Grandpa passed unexpectedly. It has had a significant impact on me and I'm tearing up writing this. Having Luna during that time and now has absolutely made a difference. I am so glad you, Ruby, and Boca found each other.
    -Jessica Shipman from Beagles & Bargains

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    1. Thank you, Jessica, and I'm sorry for the loss of your grandfather. Our animals can be a remarkable comfort and I'm glad that you have Luna, too.

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  13. I'm sorry these past few years have been very difficult for you. Your post hits home with so many people that find comfort, love and joy with their canine best friends. It reminds us to be thankful for the blessings we have even when we're grieving or feeling loss. Beautiful post. :)

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  14. This was just lovely. You are so strong and brave. Thank you for sharing these words with us. Ruby and Boca are just as lucky to have you as you are to have them.

    Though I saw the movie, I haven't (yet?) read Wild. But I've very much enjoyed other work by Cheryl Strayed, and I have her book "tiny beautiful things" (which is indeed a tiny beautiful thing).

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. Among my mother's many gifts were bravery and strength, as well as a desire to be happy in life.

      I have Tiny Beautiful Things on my book wishlist, and also love listening to the Dear Sugar podcast. She has a way of sharing wisdom with such compassion.

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