Grief Lessons From A Dog’s Life

Zoey Painting

A year ago this month I lost my heart dog, my soul mate with a fur coat, my four legged best friend. It’s been a challenging year of grief for me and with every passing day of her absence, I feel Zoey’s physical presence slipping away from me while memories of her continue to flow through my mind like water rolling down hill. In this past year the thought of Zoey is laced into most of my daily thoughts. There are reminders of her life all over my house. I see her sitting on the hill in the backyard and yet she’s not really there. I still step over her when I get out of the shower but she’s not there. At night when it’s time for sleep, I still listen for her snoring but I can’t hear it anymore. I can’t help but think of her when I spend time with my other dog, Abby. They were best friends. Abby misses her too. I miss them together.

Zoey was a beautiful animal. She had a long flowing fur coat and eyes that would melt the heart of even the iciest soul. She had a way about her that made you fall in love with her even if you’re not a dog person. There was a kindness in her that all humans could learn from. For over fourteen years, Zoey was a constant presence in my life and she was there for some pretty major life events…both good and bad. When I was happy, she shared in my joy and when I was sad, she comforted me. She knew me better than most people know me and I trusted her more than I trust a lot of people.

Throughout her life, Zoey had a way of teaching me things. She taught me patience when she was a puppy. Boy she was a biter…especially when she was teething. She taught me how to love unconditionally because there was never a time I got mad at her even when she did stupid things all dogs do. Zoey taught me about living in the moment. Even as she aged and mobility was more difficult, she still loved her walks and she stopped to sniff every mailbox. She never stopped playing. Even on her last day, I have pictures of her outside playing with Abby. She loved life to the very end and this is her legacy. This is perhaps the single greatest lesson she left for me. Cherish life because one day you won’t be here anymore. Love those around you as deeply and freely as you can and always be happy.

Zoey’s death and this past year without her have also taught me about the process of grieving. Grief allows us to say goodbye but more importantly, it allows us to honor those we have lost simply by remembering them. Grief is personal and while no two people do it exactly the same way, it is something we all must go through, if we are to experience love in our lives. If you don’t grieve, you haven’t loved.

I’ve also learned that grief is sneaky. You can feel it even when you don’t think you are! Something seemingly out of the blue reminds you of the loss and bam, suddenly you are filled with unexpected gut wrenching, soul crushing sorrow. I used to hate it when this would happen but now I have learned to accept it. I don’t like it but I know now that it simply means I was actually lucky. I was lucky to have had love so strong in my life that the absence of it cuts though me sometimes. I have learned that in order to have meaningful relationships, with humans or with dogs, you have to allow yourself be vulnerable enough to accept this kind of pain and if you don’t, it means you are holding a part of yourself back. You are missing out on the entirety of love’s purpose, of its gift and all that it has to offer.

Zoey’s physical absence is hard to cope with but the memory of her, the lessons she left me with, stay with me. When I act on these lessons, when I allow myself to love openly and without hesitation, when I seek the true beauty in every day joys otherwise taken for granted, when I put my faith in love and allow myself to experience all of its tender mercy and its inevitable heartache, then I am honoring Zoey’s memory because I become a living example of these lessons. This allows a part of her to stay alive in me. I can’t think there will ever be a day that I stop missing Zoey but, as time goes by, the pain of her loss slowly turns into gratitude for her life. I was lucky. I was blessed to have had the love of a creature as beautiful as my precious Zoey and for all the lessons her love taught me about how best to live my life. I will continue to honor Zoey’s memory and the life that she lived by trying to love and live well with joy and an open heart. It’s what she would want me to do.

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A Question Of Transcendency

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Here’s what I don’t know. I don’t know if we assign meaning to the random out of sorrow when we are longing for those we lost or, if there is something truly transcendent that happens when we need it to. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the only thing that does matter is that these otherworldly events bring us comfort when our hearts are heavy, that they make us feel connected to who we lost and what we miss.

I’m in the mist of grief right now. The loss of my Zoey, my precious 14 year old Old English Sheepdog, to sudden death has rocked my world. Some have said that I will feel her presence around me if I am open to it. I’ve suffered profound loss in my life before and I admit, this has not generally been my experience so, to hear this yet again makes me skeptical. That being said, I’ve had two moments since Zoey’s passing that have given me cause to be more open minded.

The other night, I was walking my other Old English Sheepdog Abby. An evening walk was something Zoey, Abby and I did every night together before bed. It was never a long walk, just enough for them to do their business and get a little fresh air before bed. This particular night, was the first time I took Abby alone. I knew it would cut through me and it did. I felt Zoey’s absence intensely, just seeing the bush she usually stopped to sniff every night brought tears to my eyes but, in my desire to keep things as normal as I can for Abby, I swallowed my sadness and we slogged along, a knot in my throat.

Then, I looked up. The sky was full of clouds blurring even the half moon but there was one star that shone brightly. It danced and twinkled in the mist of the dark night sky and as I watched it, a feeling came over me like no other. I felt enveloped by warmth and for the first time in the past two weeks since Zoey’s passing, I felt calm. I didn’t want to cry anymore, at least for that moment and, I knew that star was Zoey. I felt that it was her letting me know that she would always watch over me.

Today, I spent most of the day feeling very numb. I thought I was done weeping, that there was no more use for tears. Crying was feeling like a pointless undertaking, like there was no more cathartic value in it. I don’t want to be numb but when the tears don’t come, they don’t come and you can’t force them. I also don’t want to be crying all the time. I can’t really have what I want, which is Zoey back at my feet, by my side or playing with her sister. So, I spent most of the day going through the motions, functioning but not really present. I even attempted to go to the grocery store but on the way, I turned on the radio and the song, “I will always love you” by Whitney Houston came on. It’s a song I have not heard for years.

The song begins like this…”If I should stay, I would only be in your way. So I’ll go but I know I’ll think of you every step of the way. And I… will always love you…” I burst into tears. I immediately thought of Zoey. I thought of Zoey being old and deciding it was her time to go, that she felt she was in the way long enough, that she didn’t want to be a burden anymore, not that she was but she always thought of me first. I know she did. She only wanted my happiness. Her love was completely unconditional. I think she knew my greatest fear for her was that she’d lose her independence. So, she did the last loving thing she could do for me and died quickly, without ever losing her dignity.

The song goes on…”I hope life treats you kind. And I hope you have all you’ve dreamed of.  And I wish you joy and happiness. But above all this I wish you love.”  The tears continued to pour down my face. I had to pull the car over. I wasn’t numb anymore. I was a puddle but, again I felt this incredible feeling of Zoey’s spirit. I felt like she wanted to tell me one last time so that I would have no doubt, just how much she loved me because she really loved me. As I did her. This was not nearly the comforting moment I felt looking at that twinkling star in the sky the night before but, it was poignant and profound and somehow made me feel yet again, that perhaps there is something to being open to allowing the spirit of those we love to surround us in our sorrow, that maybe it’s a good thing to be open to the idea that our love transcends all earthly understanding. Love is in fact forever and, it will find its way to us after death…if we allow it to.

The Truth About Grief

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It is universal…

It is lonely…

It does not end…

It changes over time…

It makes other people uncomfortable…

It resurfaces with every new loss…

It is individual…

It cannot be avoided…

It has no timeframe…

It strikes without mercy…

It is as natural as breathing…

It is part of life…

It is inconvenient…

It both clouds and clarifies our thinking…

It should be felt without guilt…

It means we loved deeply…

The Irrevocable Bond Of A Guardian Angel

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I was chatting with a friend today, who is not only an animal lover, she also has a serious chronic health condition. She was asking me how I am doing with my grief over losing Zoey. For those who don’t know, Zoey was my fourteen year old Old English Sheepdog. She wasn’t sick when she died even though she was old. According the vet, she had a sudden and unexpected “neurological event.” I have been in shock and sorrow since it happened. If truth be told, I am reeling in grief. My friends have been very supportive since this happened and this particular friend said something that has stuck with me all day. She talked about how our pets, our fur children, as I like to call them, remain loyal to us despite our illness. People often fall away after illness hits us. Their lives move on because the illness didn’t happen them and we struggle to keep up. Our fur kids, they slow down with us. They are more than happy to be by our side, in sickness and in health. They watch over us. They protect us and this only strengthens our bond with them.

Anyone who has a fur kid, loves their animal, of this I am sure, but there is something to be said for the loyalty they do show those of us with chronic illness. There have been times I have been too weak, too fatigued to leave my house because of my sarcoidosis. At those times, I have always been able to count on my fur kids for unquestioning companionship. Zoey knew me in good health and in bad. I think once I got sick, she sensed something about me had changed because the depth of her connection to me, the way she would velcro herself to me became more magnified. She watched over me all the time.

After I got sick, Zoey became my dog. She made herself my dog, a self appointed guardian. She still loved her human daddy but she seemed to make a conscious decision to favor me. We certainly had the opportunity to spend more time together after I stopped working but, the change in her toward me was notable, much more protective. My presence in her life became more important to her too. Her drive to fortify me, to keep me safe, gave her a greater purpose. Her constant attention alleviated the loneliness that only those with chronic illness understand. This was when I think she and I become permanently woven into the core of each other.

Zoey was what another friend of mine called my “heart dog.” I think this describes our bond entirely. She had my heart wrapped up in hers as I did hers in mine. As she aged and needed me more, I was there for her. She had become my security blanket when I needed it because she understood more than any human seemed to know, the depth of my fear from getting sick. I was her protector when age began to steal her confidence. I made a promise to her when she turned twelve that when the day came she no longer had good quality of life, I would do the right thing for her. I had no idea that I would be blessed with two more full, happy and memorable years with her. Nor did I know I would be fortunate enough to have that moment made clear to me. Despite the pain that I feel in losing my security, my “heart dog”, I was able to keep my promise to her. She had fulfilled her purpose, as all dogs long to do. She made my world a better place and she made sure I was going to be okay.

I take a lot of medication for my sarcoidosis. I go to the doctor when I am supposed to. I eat a healthy diet. I exercise and I do all that I can to take care of my physical body since, getting this lousy disease. It was Zoey though, who helped to heal me. I am not in remission from my disease but I know it was Zoey who made me better than I would have been had she not been there during the darkest moments of my disease. She gave me purpose, priceless joy, unequivocal love and a reason to face even my most difficult days. I know now that no matter what happens to me, no matter what this disease does to me, I will always have her spirit to draw strength from. It won’t be the same as having her physically at my feet but she gave me what I needed to cope. She made me a stronger person because she taught me to look for happiness in simple everyday experiences. Zoey and I were side by side in all things. This is what I am most grateful for and also what I mourn the most in her passing. We have an irrevocable bond and I know she is with me always. She will forever be my guardian angel and I can face whatever challenges are ahead of me because I had a love like no other. I had Zoey.

Fourteen Years Of Love and Joy…Happy Birthday Zoey!

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We first met her on a snowy and cold winter’s day in December of 2002. I don’t remember the exact date but I do remember that she was an hour’s drive from us and that the entire ride was filled with the same anticipation as a kid on Christmas morning. It was all my husband could do to keep within the speed limit.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by nine little brown eyed, fuzzy haired black and white faces, all smelling of pee, heads tilted this way and that. One little white head stood up and nearly climbed out of their collective puppy pen to great us. I fell in love immediately but this was not Zoey and despite my heart being tugged, we were on a mission to meet Zoey.

A few weeks prior to our meet and greet with these new little lumps of fur, we had received a picture of all nine of them. My husband immediately spotted Zoey, even with her mousy not yet fully formed dog face and he fell in love. He cropped her face out of that picture, blew it up and sent it to me in an email at work with a caption that read…”This one looks like trouble.” He was doomed. He knew she was the one. So, on that wonderful day thirteen years ago, when we meet these little monsters for the first time, my husband had to find Zoey and hold her first.

No decisions had been made yet about who would get which pup. You see, serious Old English Sheepdog (OES) breeders get their pups temperament tested and evaluated for show and breeding purposes before selling them. Those of us who only want an OES for a pet are ranked pretty low in the pecking order for who gets a puppy and who doesn’t and we rarely get to choose as a result. We get the left over dogs. So, we weren’t yet sure if Zoey would be ours.

That day, the day we met Zoey and her siblings, the pups were still too young to leave their mother anyway. We stayed and visited the pups for a couple of hours. They were about five weeks old. They were a feisty bunch. They were nippers, quick to bite but also ready to play, their pen full of toys and balls. Their mother who’s name was Isabella, lay in the middle of it all, a look of pride and joy on her adoring face.

We completed our mission on that day. We met Zoey. The only problem was, now we were utterly and completely in love with her. She had to be ours but we were still a few weeks away from knowing if she would be. It was excruciating and time moved slower than a snail’s pace. So much so, that a few days later, my husband called the breeder and inquired quite seriously about Zoey. Did they know anything yet? When would they know it? Was there any chance she could be ours?

He received few answers of any comfort during that call and instead he learned that we had yet another hurdle. The breeder’s mother was also in love with Zoey. We were sure then that no matter what, she was ill-fated to be ours. We were crushed. But some time later, and I honestly don’t remember when because it was fourteen years ago, we heard back from the breeder. She decided that Zoey was going to be too much for her mother to handle. She also decided that despite the outcome of the temperament testing, Zoey would be ours. She realized that a loving home was more important for her dogs than anything else and she was entirely certain Zoey would receive that with us.

We were of course over the moon but Zoey had to be at least eight weeks old before leaving her mother and we still had a week and a half to go. To pass the time, we began readying the house. We got a crate. We got new beds, toys, a collar and a leash. We had already settled on her name. Her name would be Zoey which means “life”. A fitting name for an adorable puppy.

Time crept as our excitement grew.

Finally, the day arrived to bring our new baby home. We were beyond thrilled and our hearts swelled with delight at the thought of joy we knew she would bring. When we arrived to pick Zoey up, all nine pups were still there. She would be first to leave the only family she had ever known. There was something bittersweet about the experience. With Zoey in my arms, we walked outside toward the car and Zoey’s mother quietly followed us. We turned to say goodbye to her and to the breeder and Isabella lifted her nose to Zoey. I bent down because it appeared that she wanted to say goodbye. She sniffed Zoey and gently licked her face. She knew Zoey was going away. She knew she would never see her again. She let her daughter go with grace.

In the car, I placed Zoey in a box we had brought filled with blankets and a few toys. We had an hour’s journey home and we wanted her to be comfortable. About twenty minutes into the drive, I looked over at my husband, his face was covered in tears. He had been quietly sobbing for some time. He was full of joy but he was also sad. He was missing our departed boy Bailey. He knew Zoey would fill the hole that Bailey had left behind but he also knew that Bailey could never be replaced. No dog ever is. It was another bittersweet moment.

Today all these years later, it is Zoey’s fourteenth birthday. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed and fourteen is a big number for an Old English Sheepdog. So, today is an important day. It is a day worthy of great celebration. Zoey has lived a long and well loved life. She has offered us great joy and unyielding steadfast friendship. We have been blessed to call her ours.

Today is Zoey’s fourteenth year of life. We don’t know who much more time we have with her so we plan to honor this day and all that remain. Today is another bittersweet day.

Happy birthday to our beautiful, sweet, gentle and ever amazing dearest Zoey!

If You Can’t Be Healthy – At Least Be Happy

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I know. I know. The title of this blog sounds pretty cheesy, trite and perhaps even platitudinous. Stay with me and hopefully the message will be worth the cliche. The idea for this blog came while my husband and I were walking our dog, Abby. She has a pretty serious heart condition called sub-aortic stenosis. My regular readers already know this because I’ve written about her before. She is at risk of sudden death. This is scary of course, but it is also a daily reminder to live life to the fullest and boy does she. She often inspires me and that is point of this post.

We’ve been told that Abby is “exercise intolerant” because of her condition but someone forgot to tell her that! She’s full of life, forever sassy and a buzz with energy. We do limit her exercise because we were told to but sometimes, we can just tell that she needs to burn off a little insanity. The other day we took her for a walk and she loved it. She pranced and frolicked about like any 2 year old dog should but, about half way through the walk she just sat down. She didn’t fuss and she didn’t cry and she wasn’t panting excessively. She just wanted to take a break. She knows her body better than we do and what she can and cannot tolerate. So, we pulled her off the middle of the path and to a shady spot and just hung out with her until she was done resting.

When she got up again there was a spring in her step and she was as frisky as ever. Noticing this, my husband said…”Well, if she can’t be healthy, at least she is happy.” These words spoke to me personally given my own health situation and I looked at him and said…”Hey, thanks for the blog idea.”

While it may be hackneyed to say this, happiness really is a choice. I’ve written about the concept of happiness being a choice ad nauseam, I know. Forgive me, please. But, I do so because it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to fall victim to everyday difficulties thrown our way. It is natural to lose hope when nothing is coming easy. It is way too tempting to find fault in others when we are too afraid to face something within ourselves. For some reason, we as human beings seem hardwired to notice the bad before we appreciate the good. I’m sure there psychological theories galore about this but none of that really matters. All that really matters is to get up every day and make a decision about how you are going to view the world and I’m not talking about through rose colored glasses. I’m talking about being brave enough to stare what isn’t right about your life right in the face and then flipping it off.

We have to acknowledge our challenges in order to make peace with them. Accepting something doesn’t necessarily mean liking it. We have to accept what is out of our control in order to find serenity and we can only find happiness when we have found peace so, we have to be realistic. I think Abby is realistic about her heart condition. She rests when we push too hard and she does it matter of factly, like it is perfectly okay with her that this is her fate. She doesn’t grumble about it. She is unapologetic. She takes it in stride.

I’ve not always taken my sarcoidosis in stride. For me, finding happiness despite this disease, has come in stages. Even so, I still have to make a daily conscious decision to be happy. It’s easier now than it used to be but my constitution is such that happiness isn’t always my first reaction when things are difficult. Gratitude takes practice. So, when I see how my dog lives in the moment and just enjoys her life, however long it may or may not be, I am reminded that how I respond to my own illness is a choice. I can be sour and resentful that it has taken my self confidence, my physical strength and my career, to name a few, or I can embrace that this is the challenge I have been asked to endure. Even while some of us are good at making life look easy, none us escapes hardship. Abby makes it look easy. I want to be like Abby. I want to live like Abby. I want to be happy with my day to day life. I want to be happy in the moment and watching Abby reminds me that I can be, that the choice is mine.

My body may not move with ease and I might struggle for air but, these are things outside my control. What is in my control is really rather simple. It is my attitude. I control how I respond to my disease and I don’t have to feel guilty for the things in my life that have changed because of my sarcoidosis. When I am tired I should rest without regret, knowing that when I am refreshed I am much better able to cope. Living with a chronic illness isn’t my fault. I did not do this to myself and there should be no self reproach for the fact that my body and brain don’t always cooperate. To be happy, I need to accept these things as just part of my reality. I’m gong to learn a lesson from Abby and if I can’t be healthy, I am at least going to be happy!

Sweet Time

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My husband and I were walking our dogs this morning…yup that’s right another post about my dogs…but stick with me…I think something good will come of it. Anyway, my husband who is a ball of nervous energy himself, was walking our younger dog and I was walking our 13 1/2 year old. They were ahead of us most of the walk and every once and awhile they would slow down and wait for us to catch up but inevitably we’d slow down again or they’d speed up and we’d be separated again.

Part of the reason the dog I was walking was slower is age related sure, but as I watched her, I realized something. She just likes taking her sweet time. You know the expression that we should “stop and smell the roses?” Well, my old dog was stopping to sniff the mailboxes, which I think is fairly equivalent for a dog, right? It was as if I was getting a lesson in how to appreciate the here and now from a wise old Jedi Master.

She really was enjoying her walk. As I watched her, I noticed that she didn’t take one step for granted. She savored every single one of them. She’d even stop and look around her once and awhile and occasionally put her face toward the sun and her nose in the air sniffing out all those disgustingly wonderful dog smells. She’d pick up dead dry worms and chow down. What I noticed most of all is that she was happy. I could tell she felt a certain contentment that we so often miss in the busy haste of our social media lives.

This reminded me that there is something to the whole idea of dialing it down a bit, to tuning in and paying attention to the only thing in front of us. Something magical happens when we take our sweet time and we relish in simple pleasures, we begin to appreciate life on a deeper level because we are no longer chasing it…instead we are living it. Life is meant to be cherished. It is meant to be relished and you can’t do this when you’re on the move.

My old dog reminded me today that taking your sweet time isn’t best way to live. It’s the only way to live because, it is the only way that you can truly take notice in the vivid detail of the world around you.