Lessons in Love and Loss
“To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness.” ~ Erich Fromm
The Dali Lama points out that there are two basic ways to respond to suffering- “one is to ignore it and the other is to look right into it and penetrate it.”
Last month I looked right into the face of loss again when my beautiful black lab Charlie died. For almost fourteen years she was my daily companion, my best friend, and my hero, having saved my life on two separate occasions.
I watched her decline all summer. It started with unexpected falls, walking into walls, stumbling on flat surfaces, and then daily mini-seizures. I was keenly aware our days together were numbered.
Then one day on a walk with my daughter and I Charlie had a seizure that left her temporarily immobilized. As she lay motionless and struggling to breathe at the bottom of embankment, I came face to face with her dying. Panic surfaced. I didn’t know what to do. Do you call 911 when your 80-pound dog collapses on the road? The thought passed quickly as I made a sudden decision to carry Charlie home. It’s amazing what you can do with adrenalin surging through your body and you are alone with a child looking at you to make everything right in her world.
Back home I laid Charlie down on her mat and looked for clues on what was going when suddenly I knew. She was dying. There was a look in her eyes I hadn’t seen before. I sobbed huge tears of sorrow into her beautiful silky fur scared and fearful of her impending demise. At that same moment, I decided not to give into my fears. Instead of being fearful of having to put Charlie down and live a life without her, I made a conscious decision to soak in her love and spend every moment we had left by her side.
A few days after her fall down the embankment Charlie rallied so I traveled back with her to our island home. There on the beach where she grew up, she swam, chased sticks and galloped in the sand. I went to our vet appointment that afternoon hoping I would get the ok to take her home and live happily ever after. But sadly that didn’t happen.
Charlie entered the vet with her tail wagging but shortly after our arrival she experienced a major neurological seizure that left her unable to walk. She didn’t recover. It was time to say goodbye.
As the vet injected the sleeping medication I witnessed Charlie’s spirit move through her as she transitioned from the beautiful black lab I had loved all those years, to a hollow and cold body, empty of her strong and vibrant life force. And while at that moment I felt intense sadness and loss I also felt soaked in an incredible love as our bond transcended her physical form.
Although my heart still aches Charlie isn’t in our lives anymore, the pain of her death wasn’t unbearable and I didn’t break wide open this time. Instead, my shift from fear into love moved me from my grief to feeling honoured and so overwhelmingly blessed to have had this amazing canine partner in my life.
I learned many lessons from Charlie in our time together. The most important one she taught me was that when we change our relationship to our unpleasant experiences when we resist them less, we diminish the added layers of suffering that come from our own reaction. And that was an amazing lesson for a dog to teach.
I see you when I run the trails through the woods,
you slightly ahead of me but always looking back to make sure I am there.
I see you when I walk in the front door,
your soulful eyes holding my gaze as your tail bangs out greetings on the hardwood floor.
I see you in my rearview mirror as I drive,
you staring at me curious to where our next adventure will be.
I see you lying next to me on your mat,
I reach out to pet you like I have the thousands of mornings before but you aren’t there.
I feel you still by my side and I know you are there
you never left me as our hearts are forever entwined
yours with mine.
Wishing you strength in seasons of loss and grief,