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Fair warning: this is a piece about dog grief. But it’s not just a piece about a dog grief, because any piece about dogs or grief is never just about either of those things.
I wrote last week that we lost Peggy after complications from surgery, just weeks before her eighth birthday. She was a tripod who loved street trash (especially the stale bread the Italian grandmas threw out for the birds in Carroll Gardens) and tearing toys to shreds in under five minutes and ignoring her brother. She was the type of dog that had a distinct and vital personality, the sort that emanated off of photos like the one up there.
She was also the first dog I adopted as an adult, and her presence was grafted onto my own. If you’ve had a pet for any significant amount of time — and also had no other caregiving responsibilities — you know what I’m talking about. Our lives were not just our dog, but our lives were always, in some way, with our dog. She was the rhythm, the center, the coming home.
When I first posted about her death, Pooja Lakshmin sent me something I’ve held close: “I wanted to share something that my psychoanalyst told me when I was losing a (beloved) pet and that I often share with my patients,” she wrote. “The love between a human and their pet is completely uncomplicated. There are no interpersonal dynamics to worry about. It’s one of the few relationships in life that you can express your love freely and without self-consciousness. And that’s why it hurts so much when they’re gone.”
It’s that, and it’s her presence in every corner of my life. It’s that, and it’s the sense memory of my hands in the fur on her belly, snarled with specks of mud because tripods just get more up in there no matter the weather. It’s that, and that’s everything.
We had to make the decision to let her go in the middle of the night, and when we hung up the phone, we sat on the side of the bed, talking to her. The next day, we woke up after so little sleep, did that thing where you cry in disbelief as you reacquaint yourself with your new reality, and eventually started walking. Steve, our other dog, needed to be somewhere that wasn’t in the bedroom with our intermittent heaving sobs. We started with a mile, and just kept going, making a circuit of the seven-mile island loop with a steady pace that felt scored to a funeral dirge. Every mile or so, a fresh memory would knock the wind out of me.
What a privilege, to love someone that much.
I think most people understand this feeling when it comes to close family, and a lot of people understand it when it comes to animals. But we have such a limited understanding of who and what is worth grieving, who and what deserves time. I oscillate between understanding that not everyone has the same relationships with animals and realizing that their flippancy is the same failure of empathy that bewildered me when my ex-boyfriend died in the Iraq War. You don’t have to be related or legally bound to someone to have their death hollow you in a way that takes weeks, months, years to fill.
There’s a refrain Americans often bandy about as a sort of explanation for the emotional constipation that structures the national character. We’re so bad at grieving, people say, when the “we” in question is really white Christians or Christian-adjacent, steeped in the Protestant Work Ethic that demands the sublimation of grief to productivity. When growth is always God, there is no space to breathe, to break in half, to take the time that’s actually necessary to find some semblance of self amidst the wreckage.
It’s not normal, or ironic, or even slightly funny that we’re this bad at making space to process loss and suffering. It’s fucked up, and I’m increasingly convinced it’s at the heart of our national regression. Around Covid, of course, but also around mass gun violence, and addiction, and eldercare. We have so little language to describe the onset of grief in our lives, and so little expectation of accommodation for it. We don’t know how to be still in our sadness. And if you won’t allow yourself that grace, it’s so difficult to authentically extend it to others.
Whether you realize it or not: you have allowed me that space. I knew you wouldn’t unsubscribe en masse, which meant you effectively gave me bereavement leave. I allowed my sadness to expand and envelop my days. I went on long walks with Steve and felt Peggy’s presence over and over and over and watched it turn to joy, to utter gratitude.
I’m not nearly done with this grief but I also know that its foundation has been laid. What a gift you have given me — and what renewed conviction I have that this right to grieve should be universal.
So today, I want to know: when have you not had the time you needed to grieve? How did that feel then, and how did it effect you in the months and years to come? And when have you been allowed that time, what did it feel like, and did it change the grace you extend to others?
And if you sent me a note, an email, flowers, food — I have felt so cared for and loved this week. I can’t thank you enough.
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My mom died the night of her 48th birthday in 1999. I was in college—all the way across the country. Her death was expected; it was still traumatic.
Everyone did their best for the first week or two after she died. And those weeks were awful and painful. But it was the following weeks/months that were my true grief abyss. Everyone else’s lives returned to normal while every breath for me was still gut-wrenchingly new and difficult. I had to return first to classes and then to summer work as though everything was okay, when everything in me screamed repeatedly throughout the day that it was not.
Some relationships broke during that period. I simply could not pretend to live in their “normal” world well enough to keep them going. Some weakened but didn’t break—and eventually healed, at least to some degree.
And even all these years later (24! How?), days like today (Mother’s Day) can still feel horrible and isolating.
I think we generally are not good at sitting in grief with people for the length of time that grief requires. We do the requisite acts between the death and funeral, but then we move on, eager to move beyond the stark reminder that we are all nothing but a “quintessence of dust.”
Having recognized this, I now purposefully practice belated sympathy cards; I send them 2-4 weeks after the death/funeral. I check in then to remind them that they are not, in fact, alone, as they navigate a world that no longer makes sense, even if most everyone around them doesn’t recognize the seismic shifts that have occurred.
I used to think that bringing up a somewhat recent wound could be unnecessarily painful, but I now recognize that not bringing it up, not acknowledging it, not identifying the stark sadness is so much more painful for the person trying to heal from it.
When I was in college my step-dad was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer sometime during fall semester finals my junior year. He was given a few weeks to live. I somehow had the foresight to go around and get all of the papers signed in order to withdraw from the spring semester. I knew my relationship with my grades and the pressure I put on myself to do well, and (having lost a grandmother and uncle in the 2 years prior) I knew my grief was going to be greater than I'd ever felt before. It was the kindest thing I've ever done for myself. After he was gone, I still had to work most of the semester, but without the papers and deadlines and exams, my evenings and weekends were my own and I really took the time I needed to heal. I don't think I've ever given myself that kind of space before or since.