Allowing myself to grieve for Perry, who died a few months ago, allowed me to begin healing from the loss. Acceptance and a certain amount of ritualized farewell made it possible for me to gradually let go and let the grief ebb and flow as it naturally does. This allowing offered a much different experience than that of losing beautiful Stella two years before.
I couldn’t think of Stella without feeling like my chest was going to cave in. Saying her name brought tears, so I avoided saying it. I could tell a funny story about Perry and feel honored to have known the challenging little dude. Avoiding memories of Stella was not honoring the vivacious, resilient sprite I adored. It was clear that I could not begin healing and celebrating the life that was because I would not begin. I was holding onto an illusion that there was something to hold onto. Ah, Grief, how I hate to have this dance with you.
When Stella died, I had no one who could let me be crushed and vulnerable beyond nouns and verbs and simply be with me in that moment. When Perry died, the next day my beloved listened for as long as I needed without trying to fix it. Grief can’t be fixed. It stings and tears and turns you inside out, and it demands to be felt. It will hang around as long it takes for you to surrender. It’s easier to surrender with someone you trust to hold your hand.
When Stella died, I drove her to the professionals and handed over her body to be cremated. Perry died at home and I felt strongly that his body should be reclaimed by the earth he knew and enjoyed. The careful planning was my responsibility and I took it seriously and reverently, for Perry and for the land. The hours spent digging clay, cutting around tree roots, and chipping out and separating the rocks while thinking about Perry and periodically stopping to cry, gave motion to my emotions. The physical work gave my body a release. The ritual of burial, the letting go of his body with my own hands, was part of moving through the grief. Picking up Stella’s ashes in an aluminum box from a stranger and holding onto them for two years was a full stop. Though I had some of her ashes made into a glass pendant, I don’t feel her there, as she is not those ashes.
The morning after burying Perry, I took Stella’s ashes to the dew-blanketed backyard. Watching her long body bounce up the hill, ears flying, short legs high-stepping through the grass, had sparked a smile or laugh in me more times than I could count. I never did capture a video of Stella’s bounce. But I know the path. On that still morning, I sprinkled the symbolic ashes along Stella’s path up the hill. They clung to the dew and I could see the trail of ashes the rest of the day and into the next morning.
I wanted the letting go of the ashes to be a final catharsis. An end to grief, followed only by peace. But grief isn’t linear. It may have amorphous stages that make us feel more in control to define and time, but it won’t conform to our schedule. It will come and go and shift and flow as it needs to, if we allow it. Allowing it to move allows its grip to loosen and give an opening to peace. Time is not what heals. I can feel that allowing what is just to be what is offers an opening to healing.
In time, life seeps back in and fills the Stella-shaped spaces. The watchful nights of soothing her through seizures were gradually replaced with sleep. The days of holding her and caring for her were eventually filled with work. And I continued to fight what was. I could have given myself the space to remember inhaling the sweet, warm scent of her velvet head and let my heart be pried open and shattered. But I closed it against the pain instead, feeling that pain, but turning away before the moment pain invites the first subtle signs of transformation.
Grief is such an individual, internal experience that allowing is the only thing another person can give us when we’re moving through it. They can’t take it from us or even do it with us. But they can allow us our own expression, our own timetable, our own experience of love and loss of what we love. Shortly after Stella died, I thought a spiritual workshop on grief was the balm I needed for the pain of her loss and other pivotal losses. Instead, I reacted to the teacher’s time limits, imposed definitions, and egoistic expectations by refusing to participate and closing down further. But it began the lesson that Perry would expand – only I know the depth of my love and only I can know the depth of my grief. It is a blessing to have support, but grief’s artistry in transforming the human heart happens on the inside.
Loss is inevitable. We lose our dogs, sometimes long before our estimation of the time we will have with them. We lose people we love more than words can describe. We lose friendships, financial security, dreams, beliefs, abilities, identities, and on and on. We can allow these losses to soften and paradoxically strengthen our hearts or we can fight what is and weld heavy layers of armor around our hearts. For myself, I want to fully love those close to me, without armor. Knowing the loss will shatter me. Knowing no platitudes can prop me up when it happens and no denial can make the pain go away. Knowing also that I will be changed and I will eventually come in peace to honor and celebrate the one I love so deeply.