I watch the flowers and the grass every spring, comparing the timing to previous years. I watch the fields of grass dreaming about a barn full of fresh cut hay. I watch the flowers thinking of a sunny spring day 2 years ago in which I picked lilac and bridal wreath spirea.
Connor died on a Monday evening. That year the lilac and spirea were bursting with blooms and I picked them and laid them around my sweet dog’s neck after he died. They have not come into bloom yet this year.
I had been through death before, 4-h lambs, the three years I volunteered in an emergency department, the deaths of all my grandparents. Each of those experiences held their own pain and reflection, but none of that compared to what we went through with Connor. There is no dignity in death. It is a battle until the end. No living thing wishes to die. I will carry the raw experience of that day for the rest of my life. Part of Connor’s memory is obscured by the helplessness I felt in those final hours of his life. Unable to stop what was happening or even really comfort him.
I’ve taken as many lessons as I can from his death: greater empathy, a better ability to offer condolences in grief, appreciating the sunny times. Life can be hard and weird and traumatic. It can also be glorious, surprising, exhilarating and bursting with joy that couldn’t possibly fill you any fuller. The trick is to hopefully not reside for too long in the weird, hard, traumatic side.
In retrospect I know I went through some depression after his death. And I struggled with feeling embarrassed that I could mourn a dog so much. Time and distance has brought one thing more into focus: That it doesn’t really matter what other people think. My experience, your experience, is uniquely our own. And how we move through it, is an intimate thing. I invited people to witness what I was feeling by writing about it, but I don’t need to concern myself with their opinions. It’s a lesson I have to continually work on. I have to shuck the worry for judgement, because judgement happens no matter what I do anyway.
The grief of others still makes me a little uneasy, unsure what to do, how to offer comfort. But I can say without a doubt that my loss has made me acutely more aware of how important it is to honor grief. Offering condolences isn’t for the offerer. It does not matter if we are comfortable or awkward or if someone else’s grief brings up sad feelings of loss for ourselves. The important thing is that condolences are offered and grief honored.
It’s been over three months since our German Shepherd Dog died in our home due to a brain tumor while we helplessly watched and waited for the vet. Three weeks from now will mark the one year anniversary since he had his very first seizure. He made it only 7 short months after that first seizure. But this is not a post about his death, it’s a post about what I’ve allowed his death to teach me in life.
The first week after Connor died I reached out to a local woman, Sara Baker of the Pink Pinecone Studio, who made a lot of seasonal décor and who I knew had a formal fine arts education. I asked her if she could make a portrait of Connor, with lots of color and not necessarily a portrait that looked exactly like him, but something that captured his essence. She agreed.
Three days after Connor’s death an out-of-town friend, who had been scheduled to visit for several months, arrived. This friend had lost her mother only a few months earlier. The first couple hours of our visit was spent sitting in my dim living room rehashing my recent trauma and discussing her loss as well. It was sad. It was cathartic. It deepened a bond between the two of us. Her presence delivered a gift of lightness and energy to one of the saddest times in my life. When she left 5 days later, she said that she felt that the timing was meant to be, that she was meant to be in our lives that week. I cannot believe anything else. She absolutely was meant to be there for us. We were blessed to have her.
Time passed. The artist I contacted about painting Connor started sending photos of the progress she had made in sketching out and then painting our dear pup. Every photo was a gift and sent me into a fit of tears. Loss is hard. I felt the need to say to people, “I know he was just a dog but…” in order to protect myself in case they thought my level of sadness was unusual or weird or that I should just “be over it.” In retrospect, I don’t have to justify my grief at all. No one does. Grief is grief. If I say I’m sad, and I need time to process and work through my pain, that’s my right. If I’m going to work, if I’m paying my bills and not crawling into a bottle or strangers’ beds or going through cases of Doritos, there’s no need for concern, just empathy.
I think life is one long lesson, one after the other, you either get smarter on the lessons you’re learning, or you just bang your head against the same damn lesson your whole life through. One lesson I have struggled with is how to express empathy. It’s not that I haven’t had concern for people, it’s that I struggled to really put myself in someone else’s shoes in terms of coping with a sick loved one, grief, or really any type of trauma. The loss of Connor finally split my heart open wide enough for the lesson to take hold. His death gave me empathy. I can now empathize with the feeling of being a helpless bystander as a loved one endures an illness that has more questions than answers and no clear path to wellness. Or perhaps no path at all. The illnesses may vary, the scenarios each unique, but the helplessness and the worry and the tears are all universal. And I can say with so much more conviction, how sorry I am, and offer hugs and inappropriate jokes and anything to give a little emotional release. It does not matter that Connor was “just a dog.” We had a deep and unusual connection, and I took his death very hard.
The piece of artwork resembling my sweet dog continued to take shape in someone else’s home as I waited (mostly) patiently. I should add that Sara, the artist, is not someone I knew personally but to whom I would send unsolicited blogging advice. Yes, you read that correctly. She started a blog after I did, and I would send her articles that I thought were helpful and informative. After all, I had done the reading of a ton of crappy and good articles, why not share the good ones with someone? I assured my friends (who thought I was crazy) that I wasn’t critiquing her actual blogging, just passing on information I thought was helpful. (they still thought I was crazy). I felt a kinship with her because she is local to the area and we both have creative talents.
I received the final photo of the painting last week, I gave my okay and she applied the final seal and we arranged for me to pick up the painting over the weekend. I pulled up to Sara’s house and as I was walking up the drive, she stepped out the front door with this enormous canvas with my dog’s energy looking out at me. I burst into tears. Me, the one who doesn’t like crying in public, burst into tears in front of a stranger. And then we hugged. I not only cried in front of a stranger, I then HUGGED her. Grief makes you do weird things. But it also opens your heart to people you might otherwise not have been open to.
It was like Sara was meant to make this painting for me, to help me heal, that she would gently soothe my sadness with the loving strokes that she put down on canvas. We stood and chatted for a bit about her desires for her own business, that doing fine art, painting, is where her true passion lies and that it is a path she hopes to move further down. I thought that was amazing, that here she was giving me this gift of my dog, but this was also meaningful to her as it was a step toward something she wanted to develop for herself. And in the same way my friend was meant to arrive the week that Connor died, I believe that Sara was meant to put this piece together for us. She was so sweet to work with, and the piece of art she created for us is not only amazing for its artistic quality and her talent, but because she managed to capture our dog’s spirit in those paints. It is something mystical that she was able to translate with her painting.
If you’d like to check out her work, her website is here and I highly suggest you follow her Facebook here, that is where you can see her artistic journey unfolding.
Thank you, Sara, for this wonderful gift.
If you would like to follow me on Facebook, you can find me here. I’d love to have you as part of my growing community of amazing people.