I prepared myself. I prepared to be strong and support my husband and kids. It’s not that I thought I wouldn’t hurt, it’s just that I thought they would hurt more.
Once we had kids, my husband became the main caregiver for our pup, it only made sense that his grief would be bigger. That’s what I told myself in my denial and defense, that I would be ok. That’s the thing about grief. It’s not rational and does not abide or conform. It’s abstract and circumstantial and incongruent. And although I am successful in helping others grieve every single day, saying the “right” things, providing safety and permission and space, I didn’t do that for myself. Not initially anyway and not intentionally. I defaulted to what I know, unconsciously at that, to support someone else’s grief, this time in an effort to protect myself from my own.
He was 12 weeks old when we found each other. He was the sweetest little soul at the bottom of a puppy mosh pit. While all of the other candidates were putting forth all their effort, enthusiastically exuding ‘pick me! pick me!’, our little fella was content letting the universe do his bidding. As soon as I laid eyes on him, I knew that he was it. As I swooped him up into my arms and cradled his bloated pink belly and oversized paws, he nested his snout and floppy ears between my neck and shoulder, and he was home. The story goes that he was discarded along with his two brothers in a dumpster behind a kill shelter in Brooklyn. Although thankfully rescued he was not unscathed. His initial ambivalent behavior was undoubtedly the result of some sort of maltreatment. He was skiddish and fearful and untrusting. It took a few weeks of intense loving, and as if a switch was flipped, he came to life. We named him Cherub.
Cherub was with us through all of our major life events in this last decade which have been abundant. Our wedding, buying a house and moving, and the births of our three children. I remember before we brought our first daughter home we brought her hospital blanket a day early for Cherub to investigate. He wrestled that blanket with vigor which is not what the books said should happen. But we weren’t alarmed. We knew our guy. And just as suspected he adored his little baby from their first meeting. He spent countless hours watching her swing in her cradle, and sat nose to nose as she tummy-timed on her mat. He was always there for everyone and for everything. He was a balance for first steps, a partner for ball rolling. Always an ally in finishing food, whether it was something you didn’t want to eat and needed to get rid of, or something really delicious that you accidentally dropped. He was ready and willing.
As each child came he welcomed them with eager wags and loving kisses. They were his babies. He checked on them at night doing his rounds from room to room. He ran in front of them outside as strangers walked by, clearly asserting his position as their guard. Anywhere we could adventure together we did. We camped and hiked, vacationed at the beach, and visited countless parks. Cherub was the nicest friend, loyal, understanding, and unconditionally present. It’s been said that dogs possess the best qualities of our human selves. Loving, happy, unconditional, understanding, without all of the complications and negative emotions. He was the quiet but ever present heartbeat of our home. Which is why, in his absence, even with three rambunctious littles, there is this uneasy massive emptiness that lingers and fills us with sadness.
Everything happened so quickly. He had lost some weight and we noticed he wasn’t his usual self. When the initial blood work came back normal we began to worry. In the process of figuring out what to check next, he began to vomit and drool uncontrollably. That lead to an X-ray which revealed a large mass by his heart. Cancer. We had a short couple of days to decide what we already knew, we had to let him go. And we did. Two days later we sat outside in the sunshine and with the help of our incredible veterinarian we said goodbye to our sweet pup in the most gentle way.
It was painfully difficult to let him go, but what compounded our own grief was the grief of our children, specifically our seven year old. It’s difficult to understand some things and not others. To understand that someone can no longer be with us but not grasp the complexity of lack of existence. We openly and age appropriately explained, in truth, about Cherub dying. That he won’t be here, we won’t see him, and that we’ll miss him terribly. He isn’t sleeping, he’s not floating around, and he won’t be coming back. She cried and we cried and we said our goodbyes out loud. The girls made him necklaces and ceremoniously tied them around his neck as a last gesture of love. It gave them something to do when we otherwise all felt helpless.
It’s so heavy. The weight of grief. The weight of sadness. The burden of carrying those emotions inside, alongside everything else, while trying to move forward. All the while tethered to everything that was, by memories, familiarities, and routine. It comes in spurts for us. We constantly reframe trying to refresh perspective and while we are successful in that, the heart knows its loss. And that’s the truth, to love and to lose that love, is a loss, undeniably. Regardless of who or what that love is for. And this I think becomes the most misunderstood and emotionally charged point of grief. So many of us have somehow evolved into this place of comparison and evaluation. Instead of honoring and permitting the grieving process to happen we pass judgment and create parameters of what is deemed acceptable. Ones own loss is measured only by their own spectrum and grief, not by what someone else has lost and how it compares in turn. People are quick to say, it was only an animal, or that person lived a long full life, but these are not evaluators for how one experiences grief. Statements, judgements, and expectations such as these only hinder and prolong the devastation of the loss.
We will never not miss him but time will work its magic and make the longing and sadness manageable. We are grateful to have had such a beautiful light in our lives for the time he could stay. And with all the love and gifts he gave us, his last one was teaching the girls that in life we have to say goodbye. And it can be ok, through the sadness and the pain, it can be ok. We are ok.