Friday, March 31, 2006

On The Death of A Dog (Safe To Skip, Not Political)

Hank's death dumped me into the world of grief. I didn't expect the strength of this dumping because there was so much grief in coping with her illness and in anticipating her leaving. I hoped that all those earlier bouts of sorrow would work as down payments and that I'd get off gently this time.

But grief doesn't work like that. You wake up in the morning and for a fraction of a second you are your usual self. Then you remember, and it's like being stripped of all skin, like having all your nerve endings sharpened to a point where air itself hurts.

It is this defenselessness of grief that seems to be its main message: You are stripped bare and everything is a message about the one you loved, a message of absence. There is no comfort in everyday routines; it is those routines themselves that now hurt like hell. You walk through your ordinary existence and you stumble on every little thing: that corner where she used to hide her tennis balls, that time of the day when the wet nose was gently pressed against your thigh to remind you of the park that needed a dog or two, the half-chewed rawhide bone under the armchair.

So you walk through your everyday existence and you turn clumsy, fragile, slow. There should be a big sign hanging around your neck: "Handle carefully!" You stumble and you trip and all the time everything touches you without the usual defenses.

This is probably why we have funerals and wakes and shivas. To keep the grief contained within traditions and routines, to give those who are grieving the crutches to get through the early days, the days when all the frayed ends must be reconnected, all the holes must be filled.

We don't have these routines for the deaths of animals. In fact, not all humans think that one might grieve for a pet, or at least that one might grieve for a pet in the same way one grieves for a person, or a way at least similar in the way grief itself works. My grieving seems to work about the same for all the creatures, whether human or not, that I have loved and lost.

Time does help with grief, because it lets new routines be built and then reinforced. I have noticed that Henrietta, my other dog, had the first good day yesterday, or at least a not-so-bad day. She is taking over some of the things that Hank used to do. Perhaps this is the way we mend the nets of our lives when someone has slipped through them. With time, love and the new rituals we build.

And by making the one who died live inside ourselves.