“to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”
― Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1
The Mayans said 12/21/12 would be the end of the world.
For everyone else, it was just another day.
But for me, a big part of my world did end.
That was the day I said goodbye to my sweet greyhound Hanna.
Hanna was a gift to me in every way, and one that was unexpected because she did not start off as my dog.
Hanna was adopted initially by my best friend, Heidi. She became mine unofficially over time, as I started taking her on walks, then through different dog-training classes.
I spent so much time with Hanna that when I would grab my keys to leave Heidi’s house, Hanna would run to the door, expecting to go with me. More often than not, she did.
When she was 7, Hanna completed Divine Canines training and became a therapy dog.
We were officially a team then and it was around this time that she became officially mine as well.
I started taking her to work with me. She loved going to work, so much so that she would stand by the door to the garage every morning and wait for me to collect my things so we could go.
Even on Saturdays.
(It’s very tough to explain the concept of weekends to a dog who thought of work as play.)
In total, Hanna went to work with me for 3 years. And it was about 3 months into her work gig with me when I realized that when I lost her, there would be no where to hide.
My heart would be exposed.
She was a part of every aspect of my life, and I began to worry intermittently about what I was going to do, and how I was going to react when the time came to say goodbye.
I tried not to think about losing her, because it took some of the joy away from our time together. So when those “loss thoughts” would pop up, I would focus on the things she brought to my life in the present.
But in losing her, I learned a powerful lesson.
This was a lesson in how to let go of something you love dearly.
I had not planned to have Hanna, and once I had her, I had no plan for letting her go.
There was no time when I was going to ever say “Wow. It’s been great. But that’s enough. I’m done now.”
When I found out Hanna was dying, I had just a few days to prepare to let her go. When faced with this knowledge, I kept wondering….how do you say goodbye to unconditional love?
I was unprepared for the actual moment of taking her to the vet and saying goodbye. I leaned heavily on the support of my family and my friends, especially Heidi, Dan and Cris, who went to the vet with me.
(And I will be totally honest here….if there were any other option other than saying goodbye, I would have taken it.)
In saying goodbye I was afraid that because I had been overwhelmed with love for Hanna while she was alive, I would be overwhelmed by grief once she was gone.
And at first, I was completely overwhelmed.
But the surprising thing I realized over time was how healing it was to just let go and surrender to the process of grief.
I have had just over a year to grieve the loss of Hanna. And I will share with you a few things that helped me get through to the other side.
4 Steps To Processing Grief:
1. Be honest.
The loss of Hanna cut me so deeply that I had no extra energy to spare to pretend that I was OK. I couldn’t manipulate or manage or change my emotions. I just had to allow myself to be sad without any self-judgement.
I was in a place of real vulnerability….emphasis on the real. And what I found is that because I was in a place of real-ness and openness, I was able to accept the words of comfort and condolence from my friends and loved ones on a deeper level than I could have if I was trying to put on a brave face.
A brave face creates a barrier to intimacy and a barrier to healing. Being honest about your emotions, which is scary, opens the door to receiving comfort from others that is a necessary part of of recovering from loss.
2. Ride the waves of emotion.
Because I had no energy to control my emotions, I just lived each one as it came, without trying to force or wish it away. Anger and sadness each came in waves, but so did waves of love and gratitude for the many wonderful memories I had with Hanna.
Over time, the grief eased. (This isn’t to say that I don’t still have sad days from time to time, because I do).
By allowing each wave of emotion to move through me, I allowed my spirit and heart to heal in the same way a cut heals on your skin. In physical healing, your body heals itself when you give it time and space. But if you pick at a wound on your skin, trying to control how it heals, you end up slowing down the process and increasing the likelihood your skin will scar.
Your spirit is the same…..it will heal if you give it time and don’t “pick” at it. Riding the waves of emotion can be scary, but it is the only way your spirit truly heals. When you try to “pick” at your spirit, but picking and choosing what emotions come through or get processed, you increase the likelihood your healing will be delayed or incomplete.
I firmly believe that we only develop resilience and heal from grief by trusting ourselves and letting our spirits go about the process of healing in whatever way they need to do it.
3. Keep your pain “clean”.
In her book Steering By Starlight, Martha Beck referenced research on two types of pain: “clean” pain and “dirty” pain. Clean pain is the the pain you feel from the actual event that hurt you, like scraping your knee, or the death of a loved one. There is real, physical pain associated with having skinned up knees. And similarly there is real, emotional pain that comes from a significant loss such as death of someone close to you.
But our pain transitions into dirty pain when we start thinking thoughts like, “That serves me right for ever opening myself up to love. I’ll never do that again.” Dirty pain comes not from the event itself, but from the spin we put on the event with our judgements and attempts at self-protection.
Dirty pain thoughts are the salt we pour into our own open wound. I was tempted at first to buy into the dirty pain thought that “I’ll never find another dog as great as Hanna.” But I didn’t want to believe this. And I knew lots of friends who had had more than one great dog in their life.
There will never be another dog exactly like Hanna, but I chose to reject the belief I would never find another cool dog. Not allowing this thought to take hold of me really helped me to move forward, as you will see in #4.
(BTW, for a more extensive defense against dirty pain thoughts, check out the 4 questions that make up “The Work” of Katie Byron.)
4. Open yourself up to love again.
Many, many people shared with me, after I lost Hanna, that one of the best ways to get over losing a dog was to get another one. Quickly.
I knew on some level that they were likely right, but I felt disloyal to Hanna getting another dog so soon after losing her. I worried I would be trying to replace her. But after a few weeks of feeling lonely and aimless at my house, I decided to give it a shot.
I adopted another greyhound, who I named Jasper. And while there have certainly been ups and downs in the training process (see What Jasper, My Greyhound, Can Teach You About Being Direct), I have had a lot of fun getting to know him. And without reservation, I can say that I love him for HIM, not as a substitute for Hanna.
I had worried that part of my heart would die with Hanna. But as I opened my heart to loving Jasper, I found that love is an accelerant to healing.
I will always miss Hanna. But I treasure the memories I have, as well as the lessons she taught me. When I face grieving in the future, I will remember to: be honest, ride the waves of emotion, keep my pain clean and to open my heart up to love again.
What lessons have your pets taught you about grief?