Reflections on grief, from a beloved dog

In an earlier blog post, A powerful stranger, I wrote how grief, for me, is a feeling of being lost. And today, I read a reflection by Kathryn Schulz, ‘When Things Go Missing’, on the passing of her father:

… I began to go out looking for my father. Some days, I merely said to myself that I wanted to get out of the house; other days, I set about searching for him as deliberately as one would go look for a missing glove. Because I find peace and clarity in nature, I did this searching outdoors, sometimes while walking, sometimes while out on a run. I did not expect, of course, that along the way I would encounter my father again in his physical form. To the extent that I thought about it at all, I thought that through sheer notion I might be able to create a tunnel of emptiness, in myself or in the world, that would fill up with a sense of his presence – his voice, his humour, his warmth, the perfect familiarity of our relationship… But grief makes reckless cosmologists of us all, and I had thought it possible, in an impossible kind of way, that if I went out looking I might find myself in my father’s company again.

“Lost” is precisely the right description for how I have experienced him since his death. I search for him constantly but can’t find him anywhere. I try to sense some intimation of his presence and feel nothing. I listen for his voice but haven’t heard it since those final times he used it in the hospital. Grieving him is like holding one of those homemade tin-can telephones with no tin can on the other end of the string. His absence is total; where there was him, there is nothing.

I have a beautiful book sitting on my desk that I treasure. It is by Maira Kalman, an author and illustrator of books for adults and children, and it is called ‘Beloved Dog’. It is part memoir, part love letter to Maira’s dog Pete, and all the other dogs that she has drawn over the years that have warmed her heart.

Kathryn Schulz’s search for her father in the heaviness of grief took me back to the pages of Beloved Dog. Maira decided to get a dog when her husband fell ill, and he was the family’s companion as they lost their father, and Maira her husband.

Of Pete, Maira writes:

During our years together, I often asked Pete to say one word to me. Just one word. It is like asking to hear one word from a loved one who has died. Give me a sign that you have not really left me. It is not going to happen. But it does not stop you from wishing and hoping for a miracle. So I would beg Pete to say one word. He never did. But of course, he spoke volumes.

We decided to get a dog when my sister was sick. Harry arrived at the end of February, and my sister passed away in May. I will always remember when I told her that we were getting a dog, and that we were going to call him Harry. ‘Harry the Dog’ she said, ‘just like the book’.

The reason why Maira Kalman’s book touches me so much is because my sister knew that Harry would save me. And almost every day I look at Harry and wonder what he can see that I can’t. I wonder if he can see my sister. There are days when I am convinced that he does. And like Maira, I too ask Harry to say just one word to me. To give me a sign that my sister has not really left me. I too am searching for her. But of course, Harry doesn’t, but he speaks volumes. As Maira continues to write:

They are constant reminders that life reveals the best of itself when we live fully in the moment and extend our unconditional love. And it is very true, that the most tender, uncomplicated, most generous part of our being blossoms, without any effort, when it comes to the love of a dog.

And these words bring me back to the end of Kathryn’s reflection:

All this is made more precious, not less, by its impermanence… Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. Loss is a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days… We are here to keep watch, not to keep.