Grieving

I once knew two of the sweetest people on Earth, grandparents of one of my good friends in high school. I’m not sure if Leah had ever worked outside the home but Lee, a big bear of a man, had and was retired. For years they were together in their modest house on a hill over the small town where we lived, content with each others’ company and occasionally one of the grand kids or their young friends. Everyone knew them as an example of good people and genuine humble love.

They seemed to take a liking to anyone that came to call, that was their nature and they made me feel very welcome. “You come by anytime, Ken.” In the years before mobile phones, I would often drop by to see if my friend, who lived with them at the time, was home. If it was supper time, they would insist I eat and it seemed Leah always made more food than the two or three of them could eat and so, many times, I enjoyed supper and good conversation with them, even if my friend wasn’t home. Lee always mispronounced my name as Ken and I never never once corrected him. I loved that old guy.

He died in his eighties I think. Nothing tragic really, but poor Leah was absolutely lost without him. She could not be consoled, would not eat or take her medicines, she stayed in their bed and withered like a plucked flower in the sun. At the funeral, she had to be brought in a wheelchair because she could no longer bring herself to walk. She sat by the grave, wrapped in a shawl, crying quietly and nearly everyone there cried for her. She died within two weeks.

That woman felt the full weight of mortal grief,as have people down through the ages. Sometimes, there really is nothing left to live for.

Like Lee and Leah, my mother and father were always within a few feet of each other after he retired. Mom was born nearly blind and depended on dad for many things, and he depended on her for so much we can only guess at. Theirs was devotion of a sort you could frame in gold and mount in stone.

In his seventies, my father slipped into a puzzling illness that gradually sapped his strength over two years. My older sister, a nurse, convinced them to close up the house and move in with her. She doted on them. I don’t think the doctors were really sure what was wrong with dad, perhaps a result of the jaundice and fever he had contracted as a child. It had killed his mother and set him out as a working thirteen year old, to help support his brothers and sisters.

When dad died, mom was stricken but she had prepared herself. Being practical folks, they talked about it and all matters were settled by the time he reached the end. Mom was so strong, it would be easy to think that she was unaffected by the loss. She was careful to talk to us kids about it all. She said she had a long and wonderful life with a good and loving husband, three children they were very proud of, and she was ready to go whenever it was in God’s time. She urged us to not be sad when she died, and became a living example of how you bear it by turning away from mourning and toward showing love for those following.

For five years she kept it up until, eventually her own health and private grief finally brought her to the day she had been waiting for. She said goodbye to all of us and welcomed the end.

Quite a contrast between those two stories. What does it mean? Are some people inherently able to sustain the pain of losing the love of their life better than others? Is it important for people to make sure that they talk through their story’s end beforehand and to help each other understand that the survivor should not be lost in grief, to go on and live as best that can to honor the departed in whatever respite, peace or happiness they might until they are again united?

Like almost everyone, I have experienced the deaths of older relatives, tragedies and war. The high school deaths were always sobering for the loss of youth, the pal that s just there yesterday. It was truly difficult then when they had school Assemblies each year to play the gruesome car wreck movies to scare us into never speeding or drinking or, hell, getting in a car again. I don’t think they thought about it before giving everyone nightmares for the next six months but almost all of us had lost friends or family in auto accidents and the awful movie just twisted a big knife into our hearts. This, THIS was what they experienced. THIS is what they looked like afterward. Go ahead, kid, look at it. This is YOU is you don’t drive safely. It was a really tough and grisly lesson and I’m sure it screwed up more kids than it saved.

I was once married to a girl that later became an alcoholic due to deeply suppressed memories she had of her father sexually abusing her as a child. She also got into pills after complications from the birth of our second daughter and from there into developed into full blown drug addiction, raging alcohol abuse and years of reckless behavior.

I tried many things to help get her straightened out. Recovery programs, AA, detox, counseling… but as is so often the case, sometimes the best you can hope for is a regulated addiction to something “legal” and administered, with meetings and such. It was all expensive, I call it The Recovery Industry, but at least it was cheaper and safer than all the cars she wrecked and the countless people she surely almost killed in one of her stupors.

She was suffering from another form of grief, a generational worm born of her seafaring grandfather’s own addictions and abuse of her father when he was a boy in 1920’s New England. It culminated in the old man shooting himself in the bedroom one morning. Inexplicably, his mother required the boy to help her mop the brains off the wall after the city had carted the body away. The son became a man, a drunk, a wife and child abuser and the worm of self-loathing and despair jumped to another generation.

During the two decades of our marriage, I attended many of the group meetings, counseling and, ultimately, trips to the methadone clinic. I got acquainted with some of her friends and counselors, many of whom would go on to overdose, crash or wither away. Often it was the counselors that took that final wrong turn, having helped everyone they could but no longer able to save themselves. I’ve seen people that had been clean for decades, struggling EVERY DAY to not take a drink, only finally one day just give up in exhaustion, buy a bottle, write a note and cash out. Life isn’t always for everyone.

Now long divorced, I still feel bad for my ex-wife. Not just the tragedy of her childhood or years of her own struggle against the devil, but of a landscape littered with so many people she liked, loved and depended on, all now dead. How inevitable her own sad demise but seem each time she looks in the mirror.

How does a person live a life like that, so full of torment, guilt, regret, frustration, anger and sorrow? I have only an onlookers perspective. They cling to God for every breath, praying for Him to please not let them slip through His fingers.

When she was very young, under eighteen, one of my daughters had a fight with her boyfriend. He had been behaving badly and she scolded him, told him she was disappointed in him and that she would not have a boyfriend like that, they were finished. He hung himself a couple hours later. Once again, I saw a portrait in strength that I could not understand. It hit her so hard, the guilt she felt and pain of his death. They were truly in love, I’ve no doubt and I‘m also sure that she hadn’t intended for it to be the absolute end of their relationship, she just wanted to sober him up and make him realize he had to change, or else. But, the kid was drinking and there’s no telling what a drunk and emotional teenage will do when confronted with a deeply emotional event. Really, it happens all the time.

Years later another boyfriend, fully aware of the story of the first suicide and frustrated that, despite his best efforts, he was not winning my daughter’s hand in marriage, also hung himself. Although I was furious that the guy would do that to her, I was deeply impressed by her strength and how she was so gracious and helpful to the guy’s parents, who thought the world of her.

To top it off, a third would-be suitor, also at her arm’s length due to his own problems and behavior and also well aware of the prior tragedies, stepped in front of a car on the highway and very nearly succeeded in killing himself too, instead spending months in the hospital and rehab.

How does a person withstand such similar tragedies and still keep living? Especially when one could argue that the suicides were likely intended to cause her pain in one last blaze of unrequited love? How does one move forward in life, fearful of engaging with another person for fear they, too, will destroy themselves in a spiteful attempt to tear her down if she doesn’t submit and become everything they want her to be?

Fifteen years ago I remarried to a woman who. like me. was blessed to not be born with the Addiction Gene and also having lived a life beset with peripheral and familial traumas. We have built a good home and life together and will hopefully live out our years in peace. I am almost 70 now and retired since I was 55. One of my daughters had some serious medical issues and could no longer work, so we invited her and her little boy to to move in with us since we had plenty of room and wooded land for the boy to roam. Along with them came two dachshunds, one standard (larger) I nicknamed Beagus since I suspect he has some Beagle in him and one miniature I called Wormie since, when I met him as a puppy that’s what he looked like, a little worm. Short-haired dachshunds are clean, they don’t smell or shed and make perfect house pets.

I’ve always loved dogs and it wasn’t long before the wieners were following me where ever I went, napping wherever I napped and basically sticking right by my side, the Alpha Male. The little one especially became My Little Buddy. For years, he sat next to me watching TV together or playing Chase The Ice Cube or Stick. He would sleep on our bed between our pillows until he got cold , then would worm his way under the blankets where, usually, Beagus was already snoozing.

Each morning Worm would wake me, sometimes by snuffling my hair, sometimes by blowing in my ear and sometimes by juuuust barely touching the tip of his cold nose to mine until I busted out laughing. Then, he’d start barking and bouncing on my chest. Get up, Grampa! Its’ time to eat! Let’s go!

We went on camping trips together, took a two week vacation out west through Colorado and back with our camper, all with the wiener dogs. Sometimes we walked the woods behind our house or the trail along the lake or maybe they would chase each other up and down the hall and around the kitchen island but mostly it was quiet times together that I cherished. They became as much, or more, my dogs than my daughter’s, and that was fine. We are one happy family.

He had (I just typed “has”) such a vibrant personality, so special and frisky, yet so snuggly and sweet. I knew for a long time that when he finally died someday, it was going to be tough. Boy, I had no idea.

He died quite unexpectedly, while my wife and I were miles away, working on some property up north. We were out in a field, cutting brush and saplings when my daughter called. Long and tragic story, short version: He had an ascending aortic aneurysm, the dreaded AAA. It burst and he suffered terribly for almost an hour. It was after 5PM and she struggled to reach our veterinary clinic, who didn’t want her to bring him in since the vets were going home, a fact I’m still angry about. He died just before she got him to an ER vet several more miles away. They revived him at her pleading, to keep him alive long enough for me to get there and say goodbye.

My wife and I got there in about a half hour. He was spaced out from the pain med and whimpering softly while I cuddled him into my side like I always did. They already had the IV in his paw. I snuggled him and told him what a good boy he was and how sorry I was for what had happened, that I loved him so much and would see him again. Then, finally at my nod, they injected the first solution into the tube. He laid his little head against my chest and went to sleep as he had done hundreds of times before. Then the second solution went it.

When his heart stopped, my heart broke.

My God, what pain. It has been six months ago now and I am still reduced to tears. Many times since then I have secluded myself because I’m just having a sad day, remembering him in everything I see, every place, each one of his little toys or one of the many wonderful pictures I had taken of him.

Beagus, too, misses Wormie. I can tell it as sure as anything. He is more sedentary now. Sometimes he will send Impressions, like when we walk past the spot beside the road where Wormie stopped the day before he died, unable to go further. I had carried him home then, thinking he must be getting old enough for aches and pains but never dreaming it could be that he was already struggling with his heart. Beagus sat there and looked up at me. Where’s Wormie? He does it sometimes in bed too, getting my attention then pointing his nose at the place between our pillows. Back to me, then the pillows and back. Where’s Wormie?

Even though I was careful to bring Beagus out that awful evening when we buried Worm, to let him see his little buddy lying there lifeless and to see me place him in the box and cover it up, Beagus really didn’t understand. He had never had anyone leave his life or go to sleep and be put in a box in the ground. He doesn’t understand why Grampa put Wormie away. He has a grief all his own and all I can do is love him up, talk to him about it and tell him I know how he feels but that Wormie is okay and we may yet see him again.

I don’t know what to make of this mourning for a lost pet. I know it can’t begin to stack up against the previous examples of truly memorial heartbreak and utter loss. So, how can it be that, even against losing my beloved parents, the death of a little dog can amount to the deepest and most affecting sadness I personally have ever felt?

I’ve lost girlfriends, discovered that I had been betrayed by a cheating fiance I thought was totally faithful. I felt that terrible ripping wound whereby you can scarcely catch another breath, let alone live to love again. Yeah, that was excruciating but after a few moths or years, you tend to get over it and accept it. You do live and love again.

I think losing a pet, a dog that you had a remarkable and exceptionally deep love for, is so traumatic because, while your two-timing fiance is still around somewhere and you did get a new girlfriend after all, that pet was true blue loyal every minute of it’s life, with every measure of being and now is gone. In our case, the manner of his death was so tragic that I suffered along with him and, although he is now at peace, I still feel a hot stone in my chest when I remember.

A year and a half earlier, I had gotten my truck stuck in the snow and was digging it out. My wife came to see if I needed help and watched me shovel two or three feet then spend about two full minutes catching my breath. She insisted I go to the doctor, something was wrong. It turned out, I had a heart valve problem and surgery was scheduled.

When they got my chest cracked open they discovered that, in addition to the bad heart valve I had a big ole surprise for them. An Ascending Aortic Aneurysm, all ballooned out and ready to pop! Although I had a stroke during the surgery, I made a complete recovery, thanks to the amazing talents of the medical team.

I survived my AAA unscathed but My Little Buddy sure didn’t survive his. So, there’s that Survivor’s Guilt, I suppose. I know if I had died first, he would have been sad and confused why I went away and why I wouldn’t come back. So, maybe it is best he went first, but it pains me that he had to suffer so and during one of the few times I wasn’t there.

Whether or not you believe it from this writing, I am a fairly intelligent person and have thought about this a lot in six months. I’ve analyzed it from all the angles I can see, all the possible ways it could have gone and I know that, if it had to happen, then the way it happened was probably the best outcome. I’ll not share all of that here, and I know it may seem hard to understand how I could come to that conclusion but, that’s what I feel.

I will spend the remainder of my years missing that little guy, sometimes mourning in a dark room or out in the forest, by his grave. There are some people that believe we will all be reunited one day. I see no evidence to support that, even though I have absolutely no doubt that death is not the end of our experience. Our souls go on, I’m convinced. Purely as a pragmatic and scientific matter, I know there must be at least one Creator of all we see and He/She/They don’t waste anything, not even a little dog’s loving soul.

Love Never Ends. Corinthians tells it quite elegantly. Of Faith, Hope and Love the greatest of these is Love. Love Never Ends.

That little fella is out there somewhere still, I’ve no doubt.

The other morning he woke me from a deep sleep with an Impression. Like Beagus, he used to send me those little signals using eye contact and nose-pointing, like “I want a Treat, Grampa” or “Let’s Play Ice, I’m Bored”, or “Feed me, Grampa”. Over time dogs and their humans do develop a near-telepathic communication system. He used it to reach me from the other side.

He said:
He knows he is gone;
He does not care about the way he died and does not want me to be sad;
He hears me and sees me;
He does not want to be where he is, he wants to be back here with me.

That last one hit me like a truck. I woke crying and sobbed uncontrollably for a long time, so sad! He wants to be back here with me. I guess maybe heaven isn’t for everyone either, at least not if you’re alone and don’t know anyone there.

Yes, We Go On and Love Never Ends. But, does that mean we will see each other again? Or is that a mechanism we invented to give ourselves something to cling to, to mitigate the sorrow of death?

Today the world is in the grips of a terrible pandemic. Millions have died and, at least as tragically, millions more have been left widows, widowers, orphans and grieving souls, writhing under the grindstone of a horrific loss. Lives have been upended, entire futures vaporized, families shattered. Humanity once again finds itself, as it has countless times, racked in shared agony and bereavement. So many people, unable to fathom another step forward, unsure what will become of them, tormented by the greatest of all questions: Why?

Against this black shroud my petty little sorrow seems so trivial, I know. I am so lucky and blessed to have, at least do far, not been sffected by this modern plague. I feel terrible for the ones that have been touched by the cold finger of doom and yet, in my tiny corner of the world, surrounded by the epic tragedy going on all around, I do still miss my little buddy.

Maybe those that cling to the hope of a meeting on the other side of the Jordan will turn out to be right. I hope so. There could be few other things that would make my heart soar like playing another game of Chase The Ice Cube with little Wormie.

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Kent Hartland

Kent Hartland

Semi-retired software developer, inventor, jeweler, knife maker, writer . I like tools that help me make things and people that listen to ideas.