In the last few months, several friends have had to suffer letting go of their dogs. What do you say to a friend grieving the loss of their dog? For that matter, what do we say to comfort ourselves when we’re grieving?
Of course nothing we can say will staunch the grief. The best we can offer will be cold comfort, but cold comfort is better than no comfort at all. The reflections that follow are offered in that spirit—a few observations about what I’ve found helpful to tell myself, anyway.
First of all, what won’t work: don’t try to talk yourself or others out of their grief. For instance, tempting as it may be, it’s worse than useless to point out that death is natural and inevitable—not least because this implies the person’s grief is unreasonable. But we’re not grieving because death’s unnatural or because it don’t have no mercy (though that’s true); we’re grieving because we’ve lost a friend. In this light, my own first instinct is to convey my real affection and, when I feel it, my admiration for the deceased. Empathizing acknowledges the magnitude of the loss and that it’s worth crying over. Permission to grieve is a real gift, but it’s not all that comforting.
Here’s an insight that did give me a fraction of comfort when I was grieving the loss of my dog, Kestra: that shadow of death, that heavy darkness, that grief I felt—it was all mine. This sounds obvious, but strong feelings like grief often distort thinking, and thus it’s remarkably easy to project our own feelings about death onto our beloved dog, as though they suffered the circumstances of death as we do. Let me explain.
When I was grieving the loss of Kestra, whose life and death I describe at length in my book (and whose picture graces the cover), I vividly recall the moment I noticed that part of what I was feeling was awful for Kestra, as though she had suffered this terrible calamity of losing her one and only life. But how could she have lost what she never knew she had? True, she embraced and lived her life with intelligence and feeling, but as far as I know she didn’t make her life as a whole into an object of her thought, projecting herself into a future where she no longer existed, then suffering from the morbid reflection that the pleasure and sweetness of her life would soon end.
For her part, while dying Kestra had suffered briefly but not terribly. She was dozing in my study when she suddenly stood up, dazed, and then collapsed onto the floor. She tried to stand a couple more times before collapsing full length, sprawled on her side and panting out the last of her breath, her psyche, in death throes. She felt all this—she suffered all this—but she didn’t suffer the additional psychic pain that comes from knowing that you’re breathing your last, that everything you’ve loved and lived for is soon to be forever lost, and, to twist the knife more, that by dying you’re breaking your dearest friend’s heart. Our capacity to suffer all this, our intimation of mortality, is a profound and ambiguous gift of self-consciousness.
So that hard heavy feeling gnawing at me, that it was awful for Kestra that she had to die, was in fact a half-conscious projection on my part. As soon as I realized this the feeling vanished, which gave me a fraction of relief (some of that cold comfort). It was actually comforting to realize that at their core my grief and tears were entirely for myself, for what I had lost—not for what she had lost. At the moment this occurred to me I remember a new feeling welling up in my heart, almost a gladness: Well, I thought, she’s fine anyway. She’s at peace. Lucky for her she didn’t have to suffer cosmic Death, but just the local pain of her body coming to complete rest after a lifetime of motions.
Another feeling that commonly plagues us when we’re grieving is the nagging guilt that we didn’t do all we could on behalf of the dead. Perhaps this feeling may be justified in some cases, and then by all means face it and suffer it. (When it comes to grief, the only way out is through.) However, often such feelings express unconscious attempts to control the uncontrollable—the inevitability of death. All the heroic measures in the world can’t save your dog, anymore than they will save you in the end.
Yet this fact doesn’t stop people from desperately grasping onto their dog’s life in ways that often prolong the suffering of all involved, not least the dog. The day Kestra died I had taken her and Aktis down to the creek for a swim. My dear 15-year-old Kestra had played happily in the shallows, tracking water striders. She’d even leapt over a small log and swam after a stick I’d thrown. I knew Kestra had hemorrhagic tumors in her abdominal cavity that could burst at any time and cause her death. Had I allowed her to do too much? Was I responsible for her dying that same evening?
Ultimately I realized that underlying these thought streams was the absurd notion that if I was careful enough she wouldn’t have died. In Love’s Executioner, psychiatrist Irvin Yalom writes, “After all, if one is guilty about not having done something that one should have done, then it follows that there is something that could have been done—a comforting thought that decoys us from our pathetic helplessness in the face of death.”
Pathetic helplessness. That pretty much sums up how I felt, holding Kestra as she died.
There’s one last point, so cool I’m inclined to call it a philosophical consolation rather than cold comfort. If our lives are our practice, then suffering the loss of someone we love gives us invaluable practice in learning how to die. Wisdom traditions agree that learning how to die well is a profound accomplishment, a truth Socrates famously memorialized by saying that being a philosopher involves learning how to die. Kestra’s death was a teacher, as are all the losses we summon the courage to face and grieve. (I discuss another sort of teaching about death here.) True though it is, I don’t recommend trying to comfort yourself or your friend with this thought.
But as for dear sweet sterling Kestra, it never occurred to her die. So she didn’t need to learn how.