I am not unique in having encountered grief in my life. Although I’ve had my share of it, I am acutely aware that many people have experienced heart break I cannot even attempt to envisage. Grief is something difficult to understand and a state of being we dread. For good reason. It carries with it a pain that even the best writer struggles to convey.
One constant that seems to be partnered with grief is love. The more love we feel, the more grief we seem to encounter as we move through life. It is said that love can be an exquisite pain. Perhaps that pain translates to the agony that comes with love lost or love betrayed. Indeed, those incapable of love are transparently incapable of grief.
In May 2020 I lost a little dog I loved very, very much. ‘Bunny’ was with me for less than five years (adopted as she turned seven), and losing her was yet another journey into the dreaded darkness of loss and grief. I had of course signed up for the inevitable catastrophe of losing her when I took her on. I did not expect her to pass away so soon. I also did not expect the revisitation of other griefs her passing mysteriously let back in. That was an unexpected trip I did not enjoy. Yet I am oddly grateful for it.
My little Bunny suddenly became ill and passed away on 16.5.20 less than 48 hours after becoming unwell. She was aged 11 years and 8 months. There really wasn’t time to prepare and the whole thing passed in a state of surreal numbness. For me, my pets are the centre of my world. I am divorced and childless .. not complaining about that state of being .. my daily company and maternal drive are all focussed on my fur companions. I have loved animals my entire life. For some people it is difficult to comprehend that bond. Others reading this are nodding with enthusiastic understanding. This could be where this screed inevitably moves on to examine how important animals are. That it’s not ‘just’ a dog or a cat, but a fur baby and adored family member. I could write endlessly on what an animal can mean but it’s not the focus of this article. We shall take that as a given.
Grief is an unpredictable process that takes a mental and often physical toll. In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross established and analysed the now widely accepted five (5) stages of grief.
She was later to write that these were not neat phases everyone who is grieving passes through. Some may pass through them quickly, some slowly, some may not experience all five. They can occur in a different order. Some people cycle back several times and re experience certain stages repetitively. Life events can re trigger the process at varying levels of intensity. A state of complicated grief can arise when acceptance is never reached and the person becomes depressed and unwell as an extended state of being. One may not just grieve the loss of a loved one. People grieve broken relationships, divorce, lost careers or shattered health.
Heart break is no fun.
After Bunny died, on the surface I appeared my usual calm self. I did a goodly amount of crying in the privacy of my own home and I also did some emotional cutting in the form of self torture. A delightful extension of the bargaining phase. Could I have done something to prevent Bunny’s death? What did I miss? Did I let her down? Did she know how much I loved her as I handed her to the vet at Emergency? Did she want me as she rapidly declined and I couldn’t go back where she was being treated because of COVID? Had she been in pain or felt sick and I wasn’t really a good fur mama because I didn’t notice? Academically I know the answers to these questions. However, 3.00am isn’t a fan of academic reasoning when the mind ruminates on things we can’t control.
To move through that phase, I used techniques I was taught by a psychologist I consulted when my first Pomeranian died in 2014. That Pom was named ‘Delilah’ and she was the sweetest little soul. Delilah faithfully stayed alongside me for 15 years and 8 months. Her death was expected but no less gutting. Due to the constraints of the married life I led at that time, I could not really indulge my grief when she died. It was very difficult to process. My showing distress was inconvenient to the person with whom I then shared my home. I would get up at 3.00am when he was asleep, hold Delilah’s bed and sob with a hanky shoved in my mouth so I would not be discovered. There were so many regrets. So many things that pained me about her life in that house. It was overwhelming. I eventually managed the grief to a point when Diva, Bunny and Bear entered my existence and the sun shone again. Bunny had similarities to my Delilah and I took enormous pleasure after I left my marriage in getting it ‘right’ for her and the others. I was Queen of my Domain and no-one was ever going to make these fur babies fearful from the moment we walked away from that marriage in February 2017.
Having attempted to process Bunny’s passing and having accepted as well as I was able that she was gone, I still really struggled some weeks after the event. Insomnia and a general feeling of malaise. I couldn’t study as my head held nothing and I had an all pervading sense of loneliness. Which was odd, as I have never really felt lonely in my home bustling with fur kiddies. Bunny’s missing presence was palpable yet I still had two other pooches relentlessly demanding my attention. It was as though something dark and hopeless was hanging over me I couldn’t identify. One morning I awoke with visual disturbances and an unnerving buzzing in my ears. I subsequently took myself to my ever competent GP who informed me I was experiencing a form of migraine. She took my blood pressure. It was impressive. I’m relieved my head didn’t blow off. I am now medicated for said blood pressure and am back on track. Bunny’s death had intensified what was probably already an issue and caused a hypertensive spike.
It was at that moment the blinkers came off and I realised what was at the root of the virtual and tangible pain in my chest. Unresolved grief. Heart break and memories left buried and unexamined that I had not been ready to see. The loss of something so loved as my Bun-Bun had let the genie out of the bottle and it was unwilling to go back in without having a say. My getting it ‘right’ for Bunny was releasing so much of what had gone wrong on my previous journey.
Much of the pain had to do with my first dog Jessie. A beautiful shepherd/labrador brought into my life by my ex as I entered that relationship. Jessie was a driving force behind many of the decisions I was subsequently to make. My helpless fur baby I had loved so desperately. A fur child I had not always been able to protect. To my surprise, pieces of jigsaw from that story still missing from my conscious memory forced their way forward whether I liked it or not.
What I remembered from Jessie’s final days is not the point of this article. Publicly revealing a perpetrator’s actions isn’t as cathartic as one might imagine and it gives their story an airing they don’t deserve. What I experienced in those days after Bunny’s death would doubtless be labelled as an episode of PTSD. Flashes of recall and memory like traumatic film. I am not too proud to say I have spoken to a professional about the process and gained understanding of how and why it all came back. The human brain is an incredible, self protective mechanism that shows us what we can cope with. One might surmise I am sorry I went through that. A horrible coda to an already sad event. I am not. It has helped me understand why I struggle with Jessie’s memory and the complexity of all she stood for.
Bunny was not only a key part of surviving Delilah’s death when she entered my life, she helped me understand untapped grief when she left it. Hers was a little soul that gave more than she ever could have comprehended. I know she understood she was adored and I choose to believe that happiness was with her until her final breath. In truth, hers is a loss easier to process than any other I have had. Because it is tinged with many less regrets and overwhelmingly happy memories.
Grief is a part of life and everyone goes through it differently. Things we think might cause us grief don’t always engender that response. Other losses are as overwhelming as a tsunami. Understanding how and why can be as mystifying as the riddle of mortality itself. Never be ashamed to reach out when grief creeps up on you. Horrible as it is, it appears to be a process with a purpose.
One thing I have learned is that our grief will be as powerful as the thing we lost meant to us. The loss is as great as the love.
In memory of Jessie. May 1996 – April 2011. xxxx