And shows us the way to embrace death
I’m sure that the human psyche lives in a bubble of delusion. Not always and not extremely so; of course. Clearly, if the level of delusion were abnormal then we couldn’t function properly as social animals. However, just take a quiet moment of self-reflection to muse over the ways that you ‘shelter’ from reality. In directing that last point to you, dear reader, trust me I don’t exclude myself!
There are times when going beyond the self, going out of oneself, is the only way to see the reality of who we are and the world around us; to be able to brush away our delusions. Perfectly expressed by the author, Aldous Huxley: “Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” Wise words, indeed!
But these fine expressions representing the peak of common sense have one grinding, searing fault. They do not assume the end of a person’s life. I am speaking of death, of the inevitability of our death! That largely unspoken truth no better expressed than through the words of Sharon Salzberg in her book Faith.
What does it mean to be born in a human body, vulnerable and helpless, then to grow old, get sick and die, whether we like it or not?
Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that it is tough; incredibly tough. It is full of pain and anguish amidst a great churning of emotions, all in a very deep-seated and personal manner. That’s the perspective from the loved ones left behind with more life ahead of them. But if one thinks of it in reverse, turns it on its head, what are our fundamental wishes with respect to those we love; what we would want to leave behind when we die?
Fond memories, naturally, but they wouldn’t be our fundamental wishes. This is what those fundamental wishes would be. That our death does not leave pain and anguish in the hearts and souls of those left behind. That it doesn’t leave a pain that cannot be dealt with in a healthy way. Our wishes would be that those whom we loved and who loved us may embrace their loss and move on.
Anyone who has loved a dog has most likely been intimately involved in the end of that dog’s life. It is, to my mind, the ultimate lesson that dogs offer us: how to be at peace when we die and how to leave that peace blowing through the hearts of all the people who loved us.
Our beloved dogs have much shorter life spans than we do, thus almost everyone who has loved a dog will have had to say goodbye to that gorgeous friend at some point in their lives. Very sadly, perhaps, saying goodbye to more than one loved dog.
I see the most precious of parallels in the tragic death of a loved dog and our own death. The parallel between coping with our grief for the loss of a loved dog and reaching out to our loved ones so that they may cope with their grief at losing us.
In other words, knowing what to expect in emotional terms at the loss of our loved dog is helpful, very much so, to us helping our loved ones when comes our time to die.
There are five stages of mourning, of dealing with our grief, when we lose our beloved dog: Denial; Anger; Guilt; Depression and Acceptance.
Compare those stages to the five stages of mourning, perhaps of dealing with the knowledge that oneself is dying, or a person is dying who is very emotionally close to us. Those five stages are: Denial and Isolation; Anger; Bargaining; Depression and Acceptance.
The parallels are almost perfect.
Whether it is the impending or actual death of a loved dog, a loved person, or ourselves, the similarities between embracing the loss of the loved dog, or the loved person, are powerfully obvious. So, too, are the many different ways each of us embraces the death of a loved dog or a loved person. Let me expand on this last point.
Namely, that each of us will experience each stage of mourning at varying levels of intensity, for varying lengths of time, and sometimes in a different order. Some of the stages may converge and overlap each other. But however you experience the mourning, it is incredibly important to remember that your feelings are completely normal.
As the website of the American Animal Hospital Association points out, on their webpage entitled Life after Dog, “… we almost always outlive our beloved companions. Learning to live with loss is an essential part of life.”
That webpage imploring us to honour our emotions, to honour the memory of our dog, and critically, when a child is involved, to help that child cope with the loss of their loved dog. For all, young and old, helping to ease the pain through learning to cope with the loss. Easing the pain through changing one’s schedule, moving furnishings around to help distance the memory of your dog’s favourite sleeping spots, or creating a memorial in one form or another, even writing a letter (or blog post!) to your dog in which one describes all the feelings you have for your recently departed, loved dog.
I was born in 1944. I am therefore the ‘wrong’ side of seventy years old. I was born an Englishman and, according to life expectancy tables from 2012, a male Englishman’s life expectancy is 79.5 years. I am living happily in the USA and, according to those same tables, a male American’s life expectancy is 77.4 years. My mother is alive and an amazingly fit and healthy ninety-five-year-old, at the time of writing this book. My father died at the age of 56 just 5 days before Christmas in 1956. I do not believe in any form of spiritual life after death.
So take your pick!
All that I do know is that loving our dogs, welcoming all the wonderful qualities that our dogs possess, striving always to live peacefully ‘in the present’, just as our dogs do, and, ultimately, as with our faithful companions, taking that last breath in the knowledge that ours was a beautiful life, is what learning from dogs is all about.
1,059 words. Copyright © 2014 Paul Handover￼￼￼￼￼￼￼
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