As usual, I have a “dog story” to tell you. And as usual, it is far more than that, having become, for me, a “life story.” I am on a plane travelling to the Dalmatian Club of American National Specialty Show in Ohio, writing by hand on a yellow pad of paper, with a solitary five hours ahead of me that are perfect for such an endeavor.
Certain incidents in our lives sometimes help us to look back and reevaluate ourselves and what we may have said or done. Two weeks ago, just after publishing my previous newsletter, I had a “telephone visit” with a close friend which did just that: brought me a new insight, as we argued about an event close to both our hearts—the death of someone we loved—and did not come to any resolution.
To tell you what I learned, however, I must start by recounting a totally different conversation, with another person entirely, nearly four years before. Only by remembering one single remark from that day, did I finally answer the question so recently sparked by that important phone call such a short time ago.
Back in September of 2011, when the little ones from Breeze’s first litter were ready to go to their new homes, there remained an adorable but very shy puppy, with soulful brown eyes and white whiskers as long as a rabbit’s. As he did not have the charm of the bouncy affectionate pups who climbed into laps and nibbled ears, I worried about ever finding him his “forever home.”
He had been nicknamed “Green Bean” because he wore a green collar from the start, and when prospective new owners came to visit, he hid behind the coffee table, peering around its legs and refusing to budge—not even for the lure of the most tasty treat. Every night, he snugged up on my shoulder, silently asking if this could be his home.
I invited Lisa, one of my friends and also a dog trainer, to come in and help me assess our situation. We decided that it might help Green Bean feel more adventurous and secure if he learned he could get along without me by his side, and so Lisa took him on daily outings to places safe for such a young puppy. Unfortunately, his demeanor remained retiring.
One morning brought a call from a young couple who had just lost their elderly Dalmatian to a prolonged illness. When they came to visit Green Bean, he hid. I despaired, but to my surprise they were not put off by his reluctance to be affectionate. They just decided he needed time to warm up—a personality trait which I, as his first “mother,” perhaps did not perceive.
Despite their positive attitude, I was nevertheless uneasy about the idea of them taking him home. They had lost their “special” Dal only the month before, and it had always seemed important to me that a person really grieve a beloved dog for quite some time before filling the void with a new puppy. Could these two really be ready to give over their hearts so quickly?
I mentioned all this to Lisa and her response was so wise that I have never forgotten it: “Linda,” she said, “people grieve in their own time.”
And so, with dread but resolution, I gave over Green Bean. In spite of my anxiety, he went home in their arms with surprising serenity and trust, and lives there happily, having been joined a few years later by a Dal sister rescued from a kill shelter. He is still known as Green Bean to this day and has blossomed into a merry, outgoing dog.
After he left, I pondered Lisa’s answer for quite a while—but it wasn’t until I had had that all-important telephone conversation two weeks ago that I began to understand it. The process of grieving a particularly difficult shared loss had not been the same for my friend as it had been for me, and that difference had set us apart for many years.
As I sit here winging my way toward Ohio, I can finally see, for the first time, how all of us take different amounts of time to let our sorrows run their course, whether they be over the death of a beloved dog or parent, or even the loss of a home or a job. “To fully process our feelings” is the phrase used in psychological circles for this part of the grieving experience. But to me, it means simply this: to ache inside for a long time; to accept slowly; to allow the injury into our souls; and then to move on with our lives, even as we always remember.
I think back over the deaths of those I’ve loved: my incredible Gulliver, both my mother and father, all my grandparents, my favorite aunt, and five good friends—including my best. For me, working through the loss of them never took only a month, because I am an emotional, deeply attached sort of person, one who is slow and methodical about processing losses of any kind.
My mother died some forty years ago, and it took me nearly thirty to work out what both her life and death meant to my life. I had to write two books about her, devoting over twelve years of my writing career itself, before I was really ready to say goodbye. Others in my family did it more quickly. Others have difficulty with it even now. In this way, my friend and I continue to struggle with our differences. Inevitably, I find myself wondering how long it is possible to hang on to a loss before it limits our lives and our relationships with each other.
Yet, with Lisa’s words now standing firm in both my mind and heart, I finally conclude that we do not have the right to make a judgment about the length of time it takes anyone else to achieve that elusive emotional resolution. I may wish I could show the people I love a way to shed the weight of loss, but ultimately this desire must remain just that—even if the difference between us results in misunderstanding, or brings sadness over the unshared opportunity to cry and laugh and remember together, or prevents us for moving on hand in hand. Sometimes we just have to wait.
I do, however, take solace in the knowledge that I can offer love and friendship as a way to bridge the gap between us. Now, sitting here on this 747 with pen in hand, thinking backward and forward simultaneously about Green Bean and Gulliver and all my losses, I find compassion for my friend and also the hope that pain so keenly felt will someday cease.
Of course, I must ask myself what it means to be talking about all this, so personal and so close to the bone. Anais Nin once said: “The role of the writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” I’d like to think that today’s story about myself is one to which most of you can relate, one that some of you may know within your hearts, yet may not have really thought about fully, or even, are not able to voice.
And so, in whatever way I can manage, I will continue to share both dog stories and life stories—all of them tied together in a variety of ways and all of them, I believe, so very important.