I put my dog down today.
It was time. He was 13 years old and was starting to struggle. Last night he could barely walk. This morning he collapsed and couldn’t get up. For two hours, from the time I called the vet to the time they got there, I sat with him on the floor right where he had fallen. I talked to him and sang to him. I cried. I also answered some email and read a book. And cried some more. As the vet shaved his leg and placed the IV, I held his head, called his name and did my best to calm him. As I held the door to let them leave with him, I sobbed.
I am grieving.
My grief is nothing compared to others’. As much as I love Bindu, he was a dog, not a parent or a child or a spouse. I have lost both pets and family members. I know the difference. Still, the day is not going the way I planned. I have cancelled meetings, I have let email go unanswered. The day seems odd. Time is stretched out. Things take longer than they should. Noises seem too harsh. My attention wanders. One minute I am industriously scrubbing the floor where the kennel was and laughing at the jokes on the radio. The next I am wandering around, in tears because I don’t know where I put the mop. That is what grief does.
One of the ways you know you have a good support system is when word gets out. I am guessing someone with whom I was supposed to meet today made some calls. I got emails of support from people I haven’t talked to yet today. I felt as if someone had flashed the Bat signal. Another sign your support system is working is when they give you permission to do what you need to do. “Feel free to function at a less than optimal level for a while” my friend Barb told me, “we used to wear black armbands so the world would know we were grieving. Now we’re all walking around incognito…”
Last weekend I was visiting with some friends, one of whom had just lost his father. “I wish there was a T-shirt I could wear that said ‘My dad just died, so the answer is NO.’ Sometimes I just want to be excused from everything.” But as far as I can tell no one, not even those little hipster t-shirt shops, sell My Dad Just Died t-shirts. So Justin, like all who mourn, has to wander around in his private haze of grief, putting on his game face and doing the best he can.
Our efficiency-, productivity-driven culture leaves little room for the messy, mucky process of grieving. There is no app or hack or spreadsheet to get us through it faster or easier. There are no classes on how to grieve while inconveniencing others as little as possible. But grief won’t be told what to do. It doesn’t care for your plans or work schedule or social life. It does what it will and takes it’s own time.
In Mudhouse Sabbath Lauren F. Winner says “Long after your friends and acquaintances have stopped paying attention, after they have forgotten to ask how you are and pray for you and hold your hand, you are still in a place of ebbing sadness.” In the Jewish tradition, she tells us, mourners are exempt from Jewish law because God’s law is for the living, and those who mourn are near death themselves. But these mourners are not left alone to wallow. Well, they probably do wallow, but they don’t get to do it alone. The community has an obligation to keep them company, to be witness to their grief, not just for the funeral and the luncheon after but for a full week. Even after that, those in mourning are forbidden from saying their daily prayers alone.
When we mourn (whether for a lost loved one or marriage or job or yes, even a lost pet) incognito, we cut ourselves off from our support system. We pull the plug on the Bat signal. Kat Reed, a dear friend and award winning author, says we become a cave woman, alone with our club. We convince ourselves we are alone in the world.
You and Justin and I may not belong to a tight knit community with built-in rules for how to mourn, but we can send up our own Bat signal. Tell people when you grieve. Tell everyone. You don’t need to tell them you are fine. When you share your pain, you give them permission to share theirs. Then, cut yourself some slack. Be kind to yourself and others who may be mourning incognito. As Barb said, “Now we’re all walking around incognito, so I just try to remember every once in a while how much everyone around me must be dealing with.”
And never pass up the chance to scratch a dog’s belly.