This week it will be one year since my sweet girl, Maddie, passed away and since then, a lot of friends have had to say goodbye to their own faithful companions. In the spirit of shared grief and to celebrate the truth that things do get easier, here is a piece I wrote after her passing.
Step 1: Cry
Cry. Cry even though she was old (especially for a great dane), even though you knew it was coming, even though you knew it was time and it would be heartless to keep her around, and even though you still wanted to more than anything. Cry even though you were sure you were at peace with it and it turns out you definitely were not. Cry until your eyes are sore and your heart hurts and you’re so dehydrated you start to look and feel like a husk.
Step 2: Torture Yourself
Torture yourself by reliving the last seconds, minutes and hours of her death whenever your mind finds a quiet moment. When you’re trying to sleep is always good. Replay it in the shower, while driving, doing the dishes, brushing your teeth, peeling vegetables. Constantly ask yourself all of the what if’s and if only’s even though it’s done and she’s gone and she’s never coming back. It doesn’t matter. Send your brain on the hunt for a solution to a problem that only ever had one answer.
Step 3: Clean Up
Clear out all the carpet runners you had to lay on the floors when her elderly feet started to slide on the laminate and she couldn’t walk around the house without them. Haul away the old couch you kept three years longer than you should have, because you weren’t about to banish her to her bed on the floor and get a new one. Package up her leftover food, her nail clippers and bowls to donate. Try at least three times to throw away the sweater your sister crocheted for her when you couldn’t find anything that would fit. Start weeping every time. Eventually give up. Keep her leash and collar. Sniff them endlessly to see if they smell like her. They don’t.
Step 4: Aimlessly Wander the House
Feel restless and uneasy. Wander through every room in the house, pointedly noticing her absence in all the places she used to sleep, each spot pressing painfully on the bruise that is your grief. Pace the same route over and over, like a depressed tiger at the zoo. You know you won’t find her but you can’t stop looking.
Step 5: Feel Slightly Better
Wake up one morning not thinking about it, or find yourself having a laugh with a coworker. Feel guilty immediately. The guilt makes you remember the sadness, which shows up in triplicate. Realize you should have tried to enjoy the brief respite instead of sabotaging it.
Step 6: Try to Distract Yourself
It can’t be with just anything. Turns out comfort movies don’t comfort at all, only wound with their happy endings and sweet words and useless jokes. Instead, binge watch crime shows about murder, with gruesome details and lots of secrets. They’re consuming and everyone in them is miserable. Perfect.
Step 7: Get Strangely Attached to Random Mementos
Find a dog hair in your lunch. Stare at with longing. Place it on your desk and touch it almost constantly. At the end of the day, stick it in your pocket. Feel bereft when you get home and can’t seem to find it.
Step 8: Read Lots of Books
Reality sucks, so disappear into a new one. With a good book, you’re no longer in your body, you are somebody else, living a different adventure. If you’re not here, you don’t have to remember that she isn’t either. Make sure to read before bed, long enough that your eyes refuse to stay open and the plot stays with you as you slip into sleep.
Step 9: Avoid All Music
Avoid all music. Music makes you feel things, and the feelings are never good. Genre is irrelevant. Happy music makes you sad. Sad music makes you sad. Angry music makes you sad. Music about jiggling your booty makes you sad. How can you think about jiggling your booty when she’s not there to eye your dancing with annoyed weariness? No. Music is the enemy. Music is for those who need help feeling. You feel too much already.
Step 10: Have Great Friends and/or Family
Be consistently surprised by the people around you. Receive hugs, thoughtful texts, cupcakes, cheesecake, flowers, ice cream and even a beautiful rose bush you plant in your backyard, where she spent her final moments. You are surprised by their gentleness and compassion. Remember it so you can do it for them when they need it.
Step 11: Pick up her ashes
Pick up her ashes and congratulate yourself on not crying at the vet’s office and for remembering to bring them the thank you card you wrote. Hold the box of ash that was once your sweet girl tight against your chest as you go to the car. Whisper to her, as though she can hear you, even though she can’t. Murmur her name while you clean the kitchen and take out the garbage and water the garden. Think about taking the box to bed with you at night. Decide not to, it’s simply too weird.
Step 12: Sprinkle Her Ashes or Try To
Make a plan to sprinkle her ashes in her memorial rose bush, in the other rose bush in the front yard that you love. To sprinkle her on the nanking cherry bush and in her favourite park. Cry a little. Pray that her ashes don’t kill anything because that would be a huge bummer. When you’re ready, go and get her urn, only to find they’ve glued it shut. Laugh at the insanity of it. Promise her you’ll buy a good solvent.
Step 13: Go On Long Walks
Go on long meandering walks that end with gelato. Feel a pang of jealousy when you see other people out walking their dogs, still able to enjoy their company, followed immediately by a wave of sympathy. You know something horrible waits for them in the future. See friends and stay a little longer at work, you might as well, there’s no one waiting for you at home. Start talking about her, just a little, without feeling so sad. Miss her more, but feel sad less.
Step 14: Redecorate
Paint the house and buy a new couch. Get a large plant the really livens up the living room. Buy more plants. Buy all the plants. Pay a contractor to replace the rotted old windows and start shopping for a new tv stand. She isn’t missing in a room that no longer looks like the one she left.
Step 15: Keep Feeling Better
Each day the spaces between the sadness grow. It still knocks you over sometimes, like you’ve clothes-lined yourself on your own grief, but it’s an ache now, not a gaping wound that leaves you breathless. Fall down rabbit holes of sadness, but no longer be surprised by them. You know they’re temporary. Breathe through them, then keep moving. Realize it’s a process. Realize that the only way to get over it is to wait it out. Wish she could come back. Know that she can’t.