The loss of a companion

Grief is a complicated emotion. It is triggered by many different types of events, and it does not follow a consistent path. Our ability to express it is wound up in an intricate interplay of circumstance, our genetic make-up, and experiences. It can be intense or subdued, but it always seems present when we lose something precious.

I grew up in an environment of stoicism. My father was a career soldier and the son of an Episcopalian minister. He was of the time when men did not express emotion. I never saw him cry although I was not privy to his private time. I believe he passed it down to his boys.

As a military brat and then during my own career in the Army, everything had a “temporary” nature. You moved constantly (18 times in my first 21 years). People and places came and went. You did not invest much of yourself in relationships because they always ended, typically in a rapid, sometimes traumatic way.

Consequently, we learned to stifle our emotions. I was great at “compartmentalization” (or so I thought). I would pack my “losses” in neat little boxes, then hermetically seal them so that no whiff of loss could permeate my psyche. They simply were gone, and that was that. What I failed to grasp was that the grief associated with those events was not encased with the experiences I stored away. It went into an entirely different room, one with a well-made door, but not nearly so steadfast as had expected. The grief of innumerable experiences would intermingle like a great “black and tan” ale, separate at first, but ultimately homogenizing. Entropy at work.

Grief could “leak out.” But there was not always a close connection between the “subject and the verb.” The expressions of grief were not always closely associated with the event du jour. My first crushing realization of this came during a period of family tragedies. Over a three-year period, I made frequent pilgrimages to Arlington National Cemetery. First to bury my mom, then my father and finally to honor my sister-in-law. My brother’s wife, Laurel, was an astronaut on the Shuttle Columbia that broke up on re-entry.

I had stifled my grief when my mother and father died; it poured out for Laurel. It was overwhelming. I could not stop. I almost broke down when they flew the “missing man” formation over the Johnson Space Center, the lone aircraft breaking away to leave a hole in the flight. The symbolism can only be matched by the final notes of “Taps” fading away as a rifle salute echoes away.

Why had I grieved so for one family member, but not for those that were much closer? It was disproportionate and disorienting. Ultimately, I came to understand that it was the public nature of Laurel’s ceremonies that made the emotional expression “OK.” A nation grieved so it was acceptable for me as well. But it was not just for her I grieved, it was the unexpressed, built-up emotion over the loss of my parents (and likely numerous other experiences). The door broke open and the outpouring of those feelings long suppressed cascaded through me. It was revelatory and cathartic.

I have recently revisited the experience and am yet in the throes of similar sentiments. In the past few months, we have lost several close family members (Jake, Max and Cooper). Three loyal loving pets. Yeah. I get it, they are “only dogs.” That may be true for the outside world, but not for us. They were an integral part of our lives.

My wife rescues “Doodles” (a breed mixture of Poodles and almost anything else). We have had Golden-doodles, Newfie-doodles, Bernie-doodles and Labradoodles (to name a few). They all have a “story.” Many are simply animals that exceeded their owner’s capacity for care. Others came from hard (even criminal) circumstances. All transitioned though Barb’s loving care. Most were re-homed to wonderful environments. But we have kept (more than) a few.

These have generally been the outliers, the special ones. Max was a left-over, the one nobody wanted. The dog from the “discount-rack.” Roo (my dog) had a cracked pelvis and a broken femur. She “screamed” when touched and was to be put to sleep had Barb not come to her rescue. Cooper was a giant, a “Clifford-like” clod. He did not know his size (as tall as me when up on his hind legs). He was gentle (little Roo would torment him and he would lightly tolerate her play).

Cooper’s loss has overwhelmed me. He got into something and died on the operating table. I know it was my fault. But it was also in his nature. He just delved into everything. He could open a door or the trash bin like Houdini. It was his demise.

I see him everywhere in the house. Taking up half the bed at night. Poking his snout into my face while I’m watching TV. Body-blocking you when he wanted attention. Mostly, I see him fetching the ball I slung in the field behind the house. He would do it until I worried his heart would explode. I would tell him to lie down, but he would none-the-less keep dropping the ball at my feet. I buried him next to max at the edge of the hill he loved so much.

I am heartbroken. I know the grief will diminish and his memory will fade, as have all those of all the loved ones I have lost. But in my heart, he will be forever chasing a ball down that hill.

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