Smothered in my own tears and snot, I sat on the cold tile floor of the animal clinic and watched our family dog fall asleep for the last time.
A tuft of hair from some other dog stuck to the blanket he lay on.
It was three days before my thirtieth birthday.
To sit through death on the eve of celebrating life sounds like some Shakespearean tragedy. Or comedy. Or tragicomedy.
I always did enjoy a bit of black humor, but I really didn’t ask for it on my birthday.
I can’t find any humor in the sharp blade of loss, in that still moment where the world spins fiercely around you, caught up in its tornado of meaningless busyness, while you sit in the eye of the storm with nothing but silence surrounding your sobs.
In my moment of loss, nothing else seemed to matter.
Not the drunk man yelling in the exam room next door. Not the robotic receptionist at her desk. Not the mass of humanity swarming around like an army of ants beyond the clinic doors.
It all grew quiet.
The insanity of the rat race, beeping their horns, pushing and shoving for their right of way, faded to the dull hum of highway traffic in the distance.
All that existed was me, my family, and my dying dog. Each breath, each tear, each hug a small eternity.
If there can be any good in grief, perhaps it is this. That we are driven into the present moment, to relish every heart beat that keeps us alive, to bathe in the breath that gives life to our bodies, to feel so intensely the good we are still graced with.
To finally see beyond the matrix, where we wander like zombies with hands over our ears and eyes shut, unable or unwilling to recognize those moments that really matter until a pill of grief is slipped into our drink.
To taste its bitterness and let our eyes blink open as if for the first time.
To let the fog of grief paradoxically make our vision clearer. To watch what actually matters pop off the page while the rest of the lines in our storybooks blur to nonsense in the astigmatism of our mourning.
To feel our tears dissolving the masks that hide our humanity and witness the shock waves of loss shaking the headphones from our ears until all we can hear is the sound of our own hearts beating.
In grief, to allow ourselves to become more real.
In that cold, sterile exam room, I lay on the floor next to my dog and felt his last breaths kiss my face. I kissed him back, in the silky spot where his ear met the top of his head, and said my last goodbye.
I cried so hard the night we came home without him. There weren’t enough tears in the world to satisfy my sorrow.
While the freshness of the injury mercifully lost its sting over the following week, the painful bruising around the wound remains.
I see it in the silence no longer filled by his toenails clicking across the kitchen floor or his bark at my key turning in the lock, welcoming me home.
It’s in the tufts of his hair still stuck in the small corners of nightstand tables where the vacuum cleaner can’t reach.
It’s in the paw prints and dried drops of drool still clinging to the floor where they appear in the early evening when the light grows low and golden and pours into the room like a halo.
I miss him every day when I wake up and wonder where he’s gone. I miss him right now.
I’m sorry for making this so depressing. But I don’t really understand why we shun the depressing in the first place.
Driving against the flood of tears the day my dog died, I wondered where all the other mourners in the world were. I was not the only one that day, but I didn’t see any others outside my own family.
Perhaps it’s because we hide our mourners away, like they’re a stain on our society, a blot of sin on the American religion that is the pursuit of happiness. I don’t really know.
But grief should be seen. Pain only grows worse when we pretend it doesn’t exist.
We shouldn’t hide it from our kids or our neighbors or our coworkers as if it were the unhappy ending of the American fairy tale that no one likes to tell. Grief may be the cruel stepmother of our story, but without it we have no story at all.
There is no love without loss, no light without darkness, no life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without death, dictatorship, and depression.
They say Bhutan is such a happy country because the people there regularly ponder their own deaths. Like five times a day regular.
Eric Weiner’s BBC article “Bhutan’s Dark Secret to Happiness” explains how the Bhutanese accept sadness as a part of life and honor their grief with long periods of ritualized mourning – as opposed to Westerners who hide the dying, sterilize death, hire people to put makeup on it, and then medicate themselves against the ensuing sadness.
I’d like to go to Bhutan. I’d like to see this for myself. But since I can’t get there right now, I’ll write my own story of sadness, this chapter of my grief, a small but healing public ritual of mourning.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for feeling whatever you felt while reading. If you found it sad, if you found it depressing, who knows, maybe it could actually make you happier.