On Grief and Gratitude

The first thing you need to know about Leah is that she wasn’t “just” a dog. She was the first dog I had in my adult life, in my first house, navigating her care around my first full-time job. I brought her home when she was just a few months old, small enough to rest up against my shoulder like a baby or curl perfectly into the triangle of my criss-cross-legged lap. In so many ways, we grew up together.

We challenged each other and supported each other through a whole lot of ups and downs. We navigated sleepless nights — in the beginning and again near the end, months of housebreaking issues, and various training approaches. I nursed her back to health after multiple illnesses and surgeries, including an ACL repair that meant no running or jumping for two months. I put my mattress on the floor so she could still sleep next to me and guided her outside, step by tedious step, using a towel as a harness.

She returned the care I gave her tenfold. When I was stressed out or crying, she would lay her head in my lap or bring me a toy, reminding me to take a breath and laugh it off. When I slipped on ice while walking her once, she immediately came close to my side and bent down, a confused but ready protector. She was a friend to all of my friends, an adored grandpup, a charmer to our neighbors (even a couple who said they otherwise didn’t like dogs), and a calming, neutral-party mediator between my ex-husband and me, as we navigated coparenting her after we split.

Through the divorce, three moves, two job changes, and a master’s degree, she was on the journey alongside me. Amidst all the changes, she was a constant.

For the last few years, it was just the two of us in our little apartment. I talked to her all the time. I still do.

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And now she’s gone.

She passed away in July, after a brief and rapid decline into kidney and liver failure. She was 8 years old. Those 8 years felt like a lifetime and a fleeting moment, all at once. It still feels so strange to talk about her in the past tense.

Without her, I have now entered a new phase that feels foreign and tricky to navigate. A chapter in which I was quite comfortable was closed before I was ready, and a new one now stretches out before me. This is one of the most palpable experiences I’ve had of life operating outside of my control. I see myself now as a character standing upon that new chapter’s blank pages, trying to figure out what comes next.

This change has been heartbreaking and scary — and also, when I allow it to be, filled with new possibilities. I’ve barely known an adult life that didn’t include making plans around dog care, and I don’t quite know what to do with it yet. I’m trying to gain an appreciation for the more flexible schedule and the lessened responsibility, but most days I would rather go back to the 2 am wakeups and the snowy walks and the vet bills if it could mean having her back.

One thing that’s guiding me through this is the refreshed perspective I’ve had toward life since entering a previous new phase about a year ago. Last fall, I left the job I’d been in for 6 years and entered a new field, gaining a revitalized outlook and energy in the process. I got serious about my health — not just physically but mentally and emotionally too. Happiness and gratitude became priorities. I’ve found that, by simply paying better attention and shifting my focus, there is so much to be grateful for in every day. I work hard to acknowledge it, rather than mindlessly let it slip past or, worse, let the negatives take over my attention.

As I’ve talked with many loved ones and with my counselor about losing Leah, I find myself returning again and again to gratitude, falling into those kinds of statements without even trying — gratitude for the time we had together, for all that she taught me, and even for the ending we were given. I’m finding that gratitude is what sustains us during the times when it’s particularly hard to feel grateful.

I’m grateful that I can say Leah’s decline was brief. Just a month before she passed, she’d had a great annual check-up and had more energy than she’d had in months. Her dad took her to the beach and took stunning photos of her with a happily tired, wide-mouthed smile. I will cherish those all the more so now, because I want to think of her that way — loving life and savoring a beautiful day. She loved lying out in the sun.

I’m grateful that, shortly after Leah first went to the vet that Saturday morning, I had a girls’ day out and sleepover with my niece, Cora, that kept my focus on something positive while waiting for an update. (The vet needed to keep Leah there for the weekend on an IV.) Cora and I had had these plans set for weeks, and I didn’t want to cancel. When I got the call Sunday morning that Leah was not improving and I should get there soon, I’m grateful that Cora displayed maturity far beyond her 5 years in understanding the change in plans and getting herself dressed and packed while I made a flurry of phone calls. I’m grateful I have some positive memories associated with that weekend thanks to her.

I’m grateful that we had a heads-up that the end was coming and were able to be with Leah for her final breaths, as difficult as that was. I’m grateful the decision we had to make that day was clear, as she was no longer herself and was not going to bounce back. There was no agonizing uncertainty or wait; she had gone a long way down a dark road very quickly, and we helped her along the rest of it. I’m grateful that my ex, his new wife, and I were all there together to remind Leah of how much she is loved and to support each other through this overwhelming loss, as we’ve continued to do.

I’m grateful that I stumbled upon the perfect “urn” at the At Home store after debating for weeks what to do with Leah’s ashes. Nothing had felt right. And then this little tin with a bird on it was waiting for me at the end of an aisle, the only one of its kind. I picked it up and carried it around the store with me, and instinctively I found myself holding it close, almost cradling it, rubbing the bird’s back mindlessly with my thumb. I felt comforted, reassured. Not only do I think of birds as a symbol of peace, but Leah loved to chase after them and bark at them, hopping around as she looked up at them in the trees. It felt like a sign, at a time when I had long been ready to receive one.

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I’m grateful for all the lessons and challenges Leah brought to my life, for how much she helped me to grow, for her snuggles and playtime routines and the way her eyes would light up as we rounded the last corner of our walks and ran to our door. I’m grateful for all the little pieces of each day that will always make me think of her.

As daily life carries on amidst this jarring change, I still often endure waves of grief, but I return again and again to gratitude. It’s going to take continued practice and mindful effort, and I know there will still be days I fail at it. But I’m grateful I had already laid that foundation and can try to call upon it now, when I need it more than ever before.

Losing Leah has been such a profound loss precisely because of how fortunate I was to have her as an integral part of my day-to-day life. The key is to try to keep my focus on that second part and let that swell of gratitude continue to carry me forward.

Author: Valerie Dimino

I have a lot of words to get out.

13 thoughts on “On Grief and Gratitude”

  1. Such a beautiful piece about Leah! Losing a pet is like losing a family member. We had to put down our precious baby last December and it’s still something I can’t talk about, but what you said is perfect. Gratitude is everything. I started a gratitude journal last November (before we lost our Martini) and it has helped me to think positive. I’m nervous going into this holiday season but I have some wonderful ways to remember my baby.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for this message and for sharing your own experience, Katelynn! I remember when you posted on Facebook about Martini. They truly are family members, and their loss is so palpable every day. I agree with you about the upcoming holidays being a challenge. I will be putting my gratitude practice into overdrive! I’ll be thinking of you and Martini too. Stay in touch.

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    1. Thanks so much, Jen! You were by my side throughout Leah’s life and all the ups and downs. I know you understand what a loss this is. My gratitude list certainly includes amazing friendships like ours!

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  2. what a moving and insightful perspective Valerie. I have shared my joys, successes, failures, and refreshing perspectives on my blog as well. Though we outlive our furry friends, they never fail to change us into better people. Keep up the great writing and thanks for sharing this. R/ Eric

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Val, I feel your pain. It took John and I 4 years before we could even think about getting a new dog. Their lives are so short and yet give us so much! This is so well written, you should be a writer! Love and hugs, Brenda Plarr

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Such a beautiful expression of your time together, and so honest in your journey grieving a pet.
      Love you and I’m proud of you for your intentional shift in mindset. That’s a big deal!! Love you!!

      Liked by 2 people

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