“The work of a mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which makes compassion possible.” – Francis Ward Weller
Two weeks ago my companion and best friend died suddenly. After being in my life day in and day out, 24 hours a day and constantly by my side, he was gone.
To the world, Reg was a dog. He was a rescue dog who came into my life six and a half years ago. I hadn’t really been looking for a dog. I just happened onto a rescue dog website and Reg was there. His photo almost leapt off the page at me and from that moment, I knew he was mine and I was his.
When I separated from my husband shortly after Reg came into our lives, there was no question that Reg would stay with me. We argued over other things in our life, but there was no argument about who Reg belonged with. Anyone who met Reg knew he belonged with me. And I belonged with him.
As I have sat with my grief for the past two weeks I have reflected on his wisdom and what he taught me. He came into my life at a point when I needed him. And I’ve come to see that he has physically left my life at a point when I don’t need him anymore. Much like Mary Poppins comes in when needed and leaves when her wards have learned what she can teach, he came into my life to teach me quite a few lessons.
Here’s the highlights:
Number one: Expect that everyone is going to love you. And if you wag your tail more than you wag your tongue, they probably will. Reg assumed everyone would love him and pat him. He greeted everyone as a potential friend, no matter what they looked like. If we all greeted each other in this world this way, rather than with fear and suspicion because someone doesn’t look like us, I have no doubt we’d be better off. I have always loved meeting new people, but I’ve come to see my brashness, my need to please, has put some people off me when they’ve first met me. When I stay quieter, stop wagging my tongue, and listen to what others have to say and learn from them, I am the one who gains in numerous ways.
Number two: No matter how you have been treated in the past, allow yourself to trust and love again. Reg had been beaten by previous owners. He came to me, looking as he did in the photo below, dirty and scared of the garden hose. He started shaking and slunk to the ground the second he first realised I was going to try to wash him. In the end, I loaded him in the back of my car and took him to the dog wash. It took two of us to lift him into the tub. I talked quietly to him and washed him gently in warm water. As the dirt came pouring off him, his shaking subsided. Each time I took him to the dog wash over the next few months he became better with the experience, eventually even getting to the point where he’d get in the shower with me at home to be washed. And he learned he’d always get a kangaroo bone to chew in the garden after his bath which he loved.
Something inside him had been broken and he recognised the broken parts in me. Like him, I had been broken by the people around me, by people I had trusted and loved and respected. Watching his progress as he came to trust and love me helped me heal. He was there as I hit rock bottom, when I felt there wasn’t a man on this planet who I could trust or love or respect. He watched as I worked through this period, reminded me that I am love and bore witness as I started to rebuild my life.
Number three: Love unconditionally. He loved me unconditionally in that way dogs do. So much of my life had been about gaining the approval of others, people pleasing, trying to be loved for what I thought others wanted from me. Reg didn’t care about any of that. He loved me for me. He accepted me how I was each day. He didn’t care if I was employed in a high paying job or whether I had a breakdown or whether I had a fancy house or car or whether I stayed in my pyjamas all day, watching Netflix and feeling sorry for myself. He sat with me, whatever I was feeling and was happy just being with me.
Number four: Humans need to be taken for walks – in nature, daily. When Reg first came into my life I mistakenly thought that I was taking him for a walk each day. Eventually it dawned on me that it was actually the other way around. Dogs take us for walks. They provide the excuse for us to move, to exercise our bodies. There was a point where Reg and I walked 10kms a day or more, not because he needed the exercise but because I needed to move to beat my depression and anxiety. I needed to be outdoors, to be healed by nature, to see the cycle of life all around me and to see my place in that cycle. Nature and time heal us if we let it. Reg knew that and gave me a reason to immerse myself in nature. Through the hours we walked, I came to learn who I was and to learn to love who I am.
For the year we lived at the beach at Durras we often walked the 6kms of the dog beach several times a day. It was our favourite place to walk, to sit and meditate and to watch the ebb and flow of the tide. It’s this beach where I plan to spread his ashes. And one day, mine will be there too. Both of our bodies will return to this place that worked it’s magic on us, healing our spirits.
Number five: Words are not necessary between good friends or to express deep love. Reg couldn’t speak. He hardly barked (except when excited about playing with another dog). But he found quiet ways to show me everyday how much he loved me. Often it was just through sitting in silence together or having him sit on my feet. I’ve learned to hold space for others I love when they need it, just by being with them in silence.
Number six: Staring into someone’s eyes allows you to examine their soul. He had a habit of staring humans in the eye which always reminded me of an exercise I learned in Hawaii at life coaching training. We paired up with another person and sat facing them with our knees touching. We stared into each other’s eyes for three minutes. If you’ve ever done this, you know there’s a reason why eyes are thought of as the window to our souls. It’s an awe-inspiring exercise. I encourage you to do it with someone you love. Or if you can find someone you don’t really know and do it with them, it’s mind-blowing. In Hawaii I partnered up with a woman I knew very little about. The first thirty seconds are awkward, but once you get past that and are open to the experience, it is an incredible feeling seeing another’s soul and being seen for who you are. My partner in Hawaii and I will always remember the experience and each other. Reg is the only dog I know who would stare into someone’s soul, if they allowed him. He didn’t look away or get threatened by a human staring back at him. Anyone who took the time to let him see them, always commented on his ability to see their soul. It’s a rare gift to be seen and to allow yourself to be seen on that level.
Number seven: Naps, preferably in the warm sunshine, should be taken often. Dogs listen to their bodies. When they are thirsty, they drink. When they need to pee, they do. When they are tired, they nap. Humans get so busy and caught up in our lives that we often forget to do the very essential things for our bodies. I know many a person, including me, who has put off going to the toilet because they were too busy to do so. Reg napped often, and then had the energy to do what he needed to do, when he needed to do it. In recent years, working from home and being with him all day made me appreciate listening to my body and I learned to take naps when I felt tired. I now have much more energy to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done.
Number eight: Some things are better with time and there’s no hurrying the process. I would give him a bone after his bath and put him outside in the sunshine to finish drying his fur. He would take the bone to the bottom north corner of the garden where it would be buried. In the process of burying it, he would dig up the last bone he had put there. That bone then was taken to the top south corner of the garden when he swapped it for another he had buried there. It was only that bone, the one that had been buried twice and had matured, that he then ate in the middle of the garden and enjoyed.
I would watch him undertake this process each time he was bathed and marvel. There was obviously something about the bone that had matured over time. It was just right. So many times in my life I’ve wanted to hurry life along, to get to the next big thing in my life, only to learn that life has it’s own pace with a time for everything. Reg taught me to stop hurrying and let life unfold as it does. When I do that, it turns out right. Which leads to…
Number nine: This moment is all there is. Watching Reg (and any dog) one sees they are all about that moment. They don’t waste time worrying about when their next meal is going to arrive or whether they will have some place to sleep that night. They live in the moment. And this moment is really all we have. Our moments in the future are in the future. They aren’t guaranteed or something that we need to worry about. Everywhere I look, humans are filled with fear. When I started living more in the moment, my fear and anxiety decreased and I realised that most of what I’d been worrying about never came to pass anyway.
Number ten: There is a simple way to make any human feel special — greet them at the door each and every time they get home with a smile and a kiss. It’s simple really. It makes the person getting home feel loved and valued and they know that someone cares about how their day was. Almost every person who has entered my house in the days since Reg died has commented on how bereft they feel that he isn’t there to greet them anymore and make them feel special. He saw that as one of his jobs — to make us and anyone who came to our home feel special.
Number eleven: Enjoy your food (and snacks). Reg always enjoyed his food and loved snacks. He knew the sound the popcorn maker made as it came out of the cupboard. He was in the kitchen like a flash as he loved catching popcorn in his mouth. His other favourite treat was peanut butter – on bananas, on a spoon, in peanut butter cookies — however it came. I’ve given up worrying about food. Life is too short to continuously be on a diet. I eat what tastes good, when I feel like it. Some days I eat once. Some days I eat many times. I enjoy it all. And popcorn has always been one of my favourite snacks too.
Number twelve: Breeding and pedigree don’t matter. What makes more of an impression is who you are, your interest in others and your manners. We did not know what breed of dog he was and knew little of his early years. He had obviously lived with someone who had trained him when he was young as he knew how to sit and shake paws. Sir Reginald (his official name) was a gentleman through and through. He was interested in people, a good listener and highly empathic, always sitting by the person who most needed him emotionally in the room. I’ve known many people who believe breeding and pedigree matter – for dogs and for people. But I’m more interested in dogs and people with a good mix of genes, intelligence and an interesting life.
Number thirteen: Don’t write off old – old people, old items, old anything. They have a lot of life left in them and a lot of wisdom to share. When he came to live with us we were told he was eleven, old for a large dog like him. The little we knew of his backstory told us that he needed love and the girls and I set that as our mission from the beginning – to give him a happy last few years of life. He lived far longer than any of us expected. And taught us more than we ever expected to learn.
Number fourteen: With great love comes great loss. There’s no getting around it. Love is the greatest force on the planet. Whether the love is between people or with a pet, the more you love someone, the greater the pain when they are physically not with you anymore. The amount of grief is proportional to how much love was between you. Everything has to come to an end and so with great love comes a feeling of great loss. But fear of loss shouldn’t stop us from loving. We need to grasp onto great love, knowing it will end, knowing it will be difficult to come to terms with the loss, but also knowing that without it, we are just a shell of what we could be. If we stop loving, or never allow love in, then we shrivel up inside, becoming more cynical and full of despair as Francis Ward Weller so beautifully puts it in the quote above.
Reg died much as I hope to die. He was happy and carefree and loving life up until 24 hours before he died. He was pain free and not suffering, even though I had known for a few months that his time was coming and had been preparing myself. He had let me know in many ways. The night before he died, he had a massive seizure which resulted in neurological damage. For a few hours he didn’t know who I was, but in his last few minutes he did recognise me and said goodbye with one of his biggest, sloppiest kisses ever. I loved it but it also broke my heart. I thanked him for everything he’d done for me and then let him go peacefully, knowing he was loved for who he was. He was surrounded and held by those who loved him most.
A friend of mine told me that everyone only gets one dog in their life like Reg, if they are lucky. I am a dog person and know eventually other dogs will come into my life, but I’m under no illusions that they will be like Reg. I will carry him and all he gave me forever, gratefully. The grief I feel for him will keep my heart fluid and soft and compassionate for others.
And one day, my time will come. The world will go on. Those I leave behind will continue on without me physically in their life, but will carry the love and gifts I have given with them. I hope I will have taught those who love me how to balance grief and gratitude so they will live their biggest, brightest lives with fluidity, softness and compassion.
Goodbye my darling buddy. Thanks for everything.