#amwriting, A Dog's Life, Animals, Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Dogs, Grief, Labra-doo-dad, The Inner Landscape

I am terrible at grieving, or an armored heart

I am terrible at grieving. I grew up in a family and an environment in which crying, generally, and grieving, specifically, were not only discouraged but practically anathema. When my Grandmother Spong died, my father, who was her only child and as close to her emotionally as he was to anyone, told me, “I’m all right if you’re all right,” which was his way of saying, “Don’t cry, or I might, too.”

As an adult, I faced three major losses in my thirties – first my mother, then a pregnancy at 21 weeks, then my father – and in each case, the circumstances made it difficult for me to grieve properly, at least as I came to understand proper grieving, ideas presented in classes at seminary, where I studied pastoral care through the life span and took a whole course on bereavement.

I’m not sure I got any better at grieving. Instead I learned to squeeze my eyes shut and keep the tears inside.

Crying, you see, frightens me. I associate it with a severe postpartum depression twenty years ago, a time when nothing seemed as if it would ever be right again, a time when everything seemed that mattered seemed poised to slip over the edge of an abyss. I said I had cried all my tears, but what I really meant was, I am not going to let things get that far out of my control again. If something threatens to hurt me, I will armor myself against it.

Molly was brilliant at eye contact.
Molly was brilliant at eye contact.

Just about the only exception to that armor was my first dog, Molly. She was charming, winsome, life-rearranging. I was 41 and had never lived with a dog before and had no idea how much it would feel like having a baby, another child to raise. A Bernese Mountain Dog, she had the terrible joints that some Berners do, and the crippling arthritis to go with them; that she lived to be almost 7 years old was a testimony to both my commitment to her and her incredible joie de vivre.

After her death, I did allow myself one good cry. (Emphasis on “allow,” which implies control, no?)

I always tell people who are afraid they will cry at a funeral that it’s exactly the right time for it, that their tears are a tribute to the person they loved and will miss, but I am confessing to you how poorly I do it. You may know what I mean. We hold ourselves together for the sake of others, because who doesn’t want to be a hero. And isn’t it a more secure feeling to be that hero than to let the feeling flow through and out of us? If we can only hold it all inside, we will never have to admit to vulnerability.

To mourn, to fully and consciously engage with the truth and pain of loss, is agonizing. It is something so difficult and frightening that incredibly successful people who are otherwise driven and aggressive risk-takers stereotypically shy away from grief.*

Grieve fully, feel Gratitude profoundly, and be humble enough to do the Grunt work!

Which is the hardest of the three g’s for you to practice to keep your faith simple? Grief, gratitude or grunt work?**

Books, darn it, sometimes make me think about things I would rather not, make me feel things I would just as soon compress into the components of more armor. Not long after reading both the quotes above and confessing to my journal that I am terrible at grieving, I opened Facebook on my iPhone and clicked on the daily memories they now provide whether I want them or not, and there I found this picture.

Hoagie, my last Berner
Hoagie, my last Berner

Now, he may not prove to be my final Berner, but Hoagie was the last of the Berners I had in Maine, a rescue who came to us at a time when my daughter and I really needed him even more than he needed us. He would have come with me to Pennsylvania, but he developed cancer and did not live long enough to embark on the new chapter of life with us.

“Oh, Hoagie,” I said to my iPhone, to Facebook, to no one in particular, as I sat in bed in the early morning half light. I blinked, because if you blink hard enough, or scrinch up your eyes just right, the tears will go away. Except that they don’t. Something calcifies. After kathrynzj’s Old Man Dog died last fall, we started talking about when and whether to look for a new dog, and where, and whether to get a puppy, and although my loss was further in the past, I could not say I was ready. I didn’t really grieve, I realized. I set my eyes toward the horizon, and I hardly stopped to let myself be sad, to grieve for the dog, the dogs, the life I thought I had, because of course the future looked favorable and many good things lay ahead.

I looked at the picture again, and I remembered the words I scrawled in my journal the early morning of the day before, and I looked at the picture again, and I cried.

Teddy at 3 months
Teddy at 3 months

At my house there is a new dog, this crazy puppy Teddy, a lab mix who loves my slippers, who is not a Berner, who is mouthy and likes hard pets and peeled carrots, and whose short coat feels different but good to the touch.

He likes to stand on his back legs to see what’s on the table or the counter, just like Molly.

He does this at the storm door when we leave the house, front paws up like a child, sending his heart with us in little cries of love and longing.

An armored heart cannot love that way. An armored heart cannot move into joy.


*Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson. Never Pray Again (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2014), p. 110. Check out their blog, Two Friars and a Fool.

**Becca Stevens. Letters from the Farm: A Simple Path for a Deeper Spiritual Life (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2015), p. 32. I received a copy from her publicist, and an advance copy, too. If you’ve read this far, and are interested in the book, leave a comment and I will send you the extra book.


A Dog I Loved But Never Met

For Cub and her family, with love from Songbird and Molly…

“Love Dogs” by

One night a man was crying,
 "Allah, Allah!"
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
 "So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?"
The man had no answer for that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage,
 "Why did you stop praising?"
“Because I've never heard anything back."
"This longing you express 
is the return message."
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs no one knows the names of.
Give your life to be one of them.

(Translated by
Coleman Barks, from
The Essential Rumi, edited by Coleman Barks.)


Medial Instability

Our Molly went to see the orthopedic surgeon for a consult this morning.

Molly appeared in my first and second blog posts ever, more than five years ago. Back then she was recuperating from surgery on her right hip, awaiting the day she could have arthroscopy on both elbows. She came to us that way, with hip and elbow dysplasia, although the symptoms did not begin to present until she was 6 or 7 months old.

Ever since a weekend at our favorite kennel last fall, Molly has shown signs of increasing lameness. We rested her and boosted her arthritis medication, and she seemed to get better, but a few weeks ago, running in deep fresh snow, she fell, and since then has been awfully lame.

Our vet contacted the original surgeon at Tufts, who felt that if the elbow was the problem now, the only surgery to be under consideration would be elbow replacement, which sounded like too much for us on all sorts of levels. Our vet was not satisfied to drop her inquiries, however, and suggested we get a second opinion. She sent Molly’s x-rays to an orthopedic surgeon who practices here in Portland. He did Sam’s OCD repair three years ago, and we were happy with those results, so I was glad to take her to see him.

After examining Molly, who was at her most charming this morning and offered him a paw immediately, the surgeon determined that the elbow was no more problematic than the average arthritic elbow of a 6-year-old dog. The real trouble, he said, was medial instability of the shoulder. This is probably the injury she sustained while spending the weekend at the kennel last September and re-injured a few weeks ago.

The good news: the injury is not painful and the treatment is restricted activity with gradual increase. We know how to do that! The surgeon’s theory is that limited exercise to the point just shy of what causes lameness builds the shoulder up again. He thinks we can back off the Tramadol she has been taking, since the reason she was lifting her paw was likely not elbow-related but just to avoid putting weight on the front leg to "favor" the shoulder.

We have also made an appointment with our former vet, who is a veterinary acupuncture practitioner. We’ll be going for the first appointment next Wednesday. This is the vet who taught us all about puppies as an 8-week-old Molly, all 13 pounds of her, dozed on the examining table between us, and I trust her implicitly.

Our current vet has been wonderful. I am deeply appreciative of her instinct to get someone else to look at Molly and her generosity in referring us to a former member of her practice for special care.

I read that "medial" can mean, in addition to other things, "average," and I have certainly been in an average state of instability as I contemplated the possibilities for Molly. The fact that her breed has an average lifespan of 7 to 7-and-a-half doesn’t mean I’m prepared to believe we’ve run out of possibilities for her. To say I’m relieved tonight is understating the case, but it’s about all I dare to say.

Molly has been away from blogging given her sore shoulder, but she will probably get back to it soon. Meanwhile, click on the animated Berner, and she will wag her tail!