How the Power of Kindness is Lifting Me Up After Loss
I’ve been hit hard. I’m still hurting. It’s been six days since we lost my friend’s dog, Blue, a beloved Boxer whose passions included running, licking faces, and training even the tiniest of humans to love animals. Blue’s “family” was a motley crew of friends of his faithful owner. In a way, he had many brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and friends who felt a special connection with him.
In his heyday, it would be nothing for Blue to join his owner and me on a 10–15 mile run. (I credit Blue for training me for a marathon!) More recently, Blue was good for a 3–4 mile easy jog. A few years ago, Blue developed a heart condition after an episode where he collapsed in front of his owner during exercise. The vet said, “You can stop all activity and he’ll probably get depressed. Or you can let him do what he loves and keep him active. Either way, it’s a matter of time.” She gave time one year. Blue took two.
Those facts don’t make his death any less painful because I feel personally responsible. Blue passed away on my watch. We went out on our normal jog/walk routine. We stopped at our water fountain at mile 1 of 3. He drank, sat in the grass, and began panting. It was all typical behavior until his panting didn’t decrease after a minute or two. I looked at my brother and asked, “Why can’t he regulate his breathing?” I brought more and more water, placed it in his mouth and over his body.
Blue tried to stand and he suddenly collapsed to his side. Thinking this was another episode, I called his owner who told me “Just love on him and he’ll come back in a few minutes. If he doesn’t, it was just his time. I’m ready.”
Before we knew it three different bystanders stopped to help us — a runner, a photographer, and a dog sitter. The photographer and runner shuttled water, the dog walker called to warn the nearest animal hospital we were coming. I began doing CPR to the best of my ability, coached on the phone by the photographer’s wife — a nurse!
Every breath I gave him carried my hope that he would snap out of the episode, just like the three previous times he collapsed. But as we carried him to the car his body felt lifeless and I could tell he was no longer breathing. I continued CPR, but by the time we arrived to the animal hospital, it was too late. Blue was gone.
I’m not sure when (if ever) I will exonerate myself for taking him out that day. The fact remains if I left Blue inside he would still be here. That’s what hurts the most. One different decision and my friend would have his dog.
Despite how difficult it has been to let myself feel all these negative emotions, I know that’s part of the deal of life. You can’t deny your pain. If you do, you’ll suffer.
The secret to resilience is letting yourself “feel the feels” and find the energy to move forward. My energy comes from these three truths: Blue died doing what he loved, I did the best I could to help him, and people will show up to help– if you let them. I want to address this last point now because we all can use more kindness in our lives and we can all give it.
“There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.” — William Butler Yeats
In my effort to find meaning in my pain, I asked myself “Is there anything good here?” I just could not get the strangers out of my head. In this “me first” world, I never imagined people with no connection to me or Blue would interrupt their important lives to help. They saw something wasn’t right and jolted into action. They didn’t have to stop and think about it. “Can I help you?” The power of kindness, when I was most vulnerable, was something “good” I could hold on to.
When I reached out to thank my stranger/friends who helped me that day, these are the words I got back “It was an honor to be of service, if just to make sure you weren’t alone.” And “Take comfort that you were bringing joy to Blue. He went quickly, without pain or suffering.”
These acts of kindness from strangers lifted me up, even if for a moment. I allowed myself to feel gratitude. It didn’t change the outcome, but their efforts were meaningful to me and I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity to feel their positive impact.
Compassion is one of the most beautiful expressions of our humanness. We are born to connect, to help, and to heal each other. But be honest with me, how easy is it for you to let others help you? “I don’t want to bother them,” you say. Or “I should be able to figure this out myself.” We all say these things to ourselves. But what matters is whether or not we listen to that voice.
When we’re in the midst of difficulties, it can feel less painful if we deny what’s happening. We isolate ourselves. We run and hide from our feelings and we (temporarily) don’t have to endure the pain of saying “I’m hurting. I need you.” But this is a mistake. It only leads to more pain and suffering as you cope with negative emotions in unhealthy ways. Instead of enhancing your well-being, you smother it — with food, alcohol, drugs, TV, shopping, gambling, or any other number of distractions from reality.
But when you open yourself up to receiving help, when you reach out your hand and take the kindness that is offered, something miraculous happens. You feel better, even if only in a small way. I call this spiraling up. You can reverse a downward spiral of negative emotions and poor self-care choices, or at least neutralize it with one small action. This helps you separate choices you may be triggered to make based on your emotional state and the choices you really want to make — the ones that matter most to you.
It took me a few days to let the good in. At first I wanted to run and hide so bad. My mind tried saying “It’s just a dog — get over it and get back to work!” If I did that, I wouldn’t be able grieve a true loss. Suddenly, my favorite 3-mile loop would never be the same and I had no desire to see the tree where Blue collapsed. My mind said “avoid” but my heart said “approach”. I knew I had to do the hard thing. I had to show my strength and vulnerability at the same time. I told myself “it’s OK to hurt and it’s OK to feel better”. My sister-in-law thoughtfully purchased blue hydrangeas. My brother went out on a run with me and we placed flowers at Blue’s spot. I told him “I’m sorry, buddy. You were a great dog. Rest easy, my friend.”
I wish I could bring Blue back. I wish I didn’t feel like I failed his owner. But like many things in life, I can’t control these thoughts and feelings, but I can live with them and let myself heal.
As I write this, I can’t help but recall Blue’s enthusiasm when he saw me reach for my shoes that day. He took his own leash off the wall and carried it around the house as I got ready. He was happy on our excursion. He even looked happy panting. It brings me some comfort to think he was in his element. He was loved, just like his owner wanted, as he slipped away from us.
Sharing this story is helping me too. It’s a reminder that pain is real — an inevitable part of life that should not be avoided. It’s a reminder that we don’t get through difficulty alone. It’s a reminder that kindness is a two-way street. If I can give it to others, I need to be able to accept it.
If one more “good thing” could possibly come from my anguish, my wish is that you internalize my story. Think about how much you need people. How can you allow yourself to accept kindness from others — friends, family, and even strangers when the time comes you realize you really do need them to lift you up.