Loss, travel and memory
On losing a pet and how travel helps in times of grief
What I’m about to write is unfinished business. I likely should not even share these thoughts until they are better formed and understood. But because I’m wandering in the realm of emotions here, I fear that by the time I gain a more complete intellectual understanding of it all, I will have lost the deeper power and meaning of the experience.
Four days ago, we had to put our beloved Labrador Retriever, Ginger, to sleep. I always thought that expression — putting an animal to sleep — was a euphemism: no one wants to own up to what you’re really doing. But after stroking Ginger’s head as the vet gave her the injection and she gently closed her eyes for the last time, I realize how appropriate the phrase is.
All during the almost 13 years that we’ve had Ginger, whenever a family member would project human emotions or perceived understanding on her, I would say, “C’mon. She’s just a dog.” But as any pet owner of good will and generous spirit learns, that’s not really true. Ginger wasn’t just a dog. She was our dog. And now part of us is gone.
Today I ran into a friend I see every few months. My wife and I have been praying for her husband who has been battling cancer for the last few years. I found out today that he recently passed away.
I think the tears that came unbidden mattered more than any words I could say to her. Tears that flowed easier for me due to my own sadness. If grief were a game of comparisons, I would lose. But it’s not. Grief is instead something we simply share. Something we stumble our way through…together.
My friend said how hard it is now to be only a person, not a couple. To find a task at home that required her husband’s strength. To see an object of his and remember. And then she wondered if that will last: Will she reach a point where she ceases to remember? She worried that she might forget him. I have wondered the same thing about Ginger. But then I assured her she will not. And here’s how I know.
Yesterday I walked through the park where we used to let Ginger run free to retrieve a thrown ball or stick. If I had to convey in one single image of what pure joy looks like, it would be Ginger running toward me, stick in mouth, full throttle in undiminished, exquisite happiness.
People refer to “a stab of pain” when a memory hits hard. But it’s more, to me, like a constriction. In your throat, your lungs, your gut. That’s how it was there in the park. The memory came and then a wave of sadness washed over me even as I was beginning to reassemble the pieces of that memory. And slowly, amidst the sadness, the happy time came into focus only to have that overshadowed by the realization I will never see Ginger run with such joyful abandonment again. Pain. Tenderness. Loss. Delight. Repeat.
As I thought about it, the moment reminded me in a very small way of that bittersweet feeling you have when traveling. Where you encounter people and places that move you in ways you didn’t know you could be moved. And then, even as you are wanting to stay forever in that moment, you’re not. You are the one moving. Away. Beyond. Back to a life so unlike what you have just experienced.
I realize that longing from a trip and the death of a loved one aren’t even close in impact and importance. But they do share this: They are feelings, conflicted ones. And both are forms of loss that have taught me something important: how to nurture a memory.
I know how to stay in that moment of deep pain or mere discomfort long enough for it to settle into something more. Something redemptive. Something that, while hard, will eventually reinforce and clarify what is good. And I believe my friend understands this as well.
But if she does not, I will share that with her. For it is in sharing and reminding, of laughing together at the good memories and being there for each other during the hard ones, that we hold onto what we have lost. We will, on our own, eventually lose some of the details and fine points in what we remember. But through each other and the artifacts of life — objects, familiar places, photographs and stories — we will be reminded. Of a sweet smile, a tender touch or in my case, the sheer joy of a dog running with a stick.
We won’t forget.