Death, Downward Dogs and Grieving a Loss
I’d never had a dog before I got Max. I’d actually got him for my son, thinking that as an only child, he’d enjoy the companionship of a ‘brother from a furry mother’. But it was clear from the moment that I collected Max from the rescue centre that he was my dog. He instantly attached himself to me like a shadow.
It immediately became apparent that Max had been seriously mistreated by his previous owners. Although he was a big dog he cowered at the slightest sound, trembled if someone knocked at the door and worst of all, refused to leave the house. When I realised that I had the only dog in the UK – if not the world – who howled in fear rather than yelped for joy at the sound of ‘Walkies!’ I was distraught. Walking Max had been the thing I’d been looking forward to most about having a dog. I’d had no idea that he was badly traumatised and I had no idea what to do.
That first night, after securing a howling Max in a room downstairs, as instructed by all the dog-advice websites, I got into bed and started to cry. My dog-owning dream had turned into a nightmare. I had no idea how to help Max. I’d have to send him back to the shelter. Then I heard footsteps padding across my bedroom floor – and felt something licking my face. Somehow Max had managed to escape from his room downstairs and he was licking my tears away, as if to say, ‘I’m sorry. Don’t worry.’
I knew there and then that I was in this for the long haul; that there was no way I’d be taking him back to the shelter in the morning. And so began Operation Rehabilitate Max – using the only two things I had at my disposal, love … and cocktail sausages.
Slowly but surely, we began to coax Max out of his shell and out of the house – with the help of the aforementioned sausages. It was a long and bumpy road to recovery, but the love I felt for Max was of the fiercest, purest kind. And it was a love that was more than reciprocated.
Max was unconditional love in four-legged form and it wasn’t just me he showered his love upon.
Back when I first got Max I used to do one-to-one writing coaching sessions at my house. Occasionally these sessions would get emotional when I asked the writer to explore the fears holding them back. On one such an occasion a client started opening up about her deepest fears and she began to sob. Max, who always sat under the table chewing on a bone during my coaching sessions, emerged, went over to my client and placed his chewed-up bone on her lap. Now, to anyone else having a meltdown this might have been the straw – or bone – that broke the camel’s back, but thankfully my client was a dog owner herself so she understood the huge act of selfless love that had just taken place. To Max, his skanky bone was his most treasured possession, but when he saw someone in distress his first instinct was to give it to her.
The thing I treasured most about Max’s love – and another parallel with spiritual Love – was the feeling of constant companionship it gave me.
Over the years, I walked miles with that dog, day after day, come rain or shine, literally and metaphorically. We walked together through good times and bad, and when the times got really bad, the one thing I could console myself with was the fact that we were still walking. My partner had cancer and might die – but Max and I were still walking. My son was having problems at school – but Max and I were still walking. My relationship had broken up – but Max and I were still walking. There was such safety and security in the consistency and companionship of our daily walks.
So I was utterly devastated when the vet told me that Max had to be put to sleep. His back legs had become increasingly frail, he was in a lot of pain and he’d become incontinent. ‘Having him put to sleep is the most loving thing to do,’ the vet told me.
It turns out that sometimes the most loving thing to do can be the most painful thing to do because sometimes, loving means letting go.
The day Max was due to be put to sleep I took him for one last walk around his favourite meadow. The sun was shining brightly and our shadows fell long upon the ground. My heart seemed to crack right in two as it hit me that from now on, his shadow would be gone. From now on, I’d be walking alone.
I don’t really remember much about the journey to the vet but I’ll never forget being there when Max was put to sleep. He lay on the floor with his head on my lap as I fed him treats and then, with a gentle sigh, he was gone. Although I was heartbroken I felt honoured to have been holding him when he passed away. It felt like the fitting end to our love story.
But death is never the end when it comes to Love, and it took a yoga class to make me realise that.
Before the class began, I told my yoga teacher that my dog had died the previous day and I was still feeling very raw. ‘So if I have to leave midway through it’ll be because I’m feeling too upset to continue,’ I explained. But once the class began, I felt a welcome respite from my sorrow.
It wasn’t until savasana that the floodgates opened. Savasana comes at the end of every yoga class and it basically involves lying very still on your mat in a state of complete and utter relaxation. It’s my favourite yoga pose and I’m quite frankly an expert at it, but not that night. As soon as I lay down and put my blanket over me I felt my sorrow come flooding back with a vengeance. Although I was careful not to make a sound, tears began pouring down my face. Then I felt another blanket being gently placed on top of mine and tucked tightly around my body.
The relief I felt was instantaneous and I felt a warmth rushing into me. I saw a vision of Max in his favourite meadow, but this time instead of limping in pain he was running free. And I felt awash with a tremendous feeling of peace – and a sense that Max was at peace – and this greatly comforted me.
When the class was over and the lights came back on I saw that my teacher had covered me in an old woollen blanket. I took it back over and thanked him. ‘The weirdest thing happened when you put the blanket on me,’ I told him. ‘I went from feeling completely heartbroken to the most amazing sensation of peace. It was as if my dog was telling me that he was OK and free from pain.’
My teacher nodded and smiled sagely. ‘That’ll be the magic blanket.’ He went on to tell me that the blanket he’d wrapped me in had belonged to him since he lived in India. ‘There’s been a lot of meditating done on that blanket,’ he said. ‘And it’s been sprinkled many a time with holy water from the Ganges.’
Later that evening he sent me an email which included the following words of wisdom: ‘Love does not go away, one’s capacity to love is eternal and self-perpetuating. Trust in the Love you feel and the sadness it now brings you … Love heals the wounds it makes.’
Love heals the wounds it makes. Love hurts. But it also heals. The cycle is never-ending.
The pain you feel after the loss of a loved one is in direct proportion to the joy they brought you while they were alive.
And that joy and that Love will help you to heal again.
It’s been five years since Max passed away. I still feel pain at his loss – I cried while writing this chapter. But I still feel him with me too because Love can never die.
The above post is an extract from my book, Something More … a Spiritual Misfit’s Search for Meaning, which is currently just 99p on Amazon Kindle as part of their New Year, New You promotion. Find out more and buy your copy here.