A dog’s death helps put human loss into perspective

I have lost a loved one, a colleague, a boss and a dog in the last half of 2018. I am grieving my dog’s death most deeply of all — and not only because it was the most recent. I was present for the emotional, messy aftermath of the death and for the tending and burial of the body in a way that the funeral industry and sanitized social norms rarely allow us to be, any longer, for human beings.

Griffin, a miniature schnauzer, was only six and a half years old when he died after escaping the yard of the rural farmhouse outside of Mankato where my husband and I were staying for my stepmother’s funeral. Whether a vehicle struck him or he died of a stroke or heart attack, we will never know. His body was intact. David, my husband, had no blood on his hands after retrieving our pet from the cold, dark road. Aside from the eerie dead eye, unblinking and black as coal, Griffin looked afterward like he was asleep, tucked into his little “nest,” as we called his dog bed.Lucy and Griffin

Facing the particulars of our dog’s death is helping us grieve in a way that our “mourning-avoiding culture”— as the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado calls it — deems improper for human beings. If we are present for death at all, an undertaker quickly whisks away the body, leaving loved ones little time to absorb the blow. If the body is present at a memorial service, it typically is in a closed casket or made up beyond recognition like a perfect mannequin.

I convinced my husband to cover Griffin’s body with a T-shirt after we determined he was dead (“Wake up! Just wake up!” I was shouting inside my head as I felt the still-warm body for a pulse). I cited the covering as a sign of respect, but it really was for my own comfort. The next morning, nearly sleepless, I could not look at Griffin’s face again as he laid in the kitchen, still tucked inside his bed. I raised the covering in back to see the flank of his lifeless form. At the suggestion of my sister, a dog lover, we let our other dog, Mia, sniff the body to say goodbye. David and I both felt negligent and nauseous. We each cased the road for any sign of tire marks or fur, blood or bodily matter. Nothing there, no answers.

We brought Griffin home to St. Paul, and I watched as our older son helped bury the dog he loved in the backyard. My husband’s back heaved with sobs as he lowered Griffin into the grave. Gone too soon, this happy creature whom David adored, so much so that I jokingly referred to Griffin as “the grandchild.” My son told me later he had never seen his father cry.

“He cried when you were born,” I said.

‘I don’t know what to say’

I had an unsettling dream three weeks after Griffin died. He was with us again in the city, but he was running away. I saw him beneath a moving car, managing to keep pace between the tires. I knew he could not last long with his squat body and short legs. I knew he was gone for good. Was my subconscious trying to tell me that a car really had hit Griffin, that the premature death had been our fault?

Twice I have had the privilege of being present with loved ones close to their time of death. I returned to the bedroom of my mother’s memory care unit moments after she had gasped her final breath, her face composed again, at last, her confusion eased. Years earlier, I was the last person other than his partner to see my friend D.L. alive. I still recall the words I whispered and the way I stroked his head.

These memories are holy, but they are not the norm. News of the other three deaths this year came via phone calls. I was sad to hear of my stepmother’s passing at 91, but her death was neither shocking nor unexpected. The other two deaths stunned me — a 31-year-old colleague killed at his lake cabin while cutting down a tree, my boss felled at home by a heart attack five days later, only hours after we had texted about some work issue. Like Griffin’s demise, these deaths struck without notice. Two people who mattered to me were simply gone.

I am neither the widow nor a relative of either of these men. We were colleagues but not close friends. Maybe that’s the point: I feel this ambiguous loss —yes, I am reading the Pauline Boss book of the same name — but have few people with whom to share it.

A woman who used to office on my floor tried to buy a card after my boss died last July but couldn’t find one. “I don’t know what to say,” she told me with a sheepish shrug. Curious, I Googled “death of a boss” and came up with a blog post by a woman who makes teddy bears from the scraps of dead people’s clothing and an advice-driven column about how to cope until your dead boss is replaced. The Google search “death of a colleague” yielded a few more results, but even those focused primarily on how to remain productive.

“Few if any supportive rituals exist for people experiencing ambiguous loss,” Boss wrote in her acclaimed 1999 book. “Their experience remains unverified by the community around them, so that there is little validation of what they are experiencing and feeling.”

When our dog died, the teenager next door brought us homemade sugar cookies. My backyard neighbor placed a wreath of dried flowers on Griffin’s grave. Funny that outreach for a pet comes more naturally than outreach for a person — unless you post the news on Facebook, in which case a sad face or a generic “you are in my thoughts and prayers” seems to suffice these days for authentic communication.

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Fitbit: best friend or flinty foe?

My husband considered it the perfect gift for an aging exercise enthusiast, a computerized wristwatch that counts my movements, nags and encourages me in equal measure, and even tracks my sleep. A close friend cautioned that the device only feeds my obsessive nature.

Both men are right. The Fitbit, which I received for my birthday July 4, is pushing me to reboot my already disciplined daily exercise habit. But when is enough, enough? The day I log 15,495 steps, I am exhausted by 8:30 p.m.

My Fitbit, meanwhile, urges me on (“Today is the day!”) and fuels my competitive spirit. The first time I pushed past my 10,000-steps goal for seven days straight, it exhorted me: “You crushed it!” I even earned a Helicopter Badge for climbing 500 floors.A259FEE7-4D22-4E10-AE24-46A2A7469A13

Four weeks into owning a Fitbit, I already consider it an essential part  of my routine. It guilts me when I leave it on the kitchen counter so I can fix supper after work. “Hello, Amy,” it flashes when I strap it back on, in a tone that sounds eerily like my mother when I stayed out too late as a teenage girl.

On July 19, a sad day when my boss died suddenly of a heart attack, the watch greeted me with a simple, “Hi, friend.” It has come to know me and anticipate my needs.

Advice from the pros

Fitbit Flex, the first version of the tracker to be worn on a wrist rather than clipped on a waistband, was released in May 2013, four years after the San Francisco-based company (founded as Healthy Metrics Research) launched its Fitbit Classic Clip. Clearly I am late to the party.  But my device is new to me, and I’m extolling its virtues with the all the zeal of the recently converted.

Peers over 60 use the Fitbit to track various health metrics such as weight, water consumption and sleep — which I perpetually shortchange — at an age when we no longer can take good health for granted.

  • “I’m conscious of my resting BPM and actually get concerned when it’s elevated,” says my childhood friend Janey, 61, a doctor’s daughter who has always been knowledgeable about her health.
  • “I wore out my first one so am on a newer version now,” says Diane, who is fit and trim at 61. “It has literally changed my exercise habits.”
  • Helene, 66, began wearing a Fitbit two years ago because her employer incentivized it. She now walks longer distances in the morning and over lunch, and she expects those habits to continue once she retires this fall.

Like Helene, I used to track steps with a pedometer app on my iPhone. Despite walking to work and moving around throughout the day, I sometimes had trouble making 10,000 steps (an arbitrary measure of daily fitness that originated with a Japanese pedometer company in the 1960s). No longer.

Now I consciously stride the hallways at work, and up and down the stairs at home, because I know I’m getting credit for the effort. “Fitbit accounts for all the steps in a day, not just when I’m exercise-walking,” Helene notes.

Metrics and measurement

Even productive habits can start to own us.

My friend Diane engages in Fitbit exercise challenges with her family, but she refuses to wear the device to bed. Janey likes the various Fitbit community groups — my own app suggests Vegetarian, Yoga and Cycling (how does it know?) — but she removes her Fitbit sometimes “just to see if I can have it off for a day.”

I have run and walked 15,130 steps today, for a total of 7.16 miles. I’ve burned 1,983 calories. What do I miss when I measure every movement, every moment?

As a calendar-driven person whose work already ties me to my iPhone, I want to lose track of time, to let myself just be — at an age when I have earned that freedom. Should I reframe the phrase “off the clock” to “off the Fitbit”?

“LOL,” says Janey. “It usually doesn’t work.”

A better book club for busy women

Sometime during the initial rush of cold this past winter, I decided to start reading again. Not the daily newspaper that I still have delivered to my front door or the New York Times that I read on my iPhone — or, God forbid, the social media platforms to which I nominally contribute and feel obligated to follow — but books.

I wanted, again, to read the way my mother taught me, to read the way my father modeled, to read the way I used to before kids and a career consumed two full decades of my waking hours.Book stack

That is why, last November, I began to sit with a book every day:

  • Under an afghan,
  • In my favorite chair,
  • With a dog beside me.

I converted the blank inside cover of my journal to a list of books and authors read. Soon a pattern emerged that has since become a goal. With rare exception — usually when I am overworked and crave escape — I am reading outside of my white, middle-class, feminist experience.

“Books were my pass to personal freedom,” Oprah Winfrey has said. My intentional selection of books has become my passport to places I otherwise might not go, a chance to see the world through the eyes and experiences of different ages, ethnicities and nationalities.

A club without commitments

Inspired and eager to talk about books again, I wondered: What are other women reading? That led me back to the Annual Book Club, an idea I had tried twice before, years ago. The idea is to get the benefits of a book club without the monthly commitment — and the stress, for busy women, of turning pleasure reading into a competition or have-to chore.

Here is how the Annual Book Club works:

  • My friend Sara and I each picked a friend to co-host with us.
  • The four co-hosts each chose an additional book-loving friend, forming a group of eight people that combined old friends with “friends not yet met.”
  • We asked each woman to compile a list of up to five books. Why did she choose them? How would she convince us to read them? What did these books mean to her?
  • Each of us brought eight hard copies of our lists, leaving us with a year’s worth of literature and literate non-fiction.

We met at my house on a sunny Saturday afternoon — an English professor, a retired librarian, three marketing writers, an art director and me, a former journalist who still loves to write — and for three hours shared stories about our reading habits, our lives and our learnings in late middle age.Book Club

Unlike the aging stars in Book Club, a film that is drawing only middling reviews, we did not drink wine, or talk about sex, or ruminate over our frustrations with men. This was our time, as readers, as working women who make time for books, and we took our assignments seriously.

Recommended reading

Below are some titles I may never have encountered, in the words of the wise women who recommended them:

Rise to Greatness, by David Von Drehle: This book covers 1862. Each chapter reviews one month of that year. The Civil War raged, the government fell apart and was broke, Europe wanted to cash in on the cotton trade, and the two political parties didn’t agree on anything. If you think today’s politics are negatively charged and the country divided, this book will show you that politics has been this way before.

The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad: This book is a look at Afghanistan during and after the Taliban came into power. It tells the story of a man who sells books for three decades in difficult circumstances. It covers some of the istory of the country as well as depicts the culture of Afghanistan and the plight of Afghan women. The author lived with an Afghan family for six weeks. She wrote the book in literary form, but it is based on real events or what was told her by people who took part in those events.

The King Must Die, by Mary Renault: Called “one of the truly fine historical novels of modern times” by the New York Times, this is the first book I’ve found that really humanizes Greek mythology. It turns the story of Theseus, who slays the Minotaur at Knossos, Crete, into a fascinating novel about ancient Greece. Told from Theseus’ point of view, the book makes him real. Every turn in the story is engrossing, and it brings the myth to life.

A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City, by Drew Philp: At age 23, Drew Philp, a skinny white kid and recent college graduate, bought a derelict house in a burned out, bulldozed area of Detroit and became an urban homesteader. He spent six years restoring an uninhabitable Queen Anne house in an area with, initially, no city services such as running water and electricity, rampant crime, racial tension and class warfare. He had no prior skills. This is a personal story of a young man’s quest to create meaning and forge community in a place most had given up on.

Present over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simple, More Soulful Way of Living, by Shauna Neiquist: This book was born out of a crisis in the author’s life. She was so busy being a successful Christian author and speaker that she was missing her own life. The way she was living didn’t mesh with the values she espoused — spending unhurried time with family and friends, making a home for her family, valuing people for who they are, not what they accomplish. So she made a change. She started saying no. And to her surprise, the world did not end.

Patchinko, by Min Jin Lee: In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant — and that her lover is married — she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

And, from me, a final observation: I have noticed since last winter that reading brings out my truest self, a quiet, disciplined person who naturally prefers heartfelt conversation to a party. At 60 — my children grown, my parents dead, my workaholic ambition laid to rest — I am making peace with who I really am. Reading books both serves and inspires that process.