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.
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.