It's OK to be sad sometimes: my experience with loss

Today marks 3 years since I lost my dog Gracie.  Gracie was one of the foundational rocks of my life, of me becoming the woman I am today.  I’ve struggled to explain to others the significance of her footprint in my life, because others so often try to compare it to their losses, and I always feel like the comparison is slightly… off.  I adopted Gracie when I was 19 – she was a haggard, 4-pound shelter dog at the time, so meek that she’d been residing with the shelter owners in their private home.  I was living on my own for the first time in my life, having recently left my family home to get distance from my destructively alcoholic and addicted father.  My decision to leave the family home wrecked heartbreak in my life, and for years to come, I felt that heartbreak anew as I spent days like Christmas alone in my apartment, waiting for my mother to arrive for a visit (which sometimes didn’t come), snuggling with Gracie and absorbing that sweet, boundless love that only a dog offers.

Gracie saw me through years of physical and emotional pain.  One Thanksgiving, when I spent the day alone at my apartment, I prepared some turkey for Gracie (I’m a vegan), and popped open a can of doggie cranberry sauce for her dessert.  I showered her with love, and in return, she taught me to love without restraint or condition.  I loved her when she ate my favorite sandals, when she pooped in the living room, and when she snuck off with my dinner roll.  As an emerging adult, she gently taught me responsibility: she needed food, attention, and exercise.  I took her to puppy school, regular physicals, and trips to PetSmart – all before I even graduated college.  I learned the complexity and nuance of responsibility, and the realness of budgeting for another’s financial and physical needs.  I learned that my insatiable quest for love and connection could be satiated in a fairly straightforward way.  I felt needed and loved by Gracie, which I returned with need and love for her.

As I meandered through a fraught relationship with my mother, Gracie provided the entirety of our commonalities.  My mother, a survivor of breast cancer at the age of 42, became absorbed with the anti-abortion movement and obsessed with identifying a nonexistent link between abortion and breast cancer.  She remained my father’s codependent, reliably silent on issues relating to his addictions and always insisting, wistfully, that she’d done her “best” at raising us.  As the years wore on, she became harsher with me, unimpressed with my accomplishments, and generally critical.  Once when I shared with her that I hoped we’d remain in close geographic proximity, she told me that “not all women are meant to be mothers,” and that she’s not going to be “a damn babysitter,” like some of her friends who’re grandparents.  It crippled me emotionally for days, as I sobbed to my now-husband that I longed for my mother to share the relationship with my children that I enjoyed with my grandmother.

But Gracie.  My mother loved Gracie.  So for years, Gracie was the backbone of our relationship.  Yes, we scheduled brunches and shopping outings and casual visits, but Gracie was the ubiquitous topic of conversation.  We didn’t discuss her constantly, but it felt like our shared love for that sweet pup somehow bonded us closer.

Five years ago, I disconnected from my parents.  They simply became too destructive.  In an act of astounding bravery, I chose self-love and self-sufficiency over codependency and abuse.  I spent months crying into Gracie’s fur as I shook and sobbed on the sofa.  I flew weekly for medical treatments out-of-state, and I returned home to clutch Gracie for hours as I recharged my batteries.  I absorbed her unconditional love for me in times of excruciating turmoil surrounding my health, our wedding, law school, financial instability, and familial discord.  All the while, she battled severe health conditions too, and one day, her vet finally told me what I’d been dreading hearing for years: This was it.  She estimated I had two weeks remaining with Gracie.

I poured all of my love and energy into her.  I spent a week bedridden with physical and emotional pain, having received that news shortly after returning from an intense weeklong medical trip of painful treatments.  She and I remained in bed, curtains drawn, snuggled close.  Her vet knew that we had a special relationship, and she poured her energy into her case – remaining focused on my singular goal, which was to ensure that Gracie didn’t suffer.  Her vet tried experimental medications and collaborated with specialized vets around the country.  She often didn’t charge me for the visits, and she stayed on the phone with me as I sobbed over my pending loss.

Two weeks passed.  And then some.  We moved from Albuquerque to Chicago so I could obtain medical care.  And two years after I was told she had two weeks to live, I said goodbye to Gracie. One day, it became apparent that she was suffering, and after sleeping on the floor with her all night and willing her to stay with me, I called her new Chicago vet and told them that it was time.  When we got to the vet, the woman was gentle and empathetic.  She told me how much she admired my clarity of focus on Gracie’s well-being, on not prolonging her suffering to avoid this goodbye.  I said goodbye and held her tight, whispering that I loved her, as she took her last breath.  And then, I felt all of the air drain from my lungs too as I absorbed that loss.

Gracie and I had a synergy for those years: we were both sick and weak at times, and we loved each other anyway, unconditionally.  When I was too disabled to take her for a walk, she was also ill and clung to my side.  But once I was married to my sweet husband, once I was back home in Chicago, once I met my physical therapist who would help me recover… Gracie’s work was done.  She didn’t have to fight anymore to support me.  I had a support structure, a family now.  Gracie was adopted as Gracie Joyce, but her death certificate reads Gracie Jackson.  She carried me from the ashes of my family-of-origin to the security of my marriage to an incredible man.  She stayed with me as long as I needed her and battled against all odds.  No one could explain why she survived so much longer than expected, nor could they explain why her little body finally gave out.

And in the past three years, I’ve become a new woman.  I’m healthy and strong, I’m passionate about my work, I’m in love, and I’m building my own family.  I love where I live, what I do, and who’s in my life.  But as the hot tears of sorrow stung my eyes earlier, and I burrowed my head into my husband’s chest, I confessed to him my fear: “I’m afraid that if my mom knew that Gracie’s gone, there’s not a single thing about me that she would like or love today.”  I went on to tell him that, while I cannot emotionally accommodate my mother into my life now, I felt like a relationship with her isn’t even possible without Gracie.  I told him that I felt like Gracie was the only thing about me that she loved – and that I felt like she just tolerated (or sometimes not) the rest of me. He told me that it's OK to be sad sometimes as he wrapped his arms around me, pointed out the logical fallacies and horrifying repercussions of that statement, and reassured me that I was loved.  I’m so loved.

And it’s Gracie who first taught me what it feels like to really be loved.  For that, I’ll be eternally grateful to that sweet girl, and because of that, I’ll always leave space for her in my heart.