“When one person is missing the whole world seems empty.”
– Pat Schweibert
This has been a tough few weeks for my friends and family. My daughter unexpectedly lost her cat, Tiggy. A friend of mine had to say goodbye to several of her non-human friends she cares for at her sanctuary, and another friend lost her dog. It seems as if the Universe is reclaiming its precious jewels all at once.
Most of us know that when we choose to share our lives with a dog or any non-human friend, the day will come when we will ultimately part ways. Our dogs and other animal friends become so woven into our lives. We calculate with confidence that we have years before we must say goodbye to them and we store it into the far recesses of our minds, taking comfort in the fact that it’s not imminent. We avoid thinking about how delicate and fragile these threads of friendship are that hold our world together. Yet, as much as we push this thought away, it persistently and stubbornly surfaces on occasion to remind us that the fateful day will come soon enough.
I often wonder why our dogs live only a fraction of the time we do. It would seem that a friendship that’s been thousands of years in the making would last both our lifetimes. Then I remembered what a friend once told me long ago that brought me comfort during a difficult time when one of my dogs passed. Dogs live shorter lives than we do so that they don’t have to endure the pain of losing us. We care for them, protect them and nurture them through the entirety of their lives. They depend deeply on us and we become their whole world. Losing us would be devastating for them, so it stands to reason that by them leaving before we do, they are spared that pain. That is our burden to bear.
We should have no regrets for our dogs when they leave us. They live each moment of their lives to the fullest – not because they do any grand or ambitious thing, but rather because they are completely engaged in the present, and don’t look away from it. Dogs extract every moment from life, whether it is 15 years or 15 days. Their ability to be totally present means they are complete and full, with no residue of regret or unfulfilled dreams. As the philosopher Michel de Montaigne put it:
“The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man [dog] may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life.”
To lose a friend is a painful and traumatic event. They are a part of us; a piece of our tapestry that is torn away, only to leave a gaping hole. As much as we try, that hole will never be repaired completely. The scar will always be there. But is this a reason not to become friends in the first place? Or is it, as Tennyson said: “’Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all.”
Our friends are never replaceable, nothing will ever fill that void. But to avoid friendships because we fear the pain of losing them will only create deeper voids. How empty and hollow our lives would be if we never had the privilege of sharing a piece of it, however brief, with our dogs. At least when we remember the friends we have lost, for that moment the hole is filled; the empty space is lined with love. It becomes a testament to them and how they’ve changed our lives for the better. If we were never friends in the first place, we’d still be hollow, but that hollowness would always remain empty. The gaping hole in our life’s tapestry would still be there, but we wouldn’t be aware of it. It would be a small, but persistent feeling of emptiness that we would never be able to identify, like a vague itch that can never be satisfactorily scratched. Yes, it is better to have loved and lost.
As we love, so we grieve. We will have good days and bad days, and that will stay with us always. Through the years I have lost many friends. Some were expected, some were not, none were easy. Sometimes, when I least expect it, a memory of a long gone friend will arise and bring a sharp pang in my heart, but always with a subtle sweetness to it as if to say: “I’m still here. I’m still with you.” The writer Elizabeth Gilbert put it so perfectly: “Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants. In that regard, grief has a lot in common with love.”
As I write this, I see the photographs on my wall of the dogs I had the privilege to share my life with. I look at the dogs who are with me now, sleeping peacefully on my bed, and know that I wouldn’t trade the love or the pain for anything. Because I have both, I am blessed.