Louise Thayer finds a way to stay present through loss without letting grief become overwhelming.
This time last year my dog was killed on the road in front of my home. She was a Great Pyrenees who had adopted the role as my protector as I traveled around the country. I loved her the most for her fierce attachment to me and her wandering, wolffish ways.
I knew that she was dead from the minute I opened my front door. She wasn’t there waiting for me to come and start my day. She didn’t ghost up alongside me as I crossed the yard and pushed open the gate to go feed the horses. The three farm dogs were present and accounted for but my guardian was not there.
I made the decision to keep going about my essential morning tasks before hunting for her. Enough of me remained hopeful that I would open up a barn door and find that she had been patiently waiting for the mistake to be rectified. More of me knew that she wasn’t going to be greeting me again. My job still needed to be done. The horses still needed to be fed.
I’ve always found solace in familiar routines and yet my leg ached to feel her nudging me for her bone. As I stirred supplements and listened to the horses moving their buckets in anticipation, I made preemptive plans for what to do when I found her body.
I also cried. Bitterly. The part of me that already knew the truth was so angry that I had to go find her, that she wouldn’t ever be finding me again as she had once done when she wandered onto the place where I’d, by then, been unhappily living for a couple of years.
She and her brother were dumped, splay footed, nervous as hell and without an ounce of spare fat between them. I wasn’t going to name them, I wasn’t going to feed them, but by the end of the day Thing One and Thing Two were enjoying supper and a barn to curl up in. Thing One stayed as ‘Thing’ until his own untimely demise from an aneurism, but Thing Two became Cora and Cora came everywhere with me. She led me towards hope of a better life.
I still needed to fill water buckets and move horses around for the day.
My heart was no longer in the grip of a crushing stranglehold and my legs didn’t betray me as I stepped up into my truck to go bring her home. I had done everything I could to ready myself for what I would find, but even so, when I saw her body lying where the coyotes had left it, I felt the grief of every loss I’d ever faced and it crystallized in a wordless wail.
I remember wanting someone to come and fix it. To fix me. To make the situation anything other than it was. Instead I walked across the freshly-tilled cotton field and loaded her vacated body onto a large tray I could then drag to the truck. I turned her ruined side over and splayed my fingers through her hair one last time.
It wasn’t easy, picking her up into the bed of the vehicle, but there’s something that happens in grief and it feels like strength from a different place. It feels like determination to do whatever we still can for that other being’s memory.
Sitting with Cora’s body that morning, just allowing myself to feel her loss, I also allowed for the possibility that there was room here to heal from even older scars. I used part of a guided meditation to help myself navigate through the sorrow. I got lost in it in fact. I would have said I sat for twenty minutes but the morning was almost over before I came back.
The meditation came from a little book by Thich Nhat Hanh called “How to Sit.” That morning, before I had even discovered her missing, I had asked the book to show me something I needed to see that day and I had opened it a page that I’d never seen before.
The essence of this particular meditation is that you ask the Buddha to sit with and for you in times of distress. It starts as they all do, with the breath. Amidst the surreal and the raw, I was so aware of the calm that descended as soon as I began.
Breathing in “Let the Buddha sit.” Breathing out “Let the Buddha breathe.” Breathing in “I don’t have to sit.” Breathing out “I don’t have to breathe.”
I used the breath I had available to me, which was ragged at first but as it deepened, the wind blew stronger and unusual summer clouds protected me from the sun so that I could stay with her. I had my hand resting on her foot although the remainder of her body was now shrouded against flies and heat as I burned sweet smelling sage and waited for help to arrive to bury her.
I made it to the second part of the meditation (there are more parts, this is just as far as I was able to go):
“The Buddha is sitting”
“The Buddha is breathing”
“I enjoy breathing.”
I stayed with this for quite a while too, and as I did, I felt tranquility still available under the ragged edges of emotion. I felt present, I felt connected with everything around me, especially the sounds of birds, the movement of the leaves in the trees and the view of my own two horses, grazing and at one with the whole world. I breathed in my own fierce gratitude for her companionship and I breathed out my love for her loyalty and quiet, steady presence during the years I’d been privileged to share with her.
I grieved that I would no longer be able to bury my face in her soft, silky coat or wrap my arms around her big-girl self, but even that came to feel selfish in the thick of remembering who she was in her entirety. As much as I had needed her in the past, it felt now as though I owed it to her to learn what she was always showing me, to be accepting of whatever was thrown her way.
When I was finally ready to let her go I started to walk away and I became aware that I was lifting up, out of my body, that my habitual escaping from misery had me trying to leave, and that I was, in imperceptible ways, being stretched upwards as though my shoulders had their own wings attached.
So I made a deliberate decision to keep breathing and come back down, to feel the ground beneath my feet, to remember the sensation of sitting with Cora, to continue on with the kind of presence that I had consciously chosen as I laid her in the hole. When I’d scattered lime on her white body she almost looked as though she was taking a nap in the snow. She loved the cold. It really was that clear cut. Remember in reality or remember in pain.
This has all carried on and keeps getting better. Last year marked a huge tipping point for me and this moment became the first of many subsequent moments where instead of being helplessly drawn into suffering and its related longing for a different outcome, I’ve been much more able to see things as they are.
I’ve managed on multiple occasions to avoid the temptation to get hooked by familiar feelings of overwhelming and redundant grief. I’ve worked hard to cultivate the ability to identify when I’m unconsciously trying to leave the present moment in order to revisit old wounds, poking around in them with mental fingers, causing inadvertent damage where healing is already in progress.
I find that I have more faith in myself to handle being in my life because I was able to navigate her loss and the extreme nature of emotion relating to the subject of death. I was able to do so without disassociating from my self as I had done with every death prior to hers. Through finding this faith, I now also acknowledge I have a growing belief in the implicate order of all things.
I find I am finally trusting that death is not the end, so I am also aware that I truly believe we are not trapped by the bodies we inhabit. That’s not just a story I tell myself anymore to try to appease the fearful and bereaved aspects of my soul.
I find I am able to give up the illusion of control. That there is only the present moment and that bringing ourselves back to it over and over again is the most important thing we can ever do.
I find that I am willing to smile more than before. That when some insidious voice tells me I shouldn’t be able to do so, I don’t believe it. That was never my voice. I smile to spite it; I smile at my feelings of spite.
It’s a fact that Western society expects a certain formulaic reaction to death or loss. So many things reinforce this false narrative for us, that when it is exacerbated by shock and pain, we become victims of this ritualistic conditioning.
Instead of being able to see and feel what we truly believe and what we are actually experiencing, we get enmeshed in the sense that we’re doing grief wrong if we are not bereft in verifiable ways.
I am not bereft. I am free from the feeling that being alone through a crisis is possible. We are never alone if we can reach out—we are certainly never alone if we can reach within.
We always have a choice how to feel and how to be. We can always choose love. We can choose to absorb the energy of the being which was our loved one, not in a vampiric or greedy way, but in a soft way, in a way which allows us to honor them and hold onto the things that they embodied, to incorporate those qualities as our own.
Cora was my guardian in life. In death she has become my angel and the catalyst for my awakening. I am so aware now of numinous beauty and I am so very thankful for her quiet lessons of simple joy, well felt.
Photo courtesy of author.