By Jennifer Battisti
Losing is hard. Letting go of a career, a stage of life, a relationship, or the heart-gutting anguish of losing a loved one. It all stems from the universal human truth that we will lose. I recently had to say goodbye to my Labrador retriever. Even though he lived a long life with me, losing him was devastating, exhausting, and, it turns out, embarrassing. That’s right, I felt ashamed of my tenderness. I find it strange and alarming that euthanizing a beloved pet has brought up the internal urgency to just get on with it. As if this deeply human experience should be dealt with in the same manner as laundry day—in a neatly assembled fashion of washing, drying, folding; the stained fabric back in order before day’s end. What remains after a loss is often messy and sometimes bizarre. What is most disturbing is that I do not hear anyone talking about it.
There is the amnesia. At midnight, I stand at the open fridge, my bewilderment strobed in honest wattage. The predictability of the hinge, the obeying bulb flooding the darkness with the demand of my wrist. It feels like the only power I have. This is the hour distraction cannot fix. The hour when I cannot remember. The hour I stand holding the stupid square of cheese in my hand, pill dissolving in the curled fist of the other. There is no animal to give the medication to anymore. The habit of love is difficult to break.
Night presents me with the possibility of animated denial, a phase of the moon only the grieving can see while the oriented sleep unburdened outside the grip of the boogiemen of bargaining. The pamphlet I received on grieving calls my delusions “grief bursts,” confetti poppers of bereavement that explode when I think of our 15-year, fur-laden union. When I realize there is nowhere to store the gravity of my dog’s absence except my two hollow lungs, I am stranded in that moment. The game of death, distraction and denial is as flimsy as the consolation trinkets we hold onto—the locket of fur, the clay mold of the paw.
I go to the farmer’s market. There are dogs. Everywhere. Every paw, every fierce hindquarter alerts me of the bounding emptiness, the permanence of death. I wander into a booth with hanging crystals and burning incense. There is a rootless plant for sale, the Rose of Jericho. It looks like a dead brown fist of leaves, but the energy healer assures me, once placed in water, it will unfold and soften. The leaves will fan out in lacy green stems. The healer tells me this magical plant will do that indefinitely: clench into a dry ball when out of water, release again, ripened with health when immersed. I am told it will never die, which I am suspicious about and chalk up to hocus-pocus, but still, I buy two. Its promise to absorb negative energies lends me enough willingness to follow through and witness the transformation. The resurrection fern fattens in the bowl as it plumps with water. I am impressed.
Grief seems to speed dial previous losses in an effort to conduct an awful conference call on your heart—the death collective, which at first feels like salt in your fresh wound, but I wonder if grief is a wound that never heals, never truly scars, but instead expands and contracts when placed in the liquid of loss. I try to, for the first time in my life, not look away. I tell the truth when people ask me how I am holding up. “This is hard,” I tell them, needing to hear myself say it as a confirmation, but also to normalize the grieving process. When the vet calls to tell me his remains are ready, I cannot find time in my over-scheduled week to pick them up in a way that honors this bruised, transparent time in my life. I pick up his ashes on the way to get my brakes done. I sit in the Subaru service lounge with the little cedar box in a paper bag next to me while I wait. I feel guilty for carrying my grief in a to-go bag. Losing makes you brave. I go rogue on my grief/shame and Instagram my current feeling, hashtag and all, not to trivialize it, but because I know there are others holding the square of cheese at midnight, cursing muscle memory and dysplasia, that abnormal dislocation; the disruption of the emotional universe they once shared, with their loved one, that important stage of their life.
Loss is loss. Empty nest, aging, divorce. They are different breeds of deaths. What if we leaned into it, became curious about it? What if we were investigators of our experience instead of fixers, or runners or liars? What if we admit that during the agony of loss, there is also joy, levity and even peace. Death also contains its counterpart: life, memory, love. It reminds us of the power of connecting. There is something living in the state of loss. What might we find out about this rootless plant we carry—how the unfurling again and again after a dry spell opens a space for us not to get through an experience but to fully be with it.