This is how to survive loss

Illustrations by John P. Weiss

My mother felt that Gabby was an ungrateful bird. After all, while I was away at university, she took care of Gabby. She fed him, changed his water, and cleaned his cage. She even wiped the breath marks off of his little vanity mirror.

What did she get in return? An irritable little cockatiel, who hissed at her when she opened the cage door. To add insult to injury, whenever I came home to visit, Gabby would whistle happily, dance and hop on my shoulder as I opened his cage door.

I guess some birds pick their favorite person. At least, that’s how it was for Gabby and me. I was his favorite.

The doctor hasn’t informed you yet?

As a little boy, I loved birds. I used to draw them all the time and begged my parents for a pet bird. Then one Christmas, they surprised me with Gabby. It was love at first sight.

Gabby sat on my shoulder wherever I was in the house. He chewed on my pencil eraser when I was drawing, and nibbled on my ear lobes playfully.

Fast forward twenty years, and I went away to university. Despite the excitement of university life and living in the dorms, I missed my little pal.

During one winter break, I came home and noticed Gabby was fluffed up and not energetic. I took him to our veterinarian and she kept him overnight to take some blood tests.

The next day I came to get the results and pick up my bird. I told the receptionist my name and that I was there to pick up Gabby.

“Oh, yes, just a moment and I’ll get him,” she said.

She went into the back of the office and came out with a shoebox. She handed it to me. I looked at her, confused.

“Oh my God, the doctor hasn’t informed you yet?” she asked.

“No. No one told me,” I said.

I peeked in the box. There was my Gabby, lifeless and tucked carefully inside some paper towels.

The vet was summoned, apologies ensued, and apparently, a message was left at home, but I had not received it yet. Gabby had been quite sick and passed away overnight.

My tears flowed the whole drive home, just as they had a few years ago when our cat “Charlie” died, and when our poodle “Scrubby” passed away.

We’re never fully prepared

I’m fifty-four years old and these beloved pets have been gone a long time, but there’s still a familiar twinge of pain. Even after all these years. It’s duller now but still dwells inside me.

Pets bring us unconditional love and joy, but there’s a cost. With their passing, they introduce us to grief. It often happens when we are young.

Perhaps this is best. They prepare us for the inevitable loss of loved ones later in life.

And yet, we’re never fully prepared. The death of a loved one is like the flickering out of light. We stumble around in the dark and try to find our way. Memories become like candles. We see glimpses of the past, which help us navigate for a bit, but then we lose our way again.

What are we to do with loss? Be it a beloved pet or person. How do we carry on when a beautiful soul departs? How do we breathe again?

The relationship between two souls

A few years ago I read Garth Stein’s splendid novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” The story is told by a canine narrator named Enzo, who watches television and people to learn about life.

Books are usually better than movie adaptations, but the cinematic version of “The Art of Racing in the Rain” was pretty good. Here’s the trailer:

The Art of Racing in the Rain” is about many things. Love, tragedy, redemption, danger, and hope.

It’s also about the power of relationships. In a review of the book, author Jodi Picoult wrote:

“The perfect book for anyone who knows that some of our best friends walk beside us on four legs; that compassion isn’t only for humans; and that the relationship between two souls…meant for each other never really comes to an end.”

Often, how we experience loss reflects how we experienced the person, pet or thing before they left us. The joy we felt for them when they were alive is part of the pain we feel when they are gone.

If we are to navigate loss and grief well, it helps to make some changes now, before we lose someone precious. Here are a few suggestions.

Forgiveness

One of the biggest gifts you can give another, and yourself is forgiveness. They say that anger is a hot coal you hold in your hand. You can throw it at the person you hate, but you still burn your hand.

Forgiveness may not be easy. Perhaps some people don’t deserve forgiveness. But who are we to know the depths of pain in others? What cruelties have they endured that darkened their hearts?

When we forgive, we are not saying we approve or have forgotten the pain caused by another. Rather, we are choosing to rise above anger and hatred. We are freeing ourself, and the other, to start anew.

Forgiveness shows that love trumps hatred and pain. A charitable heart can sometimes expunge years of pain and anger. And even if the person is forgiven does not accept your gift, you have reached the moral high ground. Not that you’re trying to be better than the other, but that you’re freeing yourself and showing the other that there is another way.

Forgiveness heals wounds. And when the ones forgiven eventually “shuffle off their mortal coils,” dealing with the loss is a little bit easier. Because forgiveness invites closure.

Kindness

When I was a little boy, I once picked up our poodle and dropped him on our cat. I thought it would be funny. The cat squawked, the dog ran away, and I laughed.

Neither the cat or dog was hurt. But I hurt myself, because a year later when the dog passed away, the first thing that came to mind was me dropping the dog on the cat.

“Why did I do that to him?” I thought to myself. “What was I thinking? I wish I never did that. What a jerk.” All these thoughts of regret and remorse for a silly, childhood prank, made the loss of our dog harder on me.

If you want to weather the loss of a loved one, focus on being kind to them while they are still here. Set aside your ego and pettiness. Spend time with the ones you love. Do thoughtful things for them. Listen closely to what they have to say, without interrupting. Celebrate their achievements.

Being kind to the ones we love will make it easier when you lose them. Because as you look back, your past kindnesses will soften the sting of loss. “Thank God I was good to her,” you’ll think to yourself. “I’m so glad I spent all that time with Dad,” you might reflect.

Memories

In the twilight of our lives, memories are like a warm blanket on a winter night. They warm our hearts and temper those feelings of loss.

We live busy lives, and family obligations sometimes feel like endless impositions.

When I was a police chief, I worked long days and cherished what little free time I had. But I had a little boy who needed rides to his martial arts classes. I had a beautiful wife who longed to travel.

Saying no to these things might have bought me some free personal time, but at a terrible expense. I would have denied my loved ones, and myself, precious experiences that created lasting memories.

Take those trips. Rearrange your schedule. Make the time for family and loved ones, because one day you will lose them, and the memories will help sustain you through the loss and grief.

The car goes where the eyes go

In the book “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” the dog narrator Enzo made several, insightful observations about humans. Here are a few:

People want the conversation to be about them

Enzo observed that people will listen to a conversation until a particular comment is made that they can then use to steer the conversation back to themselves. Don’t monopolize conversations.

The people you love have much to say and even teach you. Listen to them. When they are gone someday, you’ll be glad you have more to remember about them.

People are awkward with illness and death

Enzo noticed that we often don’t know how to approach or talk to loved ones who are sick or dying. Our awkwardness makes it harder for the person you love. Combat this by trying to be yourself.

Sometimes a little humor can help. Be open and honest. Hold their hand. Sit beside them. Smile. Laugh. Be a breath of fresh air in the room.

Don’t let the awkwardness prevent you from visiting and spending time with a loved one. When they leave this world, you’ll be glad you spent that time with them. It will make your loss and grief a little easier.

The car goes where the eyes go

Enzo mentions a recurring mantra in the book, which is that “the car goes where the eyes go.” This is a metaphor for life. In other words, keep your eyes on the prize. Focus on the positive to steer yourself there.

Conversely, if you focus on the negative, then that’s where you’re going to steer your emotions and life.

This notion of focus is very important in dealing with loss and grief. If we focus solely on the pain, we’ll cloud our view of the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is that loss can remind us of how lucky we were to have had someone special in our lives.

Focus on those positive memories. Remember the good times. The laughter, family trips, experiences, special moments and more. There is much solace to be found in these things.

Just as the car goes where the eyes go, your future also goes where your eyes (focus) go.

The loved ones we lose would not want us to wallow in sadness and depression. They would want us to never forget them, but also to focus on the future. They would want us to live our lives.

It is no betrayal of those who passed to get back to living again. To get back to laughing again. Dreaming and focusing on the future.

Hope is the thing with feathers

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in 1969, introduced her concept of the five stages of grief:

Denial

Anger

Bargaining

Depression

Acceptance

When we experience great loss, we’ll likely navigate through one or more of the above stages. People are not all the same.

Loss and grief are a personal experience, and no one should tell you what you should feel. Also, you don’t have to go through all the above stages. Everyone is different.

It’s common to experience a full range of emotions, from guilt and disbelief to anger and sadness. It can affect your health, causing fatigue, nausea, sickness, weight changes, aches/pain, insomnia, etc.

Even if you’re a stoic person, it helps to seek the support of loved ones and friends to talk to. The important thing is to not ignore what you’re going through.

There is no correct way to grieve. For some, tears flow. For others, there are no tears. Also, there are no timelines for healing. The impact of loss varies from person to person. However, if your loss and grief become crippling and lead to depression or suicidal thoughts, seek professional help. There is no shame in getting help and healing yourself.

When my bird Gabby died, I took it pretty hard. Something about the innocence and unconditional love of pets makes their passing so hard.

When my father died, although I knew it was coming, I felt devastated for a long time. Of course, I’m a stoic and hid it well. But the gravity of the loss followed me for a long time. Maybe it still does, but I’ve learned to carry it.

In the end, it’s a sense of hope that has helped me deal with all the losses in my life. The unshakable belief in the survivability of the soul. The sense that there are purpose and meaning to our lives, beyond what we can see.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops — at all — Emily Dickinson

This is how we survive loss. During the living years, it’s about forgiveness, kindness, and memories.

It’s about not making the conversation about you. Learning to listen closely to those you love.

Ignoring the awkwardness and being yourself. Remembering that the car (life) goes where your eyes go.

When the one we love leaves us, there will be stages of grief, although you may not experience them all. Your ballasts of support during this time will be loved ones and friends. Shoulders to cry on. People to listen.

It will be important to continue eating, sleeping, exercising and distracting yourself with hobbies and activity. If the loss becomes too crippling, seek professional help for depression or suicidal thoughts.

You will survive these rough waters of loss and grief and navigate to land again. When you do, never forget that the ones we lost want us to live on.

Their memories and spirit will cheer for your future successes, be there for you in your dreams, and remind you that “Hope is the thing of feathers- that perches in your soul.”

Waiting. Watching. Loving you always, across the boundless expanse of eternity.

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint and write about life. To follow along, get my free weekly newsletter here.
This article first appeared on Medium.