My dog died last night. Despite a frantic, late night dash to the animal ER and some exceptional measures, Nimo couldn’t be saved. He was my companion for more than 11 years. He was with me, showing that quiet, unshakable — almost mythic — canine love, through some achingly difficult times.
Yeah, he was just a dog. Maybe that’s my point. As we move through life, our hearts connect with others: people and animals, even ideals and causes. It’s how we’re wired. It’s where we find and make the meaning for our lives. And when we connect we know that, somewhere down the line, someone will live the loss.
When you truly feel loss — that deep, raw, aching, tattered hole in your heart — it is evidence that you have lived openly and vulnerably. The pain of loss is a triumph of the heart: it means that you allowed yourself to love, and to be loved, even in the face of knowing that someone would necessarily suffer that pain. The bill for that joy comes due. If it wasn’t so precious, it wouldn’t hurt when it’s suddenly gone. You’ve earned that pain by collecting the experiences that make life worthwhile.
Pain encourages us to get distant. But the anticipation of pain is insidious: this fear of possible pain encourages us to wall ourselves off from the joyful, meaningful experiences that earn the deferred pain of eventual loss.
If we don’t consciously work against all our protective inclinations, we cut ourselves off from truly living. It’s easy to talk ourselves out of loving, caring, and risking. It’s easy to fall into the habit of preemptive self-protection. But without those wonderful, dangerous connections and commitments, we’re just existing. You must accept that your love will disappoint, grow old, eventually fail, and be gone. You must revel in the treasured opportunity because it will not come around again.
Life is transient. We know that. And we do everything we can to shield ourselves from that reality. We know that life, and all the hopes and dreams and love it offers, is fragile. We con ourselves daily into believing that those things we love will last forever, and we do that because we cannot bear the existential weight of it. And then, on occasion, the harsh razor of reality slices through our carefully constructed veil. We are forced to confront the consequence of having cared. And it sucks beyond the telling.
I’ve been on this planet longer than most of us now. I’ve collected many losses: family, friends, mentors, lovers, and cherished companion animals, too.
Sometimes, loss sneaks in, unannounced, and we don’t know it in the moment. But other times, we bear full, knowing witness to the instant of loss. We try so hard to open our hearts and show the other just how much they are loved so that they might pass with the small comfort of having known their irreplaceable effect.
We need a few things in our life we care so much about that we accept the coming pain of loss. I am proud of my losses. I will keep loving and caring and risking and committing, though I know I will lose again. The grief we feel in the face of loss — that yawning chasm of despair that spontaneously erupts within us — is a measure of how much we dared to care. We owe it to ourselves, and those around us, to live lives of care, knowing that the pain will come.
I don’t give love easily, but when I do, I love without reservation and I remain committed. I know that means I will lose again. I know that means I will be again consumed in this awful blackness of grief. But the darkness of grief is the photo-negative of the brightness that once illuminated our lives.
And still, in the face of grief, I choose love. A life well-lived means collecting losses. That’s the hell of it. We must choose experiences that affirm our lives when the loss comes due.
Now? I’m going to have a good cry and be thankful for the brightness of the love that once illuminated this part of my life. That is what makes life wonderful…and what makes loss hurt so.