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  • Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Hank: Grieving a Dog, Grasping the Eternal

One day when my yellow lab Hank was alive and we walked through the gate of a favorite dog park, a woman maybe twenty years older than me turned to look at me, clutching her cup of coffee in both hands. I anticipated usual dog park greetings — ‘What’s his name?’ ‘How old’s your dog?’ or ‘What a beautiful boy!’

Instead the woman looked in my eyes. “I hate to see you the day he dies,” she said.

It was a strangely intimate thing to say, but maybe only something you could say to a stranger.

It took me off guard for a moment but I responded with an immediate, honest nodding of my head. The woman had seen me, had seen us. Had seen my love for Hank which I hadn’t been thinking about so deeply that morning because it just simply was there. I wasn’t meditating about the nature of love or the soul or of eternity…but in that instant, that woman’s eyes and words made it all flash before me.

Being with Hank during the seven years we were blessed to be his people, taking our long walks in the woods, discovering hidden streams or even taking him to the dog park to play like on that morning, took me to the most immediate and uncomplicated depths of love.

* * *

That day did come, as I’ve written about, two weeks after losing my Mom. Six months later, my grief for Hank has broken and expanded my heart to the depths of the earth, to dimensions I didn’t know I could access. I feel him with me in quiet moments, in the house and on my walks. I look into my winter garden just starting to show signs of spring flowers coming up and my eyes catch the memorial statue we placed where he used to lie, looking up at the sun. I do a double take, I look again, thinking he’s there.

My daughter will say to me, from no where, ‘I miss Hank.’ I nod in understanding. We miss him even as we love our beautiful new dog, Odin. It was not about replacing. Hank’s spirit touched us deeply and I understand now that he will be with me forever. This is not something I knew or could have described while he was here on earth but it gives me a glimpse into what is eternal and the only word I can come up with to try and grab that feeling is love.

* * *

I think back to that woman and that raw exchange in the dog park. We live in a culture in which one human being is allowed to say out loud to another human being something intimate and true because it centered on a pet— and yet, we don’t otherwise go around openly acknowledging the vulnerability of being mortal on this earth.

We don’t walk into a dog park and say to someone...

One day, you’re going to die and all of the people who love you will be heartbroken.

One day your beloved will die…I hate to be there with you that day.

One day I’m going to die and you are, too. I hope the journey will be peaceful.

But that woman could speak that deepest truth about my beloved dog Hank there in the dog park and I could stand and nod my head. Because of my own experience of illness and healing, I don’t shy away from these questions. I have gotten to know my mortality as a friend, as an intimate part of who I am, as a part of a circle. I ask these questions to myself, even if I can’t say them out loud. I write them here to you. It’s a circle with four directions, four seasons, our coming to earth, our lives, our death and return to the mystery or simply to the earth, however you see it.

I am grateful for that sunny day when that woman spoke those words out loud and that we could acknowledge in that moment the deep and abiding truth of mortality. We stood together, loss and joy between us, truth, grief and bliss hanging in the breeze, while our dogs chased and growled, tugging on either end of a big, old stick.

* * *

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