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When Grief Strikes

By Heidi Baldwin, MS, Holistic Health Coach

Grief, at some point in our lives, is inevitable. We all experience loss, whether it be through the death of a family member, a beloved pet, or close friend, or the loss of something that was important to us, such as a job, friendship, romantic relationship, etc. Everyone experiences different forms of grieving, but when the grief event is unexpected, it can really take its toll on your mental and even your physical health.

A couple of weekends ago, my computer started flaking out, and I was concerned about a virus. My IT guy had a look remotely, and all but read it its last rites. Hard drive and mother board were essentially on life support, and not expected to make it through the week. This led to hours of my life wasted on searching for a laptop that met my needs, and was AVAILABLE for purchase. The new laptop is ordered, and will be here… your guess is as good as mine as to when. So, I sit and type on a device operating on borrowed time.

The next day my phone completely stops working. Like stuck on the apple you see when you turn the phone on… for 2 days straight. No amount of turning the phone on and off, or trying to force a reboot works. iTunes doesn’t even recognize that I have the device plugged into my laptop… which is about to flatline.

Now I have a laptop that is working intermittently, and no access to a working phone. I have work deadlines and homework that I cannot adequately address. I am frustrated, and starting to feel cut off from the world. My frustration level is escalating quickly as these technology issues are causing serious inconveniences in my life, and my work. I look down at my beloved dog, who never leaves my side when I am working from home, and say, “This week sucks so far, what else could go wrong?” She didn’t care about any of that, and simply rolled onto her back for a belly-rub, THE most important aspect of her life, after food.

I had no idea that the following morning I was about to discover what else could possibly make the week worse, much worse than I could have ever imagined.

I was planning to go into work late the next morning so I could stop at the local cellular store to see what I could do about my phone. Something suddenly wasn’t right with my dog, who was now refusing food, and walking unsteadily. She looked tired and was panting, a lot. We called the animal ER who said to just monitor her overnight, and see how she was feeling in the morning. We were worried as we had just gotten blood work results back for her that weren’t adding up. I gave her a kiss goodnight, and told her to feel better by morning.

Things were not better the next morning. Our beloved pup had vomited a lot overnight, and was very lethargic. We called our vet, and decided my partner would drop Shayla off on the way to work since I had no way to call from the parking lot upon arrival. We carried her to the car, and she happily ate a handful of snow from my hand before I closed the door and she headed to the vet.

About an hour later, I went to the cellular store to try to straighten out my phone situation. My frustrations with technology were mounting as the folks in the store acted like didn’t know to try everything possible to reboot my phone. I was getting super annoyed with the condescending nonsense when the store phone rang, and the man who was helping me was telling the person on the other end that they aren’t supposed to let anyone speak to customers. I said, “If that is for me, give me the phone – my dog is sick, and clearly no one can call my cell phone.” He reluctantly confirmed it was for me, and handed me the phone. “Shayla isn’t doing well; get to the vet as soon as possible.” I grabbed my dead phone off the desk, thanked him for his time, and headed to the vet, who thankfully is in the same town.

I couldn’t call to let them know I was there. MY DAMN CELL PHONE DOES NOT WORK! I stood in the freezing cold waiting for someone to finally come outside with someone else’s dog so I could get permission to come in. In that moment I felt utterly helpless, and a wave of grief starting to wash over me like a tsunami.

Our vet is an angel on earth, and had paused her surgical schedule to tend to Shayla. “She is declining rapidly, and I don’t think we can even transport her. The emergency room is full and won’t take her and they are short-staffed, and I don’t think she will survive a car ride to Cornell. I don’t know if we can save her; I have done all I can do here with what I have available, and she seems to be bleeding internally, and her kidneys are shutting down, and she had a neurologic event of some kind…” Most of what she was saying became a blur, and all I could hear was, “I don’t think we can save her…”

I could feel my heart begin to shatter into a million pieces as I held her head with one hand, and her heart with the other in the cold steel crate in front of me. I was thankful for the beautiful warm blankets they had her wrapped in to keep her comfortable. I poured as much love as I could into her rapidly declining body. Our vet called my partner to get there as soon as possible, so we could both make this decision together, say goodbye, and be there to hold her as she took her last breath as I always promised we would.

I gave Shayla some Reiki while we waited. “Talk to her, she knows you’re here,” our vet whispered to me. So, I kept whispering to Shayla over and over, “You’re such a good girl, I love you so much, I am here with you, I won’t leave your side, I promise...” I cried hard, and held my beloved dog while I waited for my partner to arrive. The vet got me a box of tissues. She offered a chair, which I declined; I needed Shayla to be able to see me, and know I wasn’t leaving her.

When my partner arrived, after what seemed like an eternity of waiting, everything happened quickly. We gave updates on the situation, explained she couldn’t be transported, and that her organs were failing quickly. We had a few more minutes with Shayla, then our vet asked us if we were ready. She started the push; Shayla picked her head right up and looked into our eyes, laid back down, and took her last breath. It happened so quickly.

She was gone. The last shattered piece of my heart fell to the floor as the tsunami of pain and grief engulfed me.

How was my beautiful dog who insisted on going in and out to play in the snow five times before I went to work the day before now laying lifeless before us? We cried and held her for what seemed like ages, but at the same time not long enough. I have no idea how much time actually passed, or even what time it was, and I didn’t care. I was in shock about what had just transpired, and was increasingly more aware of the physical pain of a broken heart that was spreading throughout my chest. It hurt to breathe. The most loving pet I have ever known was gone.

Our vet allowed us time to stand there with Shayla and just cry. She stayed with us, comforted us, and shared in our sadness. When you have a vet who is that compassionate, you are truly blessed. She was upset she could not do more for her, and kept reassuring us we made the right decision. She and her assistant carried Shayla’s lifeless body into a private room so we could have as much time as we needed with her before we said our last goodbye. We took her collar off of her, and asked that they please take a paw print impression. Other arrangements were made, then they left us to begin our grieving process.

Grief and the shock of a sudden loss is experienced differently for everyone. I could not stop crying. I started questioning everything. Did we make the right decision? Did we miss signs that something was wrong? Why didn’t we let her have more treats when she was begging? Did she know how much we loved her? How are we going to tell the kids? The questions we were asking ourselves poured out between sobs of grief and one more last hug, several times over. Our vet checked in on us a few times, and assured us we could stay as long as we needed, but she needed to resume her surgery schedule. She hugged us hard, and we cried even harder.

Eventually we left, and had to give that actual final kiss goodbye on the top of her sweet head by her funny little cowlick that had become her trademark look. The pain in my chest was searing. I could not stop crying.

We knew Shayla was happily met at the rainbow bridge by our dog Benjamin who passed less than 2 years ago. Shayla grieved that loss harder than any of us, and her broken heart was unbearable to witness at times. Knowing how happy Shayla would be to reunite with Benjamin should be helping to ease my sadness. It wasn’t. I was missing BOTH of them now as I pulled out of the parking area. I asked them to show me a sign that they were together and ok. I tuned Sirius XM to the oldies station, and pulled out onto the road, crying through whatever was playing in the background. The next song that came on was “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” I took that as my sign. Minutes later after arriving home in separate cars, my partner shared a similar ask and receive experience in the form of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – the cool version with the ukulele – coming on during the ride home. Shayla was ok. We were not.

For the first time in over 11 years, no dog ran to the door to greet us coming home. More crying.

For the remainder of the day, I was not kind to myself mentally. I questioned my ability to discern what is really important in life. Why had I allowed my frustration over my technology issues to take up so much of my time? I could have been giving Shayla more belly rubs! I should not have “yelled” at her for barking so loudly eager for her dinner to be served up, or for barking incessantly to go right back out to play in the snow after she had come in 10 minutes earlier. I would give anything to hear her barking at me again.

The rest of my week became a struggle to stay focused on anything other than being sad. I would have preferred to just stay in bed and cry, but at least going to work would help me keep my mind off of things, even if temporarily. But then I would go back to the silence that exists when you have only cats as your remaining furry kids at home.

I’ve read a quote before that goes something like, “the problem is, we think we have time.” I know that nothing in life is a guarantee. I have lost loved ones since as early of an age as I can remember. This week I was reminded that it is important to not put off things that bring us joy, or allow us to spend time with those we love. Job deadlines happen, household chores need to be done, but make it a point to not let those day-to-day tasks interfere with things like playing in the snow, giving belly rubs, and taking extra walks; there will come a day when those things are no longer possible, so be in the moment, and really live life embracing the things that are really most important.

I reminded myself that everyone grieves, and everyone does so in their own way. As a holistic health coach, I can’t help but think of what words I would share with one of my clients to help them through a grieving process, and this has helped me to start to work through my own.

First and foremost, you have to take care of yourself. Start with the basics. Get out of bed. Brush your teeth. Make sure you eat. Yes, it’s ok to spend a day (or three) eating comfort foods – your heart is broken, so cut yourself a little slack. But remember self-care is important.

Don’t beat up on yourself mentally for the things you wish you had done differently. Hindsight is 20/20 they say, but trust you are doing the best you can in every given moment in life. Make it a point to spend time reveling in all of the happy moments, whether you have lost a loved one – human or animal, or have come to the end of a relationship or situation in your life. At some point, or even every point if you’re lucky, there were good, happy times. How blessed to have that experience in one’s life! I know we gave Shayla a good life, and I can’t change my what-ifs.

Maybe something ended for you in a not-so-great way. What was the lesson? How did you grow from the experience? How did it help you become a better version of yourself? In the moments of grief, it can sometimes feel like nothing will ever be ok again. It will be ok again. It will likely be different, but you will carry on, and move forward with your life. The circle of life continues.

Don’t bottle things up. This is how emotions and such get trapped in the body – and I believe can trigger dis-ease or various discomforts. Allow yourself to feel everything, and let it out.

Talk to someone.

Write to get your feelings out – whether it be in a journal, or expressively through stories or poetry.

Make something creative or artful as an expression of the love you have for the one you just lost.

Take one day at a time. Things will come up that will trigger your sadness to pour out once again. Allow yourself to cry. Feel all of your feelings – let them come out as they come up.

If you have avoiding grieving a loss because it is too painful, take time to do that for yourself, regardless of how much time has passed. It isn’t easy, but it is important. It is the only way to find true healing for your heart.

Trust that over time each day will become a little easier. Eventually the sadness in your heart turns to gratitude, and you can fully remember all of the love that caused you to be capable of that much pain in the first place. Imagine loving someone (human or animal) so deeply that losing them causes so much pain. What a true blessing to feel love that deeply, even though it hurts sometimes.

There is a hole in my heart, an emptiness that will never be completely filled. Ever. But I also recognize that my heart is bigger than it would have ever been had we not rescued Shayla, who really came to rescue us, and remind us that love is all that really matters.

In loving memory of Shayla, who crossed the Rainbow Bridge on January 25, 2022. Thank you for rescuing us. Photo credits to my daughter Ainsley.

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