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Grief: How Saying Goodbye To My Dog Taught Me About Living

June 18, 2018

Last week marked the 3 year anniversary of the day we had to say goodbye to our little Buddha, Hayden. She was an amazing dog, but so much more. She comforted Sarah through some of her most difficult times, she was Sarah’s best friend and companion from shortly after graduating college all the way to NYC. The night I fell in love with Sarah was because I fell in love with Hayden and ignored the dinner party going on to play with her in the basement. She went from being Sarah’s dog to being our dog.


I called her my little Buddha because she helped provide balance when I could never find it. She was calm in the face of anything, even if she was a bit of a spaz. She was there when I wasn’t. The times I had to go away Sarah had Hayden to comfort her. To sleep in bed. To assure her that things would be okay.


Saying goodbye to her was the hardest thing I have ever done. It still hurts all these years later. For all of the lessons she taught us, the most valuable one was her last. She taught me how to grieve.


I have lost plenty of people in my life. Friends, family, acquaintances. Drugs, alcohol, mental illness, and sometimes just nature have taken a toll. I always understood and just moved on. I never really felt much in loss. Maybe because I lived such a transient life human life also just seemed transient. Maybe because I spent a lifetime building up walls that even loss of human life couldn’t break through them. With Hayden, though, I just thought she would always be there.


When she was gone there was an emptiness. So I did what I knew and tried to drink it away. It didn’t work. Just like it never worked. The only saving grace was that we had adopted Bigsby and got to watch her raise him and leave a little bit of herself in him. But it wasn’t enough. Sarah and my relationship became strained. Everything was hard. After a while I couldn’t keep ignoring the fact that she was gone. I had to face it. I had to grieve.


Being sad doesn’t come naturally to me. I have been depressed but that was different. I had never really been sad. Just like I don’t get super excited or happy over things. I just don’t have big emotional swings (except anger, that one I have always been pretty good at). But here I was, sad. Sarah was crushed, and I couldn’t make her feel better. I didn’t know my place. As a husband, as a friend, as a man. I felt lost. Until I just allowed myself to grieve.


Grief is natural, grief is important, grief is necessary. Without it we don’t value life. Without it we don’t value living. In a way, I hadn’t learned to value life. I couldn’t see the beauty in it. The beauty of life is that it doesn’t last. Nothing does.   


Grief is going to be important to you if you are embarking on change in your life. Maybe you want to lose weight, or get in shape, or change jobs. Maybe you feel like you have been stuck in place for years just spinning your wheels and getting nowhere.


At some point you are going to have to shed the person you are for the person you want to be. You are going to have to say goodbye to the old you. You are going to have to grieve.


This is a difficult concept for many people to grapple with. You are on a mission to change the person you are, a person that you no longer want to be. How can you miss that person? How could you possibly grieve the loss of parts of you that have only brought you unhappiness?


Whether we like it or not all parts of us, the good and the bad, make up the whole of who we are. If you have lived with this “other you” for 5, 10, 20 years; they are a part of you. They are you. When you lose weight, or make a huge lifestyle change part of you will die.


My own personal journey has been one of loss, grief, and eventual happiness. I believe that I would not be in the place I am today had it not been for the lesson in grief that Hayden taught me.


A little over a year ago I entered a detox center for my long term battle with alcohol addiction. My battles with alcohol had taken me through multiple detoxes, rehabs, and jails over more than 20 years of fighting. I could do well for a time (once even 3 years) but, without fail, I would feel safe and try to drink again starting the cycle all over again.


After this last trip, things changed. For the first time I allowed myself to say goodbye to the old Jeb. The Jeb that had protected me, kept me safe, and sheltered the vulnerable person that was hiding inside. The old Jeb shielded me from feeling anything, that is until I lost Hayden. She broke through that shell and the pain that I was forced to go through in the grieving process allowed the real me, the me that had been hiding from the world for so long, to come out.


Yes, it was difficult. Yes, I felt raw and didn’t really know how to deal with “feeling feelings”. I was unpleasant to be around, I lashed out at people, and I tried to self destruct. But when all of that settled I was still there, with myself, and with all of this stuff that I had never dealt with. Grief gave me time to sift through piles and piles of baggage. Grief allowed me to let go. Not just of Hayden, but of so many things that were holding me back.


We have all been through loss. It is a part of life. But have we really taken the time to grieve? Have we intentionally processed that loss and understood what it means to the rest of our lives? Or do we just try to move on? To avoid the pain? To bury it in alcohol or drugs or work or food?


Pain is real. Pain is part of life. As the old saying goes, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. We will be forced to endure pain. We can fight it, ignore it, or embrace it. Without judgement.


When we look at pain without judgement we start to feel it. Really feel it. It is not bad, it is not good. It just is. And it is in that being, that nothingness that our true self exists. We might only get a few glimpses of it in our lifetime but when you do you will know.


Much of self exploration is just an attempt to return to this state. Meditation, intense exercise, yoga, fasting, religious rituals. Yet many times we spend so much energy trying to avoid sitting with our feelings or thoughts or just ourselves that we miss out on finding out who we are.


Think of self-exploration as you might look at exercise or nutrition. Many times it is the most zealous client who actually has the worst chance at long term success. They come in with the most lofty goals, attempt the hardest workouts, try out the newest fad diets and burnout in a matter of weeks. Only to return to their old habits and former weight.


Yet, some of the most successful transformations come from those who don’t really know what they are doing. They just know they can’t continue on the same path any more. So they start a program. Maybe they hire a Coach. They do what they are told and just put one foot in front of the other. After enough meals, enough days, enough weeks, maybe even enough years they are a different person. They have changed on the outside but, more importantly, they have also changed who they are. They embrace the process. They learn to sit with themselves, and no longer allow their emotions to control their behavior. They still have them, they just don’t give in to them.


Try it. Try to look at your feelings a little different. Without judgement. If you are feeling sad, don’t try to figure out why, just feel. If you get angry in traffic don’t denigrate yourself for allowing your anger to manifest. Just sit with it. If you are happy, well if you are feeling happy then most definitely revel in the moment.


Grief has been one of the hardest lessons I have learned and it took me close to 40 years on this planet to learn it. Yet I did and it opened me up to learn an infinite number of lessons that i might never have been open to. It hurts. To really feel your heartbreak, an aching in your soul, it is not comfortable. But running away from it will only get you so far. And trying to face it and beat it will only leave you guarded and closed off from truly living. For all the life that Hayden gave me it was in death that she provided the greatest gift I could ever have hoped for. And it is in that revelation that her moniker of “Little Buddha” rings true.


Hayden, we miss you every day and not one goes by that we don’t think about you. It sucks to say goodbye but I am so thankful that we got that chance.


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