Momemto Mori – Preparing for Loss

“But when at last some illness has reminded them of their mortality, how terrified do they die, as if they were not just passing out of life but being dragged out of it.” – Seneca, On the Shortness of Life (Translated by C. D. N. Costa)

Not sure anyone actually prepares to lose a loved one. Not like one might prepare for a speech or a party or a vacation. It’s never that methodical, predictable, or organized. We might brace ourselves for such a loss, if we know it’s imminent. Even then, the sanctuary of denial is much more common. We know the irreversible and inevitable pivot is close, but we busy ourselves with making sure the deck chairs are in order. Great effort is expended at distracting ourselves from the reminder of our own inevitable demise.

If Fortune is such that the death of a loved one is not a sudden loss to be dealt with all at once, we have an opportunity to come to terms with the loss and better understand ourselves. A transition unfolds – day-by-day, moment-by-moment – until a final dissolution. There are good days and bad days, good moments and bad moments that lead the way to THE moment. Throughout this process, there is an improvised preparation. I don’t think such a preparation makes the actual moment of death any easier to bear. But I do believe, when engaged with presence and clarity, it lightens the burden somewhat and eases the work of picking up the pieces before carrying on.

Perhaps it’s the shared finality of it, but the loss of the dogs I’ve been charged with taking care of over the years has a lot in common with the loss of family and friends. The steadfast loyalty of a dog, their unconditional loving and instant forgiveness of a transgression has been a model for me emulate. Their principle goal in life seems to be collaboration and honesty. The clarity with which dogs approach life, and the end of it, serves as a counterpoint to how we humans muddy the water in unnecessary and unhelpful ways. From this forms a singularly clear bond of trust, compassion, and mutual loyalty. Without exception, this has been my experience.

My A#1 dog is Rosebud Thorn Engel. Ears as pink as rose petals and a disposition just as sweet, she can be a thorny terrier on occasion. She lost her hearing last year, has signs of cataracts developing, and struggles with a bit of arthritis in her elbows and knees. More recently, tumors have been found on her liver and spleen and her liver enzymes off the scale. A sporadic appetite means she’s losing weight and has days to weeks. So each day is a treasure

(Rose at 7 weeks old.)

I wonder does she know what is happening? At 14 1/2 years old she’s still a spry little monster at times even with her failing biomachinery. In the back of my mind I’m constantly asking the questions, “Is her quality of life good? Is she comfortable? Is she happy? Is her tail wagging? Is there a light in her eyes?”

(Even thought she’s deaf, Rose still knows when I’m talking to her and, like everyone else it seems, struggles to make sense of what I’m trying to say.)

I believe there is an unacknowledged moment we are waiting for where the pain and grief of watching someone suffer is greater than the grief of loosing them. Whether this is so for the person dying, I cannot say. And we certainly can’t know this from an animal’s perspective. It’s a moment where grief is at its greatest and a small sense of relief has begun to grow. Relief from the suffering, relief from the uncertainty, relief from the anticipation of The Big Sting. I do know if we are fully engaged with this process and simply BE with the moment, The Big Sting passes quickly – the anticipation is the worst part of it – and we can begin, however slightly, to move on.

Time does not heal all wounds. But if we are open to the lessons life sends our way, we can grow stronger and by virtue of our strength, the burden becomes easier to bear.