My dog died Wednesday. Her name was Bella, Italian for “beautiful.” Part German Shepherd and part greyhound, she was colored like a shepherd – mainly black and tan, with white on her face and the edges of her ears – and built like a greyhound – long, wasp-waisted and deep-chested. And that face! No dog was ever more aptly named.
A huge part of both her beauty and her personality was her ears. Large and articulate, they were her most expressive feature and communicated volumes. Folded back, they meant she was sleepy, scared or concerned; deployed up and out, they signaled curiosity. With ears like hers, she had no need for speech.
I fell in love with her upon first sight of those ears, standing up in full “what’s going on?” mode. Liz and I had lost our second dog, Okemah, months before. When we were ready to find a new companion, I spotted Bella in an ad for an animal rescue service. I showed the picture of this 8-month-old puppy to Liz and told her, “This is my dog.” Little did I know that for 10 years, I would be her human, or what her death would teach me.
Her brown eyes were deeper than any others I’ve ever seen. And unlike many dogs, who are intimidated or threatened by direct eye contact, Bella would meet your gaze and hold it, unblinking. I felt that she looked into me – a real soul-to-soul connection.
As dogs will, she acquired a litany of nicknames. Bells, of course. And Bellza. And Bellzers. She was regal, and that prompted the nick Queen B. She had a penchant for howling along with sirens and so became Bellow. Bella was fully capable of being a complete shit and, when she was, she was Bellazebub. On her twice-daily walks she had to sniff everything; this habit earned her the name Smella. She recognized them all and would answer to each.
Her switch had two positions – on and off. And when she was switched off, she was all the way off. She would sleep on our bed (or on the off-limits sofa when we weren’t around) and I couldn’t count the times we would find her fully stretched out with her head propped on a pillow. She often looked like she had melted, and we both envied her ability to relax so effortlessly and so completely.
She was the most affectionate animal I have ever known, and she loved nothing more than being with her pack. She wasn’t needy, and was happy to wander off and snooze the day away, but often she just wanted to be with me and would follow me wherever I went in the house. I retired a year and a half ago and for those 18 months she was my boon companion and best friend.
When I told a buddy (who had himself recently lost his beloved dog) of her passing, he accurately remarked that sometimes losing a pet is more painful than losing a person. I pondered this and came to the conclusion that this may be so because our love for our pets, and their love for us, is pure. Relationships between people are complex and messy. They come with tons of baggage – ego trips and weird prerequisites and demands and expectations and doubts and judgments. But our relationships with our pets have none of that – they’re just pure, unalloyed love, in both directions, untouched by the complications that often taint human relationships.
The grieving process is teaching me a lot. For one thing, grief can illuminate the depth of our feelings. We can treasure others with a love that seems limitless, but grief shows us a dark pit that has no bottom. We can skate through life finding distractions that serve as armor, shielding us from emotions that might otherwise be too intense, too uncomfortable. But grief strips away that insulation and bares our hearts to the raw, yawning pain that is always lurking just beneath the surface.
On the flip side, it can also open our hearts to a depth and richness of human connection we might not otherwise experience. Since Bella died, my friends have drowned me in love. Her loss has made me cry a million tears, but the outpouring of love from my friends has made me cry a million more. A good deal of this is because they loved her, too. But most of it is because they love me and share my pain. Many said sincerely that if they could shoulder part of the burden of my sorrow, they would – and gladly. And I know these are not just hollow noises; my friends grieve for me nearly as much as I grieve the loss of one of my best friends.
Grief also underlines how much we need each other, and how we complete each other. Love between couples is a strong thing, as is the love between parent and child, but the love between us all can be just as strong and just as important.
Grief can also make us pause and reflect on our lives and realize what’s important and what’s not. Pain this intense makes the bullshit fall away and the important things, the things that really matter, stand out in stark relief.
And there’s no way around the pain – there is only through. This is not a perfect analogy but I think it’s a good one: grief is a journey and we have to walk it alone. We can’t opt out by numbing ourselves with drink or drugs, or throwing ourselves into countless distractions. Every time we do so, we pause the journey. The respite may be a welcome relief but it’s only temporary. When it’s over we find we’re no closer to resolution, we’ve wasted precious energy, and the long, hard slog remains.
Today there’s a Bella-shaped hole in my heart. It will heal, but there will always be a scar. And as the intensity of my grief abates, as I know it will, I pray that scar will always remind me of how much that mutt gave me and how much she taught me. While we were together, I gave her everything I could. But she gave me back infinitely more, and for that I am forever grateful.
Fare thee well, sweet Bella, and thank you for everything. You will live in my heart for as long as it beats.