Where do we learn how to grieve? That’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. I know we learn about grief through loss. But the how part, I’m still not sure. Do we learn from our family and friends? From what we see on tv or read about in books?
Once upon a time, my Will and I got married in the middle of the California wine country. The sun was hot. The hills were golden. We were surrounded by loved ones. A few days after the ceremony we flew down to San Jose del Cabo to spend our honeymoon at a rustic inn that was truly off the beaten path. We had to rent a roll bar Jeep because getting there involved four-wheeling across a dry arroyo bed and shuddering up into the dusty foothills on the outskirts of town. We were the inn’s only guests.
One of our first mornings in Mexico, I woke with the sunrise, laced up my running shoes, and headed down the empty riverbed with the innkeeper’s four dogs tagging along for company. A mile or so into our run, the dog pack suddenly bolted. They sprinted past me, barking like mad and honed in on something hidden in a tangle of overgrown bushes. Then came a terrible squeal. I ran faster. I thought the dogs had pinned a rabbit, but when I got there, I found them tearing at a tiny puppy. So I did what everyone would do: I shooed the dogs off, picked the puppy up, and took him home with me. All the way back to California! Will and I named him Milagro. We call him Milo. Our honeymoon surprise.
Almost 13 years, 4 moves, and 3 children later, Milo has become an old man dog. Well, he’s been old for a while now. He has arthritis and thyroid problems. Cataracts, too. But lately he’s gotten even slower. It’s harder for him to eat and drink. He still loves lying in the sun and having his ears stroked, but his own sunset is near. We know this.
Our children are lucky. They haven’t lost anyone close to them. Yes, death has touched their world—a playmate’s mother, my friend’s dear baby, a great grandmother I wish they’d known better—but they haven’t yet lost a person that they loved and who loved them back. So Milo, in his doggy passing, will be their first painful loss. It will also be practice for greater losses to come. Although that’s knowledge I have—they don’t—so it feels sad to qualify or reduce their loss just because Milo isn’t a person. Milo’s a person to them, even though he’s an animal too.