The hole in my heart I choose not to fill.
Sometimes I wake up and I swear I can hear Gracie, my golden retriever, lightly snoring next to the bed. The silence that replaces it once I’ve fully awakened is always painful. Gracie passed on quite some time ago, and I miss her every day. We had a wondrous, ridiculous, life changing ten years together before cancer took her. The hole that was left in my heart when she died was enormous.
At the time, it felt like this black, echoey, bottomless pit that would just swallow up anything I threw in it. There was no way to fill it, or cover it up, or in any way make it less...there. I’m sure you have experienced loss like this and can feel what I’m describing. Whether between humans or animals, relationships end, situations change, we change, they change, someone moves on, and in the end, we all die.
In the aftermath, we’re left with a hole.
A few weeks after Gracie died, I was going for a walk at UConn. Gracie LOVED walks. She would hold her own leash in her mouth and prance along slightly in front of me to let me know who was walking who. She was very independent (and stubborn!). When I was training her as a puppy I quickly realized how spirited she was, and we decided we were going to be partners, as opposed to me being the one in charge and her being the obedient one. Our arguments were glorious. She loved making up rules and rituals we could both live with.
Anyway, as I was walking, three beautiful goldens came over the hill, and that hole in my heart opened up like a giant mouth that wanted to swallow them all in hugs. The side of my face actually hurt from the desire to just rest my head in their fur. They weren’t Gracie, but they could be a momentary distraction from the pain, the loss that was still so raw and fresh.
Most people who have goldens are more than willing to let you pay them a visit. Mainly because goldens know that all people love them, and we walk this earth for the sole purpose of giving them pets and cookies. So I stopped as the gentleman approached, and babbled something about how beautiful his dogs were and how I had just lost my golden and kind of just stood there looking lame and hoping he’d stop.
He didn’t. He didn’t even look at me. He kept on moving, simply saying “Get a puppy.” then moving on. Now just to be clear, I was perfectly fine with this. His dogs looked like they were on a mission and didn’t have any interest in stopping for a visit. He knows his dogs and sets the boundaries, and I absolutely respect that.
For those of you who choose to share your lives with animals, you know that his advice is pretty common. In fact, Gracie was the result of Kiera dying. Kiera was the first golden I had shared my life with, and when she died, I tried to fill the hole she left by getting a puppy. It kind of worked. An eight week old puppy doesn’t leave you much time for anything other than surviving them. They are whirling blurs of needle teeth, fur, and bodily fluids, and if they weren’t so darn adorable, they probably wouldn’t survive to see their first birthday.
Kiera and I had a great relationship, but I took it for granted. When she died, the hole she left was a shock. She left me with questions and a vague sense of guilt. Did I give her enough attention? Could I have been a better owner? Did I care for her the way she deserved? I think the answer to these questions was mostly “Yes”, but I hadn’t been paying full attention, so I’ll never really know.
I didn’t want to make that mistake with Gracie, so from day one I was fully there in our relationship. I knew the clock had already started ticking and I was going to make sure every moment counted. And I did. I can tell, because the pain of her loss was worse than almost any other loss I’ve experienced in my life. We loved each other HARD, and the price that came due at the end of her life is one I would gladly pay again. She’s worth it.
What I’ve realized is this: Gracie didn’t fill the hole in my heart left by the death of Kiera. I just got busy digging a new hole. My attention was on the new relationship in front of me, and making it better by applying what I had learned from the previous one. Gracie wasn’t a replacement. She was new. There were similarities and parallels. All dogs have some commonality to them, just like all humans do. Yet every relationship is unique. No new relationship can fill the holes we’ve dug from previous ones.
I think we all may try at times to replace something we’ve lost with something else. For me, this now feels like an impossibility. It feels better to add more love in new ways, rather than try to recycle something that deserves to be left alone for what it was.
Kiera’s heart gave out unexpectedly, and she passed at home without any of us even knowing it. She just laid down and never got back up. It was a weird feeling of incompleteness for me. One minute she was there, the next she wasn’t, and we were all left to pick up the pieces.
When Gracie died, it was different. I was there, holding and talking gently to her as she took her last breath. We both had prepared for this, and as painful as it was, the inevitable had come. The contrast is stark for me, and also the recognition that we rarely get to choose how things end and what part we will get to play in it.
I’m crying a little as I write this, but I’m also smiling. Because every time I think of the moment of her death, I pair it with an image of her running towards me on her favorite walking trail, ears flying, a big doggie grin on her face, and then her tail spinning like a propeller as she’d try to stop before running into me. That’s just one of the million memories I have of her that makes me smile.
As I’ve written this, I’ve decided that I don’t need holes in my heart anymore. I’m changing my story and instead building rooms. Gracie’s room is filled with pictures, and her favorite toys, and videos of us living our lives together. Kiera’s room has pictures of her chasing her kong, and sitting for Scooby snacks, and proudly wearing her bandanas.
There are rooms for all of the relationships in my life now. Some of those rooms are still painful to visit, and that’s good. It means something was built that meant something. We built something that hurt when it changed. And we live with the understanding that all things must change.
I think our hearts have space for an infinite amount of rooms if we believe that to be true. I think sometimes when we’ve experienced an especially hard loss, or chain of losses, we get weary. We need a break and we lock ourselves in one room that’s sort of insulated from everything. I know that happened to me for a while. I needed a soft, sparse, soundproofed room to recover from too many losses in too short a period of time. I think that’s ok.
Wherever you are in your your personal journey, my dream for you is that you will keep adding rooms to your heart. That even if you need a break sometimes, eventually you’ll open up the doors, wander the halls and poke your head in here and there, and then get back to building. We’ll all thank you for it. Maybe we’ll even build a room together, or already have.
I’m going to go build some new rooms now :)