Beachfront Property

Whiskey the Brave

I have been thinking, a little bit, about grief.

Three weeks ago I lived a nightmare; putting my beautiful dog of eleven years to sleep. He was fifteen and a slow paralysis had atrophied his legs. For his last three months, walking was nearly impossible. A 70-lb golden retriever/collie mix, he became entirely reliant on my very strong husband; first for help up, then to walk at all. It wasn’t fun for anybody, least of all him. It was a horrible decision, and a horrible experience. You know how it is.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about, is how you all know how it is.

This wasn’t my first grief, or, apologies to my sweet Whiskey-Dog, necessarily my deepest. In 39 years, I’ve mourned two grandparents I adored, lost an aunt to diabetes, another now suffers with Alzheimer’s. I watched the bright smile of a friend never fade as cancer ate her to the bone, then killed her. I’ve sobbed night after night in a closet mourning a broken marriage. A cat, who arrived as a starved kitten weeks after I was born, disappeared just before my 18th birthday. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.

All this grief, all this aching mourning, in my experience, was exactly the same. I wept. I fell to pieces. I had sweet dreams about being with my loved ones, only to wake and find out the real nightmare. I teared up unexpectedly, weeks or months after the loss. Grief has been the same water, over and over, that I’m thrown into and left to tread for as long as it takes to reach the shore. The ache of walking into the dining room and looking for my dog under the table just by rote is the same of seeing an old photo of my grandmother. The bittersweet memory of my cat’s warm presence in my lap feels just like the sting that comes when Facebook reminds me of my dead friend’s birthday.

I have seen screeds on social by the grief-stricken begging people not to respond to news of someone’s loss by saying “I know how you feel, I lost a dog(or grandfather or friend or fiance).” They are racked with rage that anyone could claim to know the depths of their grief, their pain; they are infuriated with presumption, or even with the idea that someone is trying to steal their sorrowful thunder. And I won’t tell others if that’s a right or wrong response.

But it’s not my experience.

Psychologists have been telling us for years the steps of grief are common, we certainly know them by heart. Denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance, laid out like an endlessly customizable salad bar from Hell. Mix’n’match them, how about a dollop of anger today, how about two scoops of denial? Don’t worry, you can come back tomorrow. You have to. You live here now.

So it seems not too much of a leap to assume if the stages are common, the feelings, the experience is also common. Not just to equivalent griefs - carefully measured lives against lives - but to all of them, large and small. Some people may take longer to swim back to shore, in fact, a tragic few will never make it. But its one ocean, one feeling; and for at least a moment, we all know the fear of not being able to see the bottom.

As humans we are all gifted beachfront property on the shore of a sea of grief. We all learn what it’s like to be battered by the waves, to see the life we knew drift inescapably out of our reach. To be left in a world just a little bit lonelier.

That’s why, for me, it remains a comfort to hear “I know how you feel.” Whether someone has lost a cousin or a chihuahua, to me the effect does not minimize my grief, it holds out a hand of solidarity. It’s a recognition of our shared home on the edge of existence, surrounded by all our unfortunate mortality. It’s a promise that the shore may be far, but it’s not out of reach. Someone else has been out there where you’re drifting, but they made it back. And one day you will, too.

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Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis

Writer, director, and pie-baker.