I am a middle-aged woman, currently living alone—my children are both launched, and their father decamped long before they did. Last month my beloved Lab, Vulcan, died suddenly of a heart attack just after his ninth birthday. It was a terrible shock to come home from work and find him lying there, and since then I have not been able to get over either the trauma of that moment or just not having him around. He really was my best friend. We travelled together, went to the park together every evening, ate in the kitchen together, and slept side by side. The house feels empty and a little ominous. I have been thinking about death a lot—not as something I desire, but because my lonely house makes me remember that life is short and scary.
My sister and my friends keep telling me that it is time to get over it, that I have to move on with my life, that Vulcan was just a dog, that I was too attached, etc. This would be upsetting enough if I were walking around openly grieving and bumming them out, or even raising the subject. But all I do is answer their questions honestly. Sometimes it seems as if they can hardly wait for me to answer before they start, basically, reprimanding me. I have two questions for you—well, three, really. How do I deal with these people? Am I grieving too long or too much? And you have any advice on how to feel better?
—Bereft in Burlington
First, I am very sorry for your very real loss.
Now on to your questions. I am going to give your sister and your friends the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are genuinely concerned about you—although, from what you have written, there may also be some officiousness, Schadenfreude, impatience, and rote conversation in play here. But even if all these people care about is your welfare, lecturing you and telling you to suck it up are hardly likely to help. In fact, your sister and friends may be exacerbating your grief by making you feel isolated from people you had hoped would understand and sympathize.
The next time these people ask you how you’re coping with losing your dog, I would put them off as best you can. You can simply say that you’d rather talk about something else. After all, they are the ones who have been telling you to move on. Or you can make some general remark like “Time is a great healer” and immediately steer the conversation toward another area where they might like to opine or pronounce. If they persist after these tactics, avoid them whenever possible until you feel better.
As for whether you are grieving “too long or too much,” I cannot say. For one thing, I do not know the contours of your grief. Are you actively miserable all the time? Are you able to sleep, eat, work, concentrate, socialize? For another thing, the forms and timetables of grief differ as much as individuals and societies do, and there are so many variables that it would be very hard to say which ones “work” best, in the sense of restoring the bereaved to some kind of balance. Some people I know grieve acutely and cathartically; for others, the sadness creeps up on them more gently but stays for quite a while. (As one whose mourning is usually more of the quieter but more chronic variety, I envy the people who seem able, somehow, to get things out of their systems.)
So it would be arrogant and foolish to join in with your sister and friends and tell you whether you are doing this grief thing the right way. But I will stick my neck out and say that, unless you are unable to function, a month does not seem all that long to mourn a constant companion, especially when the loss was sudden and shocking. I have found that, in some ways, the death of a pet can be harder to adjust to than the death of a human friend because, when you lose the pet’s physical presence, you lose almost everything. There were and are no words: no letters, no discussions real or imagined or hypothetical. You can’t go back over your pet’s sweet remarks or clever text messages, or extrapolate from remembered conversations to help you decide how they would have liked the new lady at the dog park. They are, mostly, just gone. The emptiness can be terribly visceral.
Your thoughts of death do worry me, though. It sounds as if Vulcan was your bulwark against both physical and deep existential loneliness. This brings us to your third question: what to do to feel better? I think your priority must be to fight the loneliness.
One way to do this, of course, is to talk to people. Your letter hints that, even thought you have given up on initiating conversations about it, part of you wants to talk about Vulcan and your loss. That, to me, is totally understandable: just steer clear of the people you wrote me about, and try to find some who can listen patiently and without giving unsolicited, unhelpful advice. Do you have other friends and relatives you can speak with, call, or write? Perhaps some of them—your kids?—share your sorrow, or have memories to exchange with you. Or perhaps some of your other friends will be more open and sympathetic because Vulcan’s death is news, or at least a fresher subject, to them.
There are hotlines, web sites, and forums out there that specialize in the loss of pets. I would check them out. There are also plenty of counselors and therapists who can help you cope with loneliness and loss. I urge you to find one, if only for a single visit. Or at least talk to your regular doctor. If you are, or are on the verge of becoming, clinically depressed it makes sense to treat this now.
I would also try to get out, socialize, have people over, play music, go to the gym. Although certainly not impossible, it is harder to be lonely when you are not alone.
What about a new dog? For me, and for almost everyone else I know who has taken the plunge, getting a new pet softens grief and assuages or eliminates loneliness. This is not to say that it doesn’t also create new problems—my adolescent golden retriever ate three parquet tiles and half a rotisserie chicken just last night. And of course it takes time to adjust to the many ways a new animal differs from its adored predecessor. But what are such things when weighed against all that enthusiasm, companionship, and love? (I should probably admit the obvious here, and confess that I am totally crazy about dogs, and cats for that matter and, if I could figure out how to slip it in, would recommend getting one to most of the people who write me.)
If a puppy seems too much for you given the demands of your job, you can always find an older dog from a shelter or rescue, or even from some breeders and trainers. If you want to wait until after your vacation or some other upcoming event, that makes sense, too. It can be fun to anticipate a new pet but still be able, just this once, to entertain houseguests with allergies, or take a trip without paying for kennels or sitters. But I really do believe you should consider getting a new dog as soon as practicable. Think of those late-summer evenings out in the park again with a friend who wants nothing more than to fetch a stick for you. Imagine lounging on the couch afterwards with somebody who will listen to you talk about how you miss Vulcan and utter not a word of criticism or advice, just chew gently and sympathetically on your ankle.
Maybe you don’t do politics, but every time I run into someone that I thought had a modicum of sense and they tell me they’re going to vote for Donald Trump, I find that I have no resources except to tell them they are stupid and are not thinking straight. I mean do they really think Donald Trump can deal with ISIS? The issues of the Middle East? Aren’t they terrified as I am even at that remote possibility? Well, I’m not writing you to talk about those that are enthralled by him. I guess stupidity is the norm in America.
I’m writing about my cortisol level that I can’t seem to control when dealing with this subject. (I don’t even want to mention his name again.) Rational discourse on my part seems to fly right out the window. And why can’t people see what I see in Hillary? Her smarts, her determination, her dedication to this country, her experience as a Senator and a Secretary of State?
Should I just crawl under the covers until this election is over, or is there a way for me to have some reasonable conversations about this election?
—At Wit’s End in Wilmington
P.S. Drugs are not an option.
Dear Wit’s End,
Questions of grammar and usage can be such a comfort sometimes— gentle exercises for the brain, and all with the underlying assumption that linguistic clarity is a worthy goal, and that rational discourse is at least occasionally possible. This is why, when I read your letter and rewrote your alias (another correspondent had already taken “Frustrated in Philadelphia”!), I spent some time pondering and researching the issue of “wit’s end” versus “wits’ end.” Either is okay, the on-line grammar sites tell me. And both work in your case: the politics of 2016 can be disastrous both for one’s wit, since none of this is funny any more when one considers the implications; and one’s wits, since trying to take in all the lies and contradictions and improbabilities and vitriol and bullying and surreality of recent weeks can turn the brain into a blinking ringing banging flashing pinball machine going TILT as it careens toward the edge of a …
… perhaps I am not the best person to advise you here. Words, and stress-regulating mechanisms, keep failing me, too. But I am going to try, anyway:
[Worried about how to deal with Trumpeters? Read June’s full response to Wit’s End here]
Oh dear. I suspect that my own cortisol levels are doing the tango about now, and I am not sure my long letter really answered your question. If I had to give you a relatively short answer that actually addressed your question, it would be:
I have no idea how long you will be able to sustain a reasonable conversation about this election. It is a bad one! I am also not sure most reasonable conversations will do any good. Nevertheless, like those French existentialists we used to read when we were young and had spectacular glucose tolerance and awesome adrenal glands, we must try to make rational decisions, and encourage others to do so, in an irrational world. So you should give rational debate a try, and I hope one or two items on my perhaps overgenerous list of suggestions will help you. But whenever you feel those cortisol levels rising, take a break and get back under those covers.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.