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A meditation on grief and consolation

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'The past is in us and not behind us. Things are never over.' – Tim Winton

‘History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.’ – James Baldwin

Baldwin’s and Winton’s words came fresh to me over the weekend, as I lay our dog’s body into the cold, cold ground. Cinder, a black, beloved miniature schnauzer, had a great life, if one cut cruelly short. She was a happy, cherished animal, who knew we loved her. Like pets across the country and the world in recent years, Cinder got our family through a horrible time. After several trips to the vet and emergency vet, medications, pain relief and surgery, we have had to let Cinder the miniature schnauzer go; the vet had told us there was no hope of recovery.

Cinder was a happy, energetic, loyal, intelligent, loving, joyful member of our mob. We’d often laugh out loud with her. She was our little friend who loved walks, loved to be held, hated vacuum cleaners, tubas, cats and posties. She loved to play, to sing along with music, and especially loved every morsel of food she consumed. Like a Greek tragedy, her great love was her undoing; unbeknownst to us, our terrier ate an acorn, which lodged in her small intestine and damaged her bowel beyond the point of recovery.  

Joined by our son, I dug four feet down, two feet across, into wet, clayish soil. Deep into the darkness. We can see Cinder’s resting place from our bedroom window, not far from a little apple tree we’d planted some weeks before. She would have loved the spot, we think.

Driving through misery, paying the piper’s bill, and then picking up the remains, as well as her little blue coat and collar, I was surprised to find myself struck speechless. Rendered mute, strangled by grief, I was unable to thank the nurse, who kindly accepted my nodded thanks.

Back home, gentle rain fell as we placed our pup’s shroud into the earth and covered her with soil and a blanket of autumn leaves. A little form that was something, was now nothing. Somehow lesser. We were returning its elements and nutrients into the soil. Her little spirit was returning to God knows where.

Our neighbour came along to introduce us to a dog he was looking after, just as I was about to shovel the first spade of soil. My wife and I burst into a new spate of tears as the poor man beat a hasty retreat out the gate. The look on the poor bloke’s face! We owe him a cuppa.

 

'Death serves as a speedbump, jolting us from the comfort of our busyness, our daily rituals, our journeying through convention, repetition and the evasion of hard questions.' 

 

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross taught that ‘we often tend to ignore how much of a child is still in all of us’, demonstrably true in times of mourning. The day before Cinder was euthanised, a puppy jauntily walking her master came to a halt and nuzzled my wife’s hand as we walked along a city street. The dog sensed her pain. We were children at that moment, connected to long-past hurts and comforts.

In 2016 we lost our aged dog Wolfgang. It was one of life’s lessons for our children back then, who have shown greater emotional resilience with our latest loss. Beyond canine losses, shovelling the earth over Cinder brought back difficult memories of being a pallbearer for my mother in 2019, helping to place her remains in the deep, dark earth and, with our family members and many other attenders, shovelling the soil over her coffin.

There is something profound — awe-full — about the act of committal. Committing those beings whom we love to nature and whatever mysteries come after this life. The ending of creation. The devolving of substance into the cycle of life. The commencing, or continuance, of life and the spirit’s transcendence over flesh. The question of what comes next misses the point. How we live right here, right now, seems more pertinent; how we treat our beloved — our fellow creatures — while we have them with us.

Recently released 2021 census data shows that less than half of the 25 million Australians then breathing choose to identify as Christians, and that those who have no religion rose from 30.1 per cent (in 2016) to 38.9 per cent of us.

The search for spirit goes beyond bums on pews or scrabbling for membership on ecclesiastical lifeboats. Meaning is up for grabs; and consolation? The time is not up for organised religion, for faith in a god who died, but the writing is being scribbled all over the wall. mene mene tekel upharsin refers not to the imminent collapse of Babylonian ruler Belshazzar’s corrupt regime, but to the churches and their lack of accountability, relevance and compassion.

Consolation comes from fellow travellers, who have walked the same path and know the potholes and pitfalls you face. We all want to belong, we all want to contribute, we all chase meaning. Death serves as a speedbump, jolting us from the comfort of our busyness, our daily rituals, our journeying through convention, repetition and the evasion of hard questions. 

Sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, life coaches, psychiatrists, philosophers, theologians and preachers contend there are three large influences on every one of us, nature, nurture, and culture. I’d be adding death’s shadow to that list.

 

 

 


 

Barry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: Cinder. (Provided)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins

 

 

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Existing comments

Thank you Barry that in the midst of your grief you are still able to express these so profound feelings.I too have a miniature Schnauzer. I love him. Likewise I loved the previous two Cavaliers who when they passed I didn't think I would ever feel the same. I am so glad to be able to read in a faith based publication an expression of the value of all life. Not just that of other humans and what the end of any life might mean for us. What it might teach us. Thank you again


geoff | 01 July 2022  

Your thoughtful words give a spiritual dimension to the grief many of have endured at the loss of a furry companion. Over millennia our four-legged friends have been vital, loyal companions on life's journey. Bless you and your family, Barry.


Marjorie | 23 July 2022  

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