Some dogs come to us; others we seek out. Pansy arrived in a pick-up truck. She had been abandoned by the side of the road near our family farm. My father-in-law picked her up and brought her home.
Pansy was harder to train than other dogs who have joined our family, although to be completely honest, as a family we fall more into the “must love dogs” camp than the “must train dogs” camp. I’m not suggesting you can’t love AND train a dog; we just happen to be better at loving than training them.
We love dogs for things we don’t need to train them to do. They are loyal, they love us unconditionally, and they seem to have a sixth sense in detecting our emotional state. Maybe they could train us.
Weeks before my wedding, I received a letter from my maid of honor. I opened it, walked out of my family home to a spot in the woods, and began sobbing. My dog, Duchess, sat beside me. Surely she did not know that my maid of honor’s father had died, or that the letter had spent over a month journeying around Canada before arriving at my parents’ home in Connecticut. The simple mislabeling of the state code—CA instead of CT—yet with the correct zip code— seemed to baffle the post office. I received the letter six weeks after it had been mailed. I felt awful. My best friend’s father had died and been buried, and I had not acknowledged her loss in any way.
Duchess was willing to do what others were not. She sat beside me as I cried, and she let me feel awful without the burden of words. She offered her presence: a dog who loved me and was willing to be with me no matter what.
There’s a lot we can learn from dogs. Their ability to wordlessly nurture and provide solace in grief is one. Too often, we struggle to find the right words when there may be no right words. When we come up short of something authentic to say, we improvise with platitudes. But platitudes, well intended though they may be, inevitably make us feel worse. Telling me “he’s in a better place,” for example, only diminishes my right to feel sad.
I told Duchess any number of my secrets and my woes, and I am confident she went to her grave not sharing one of them. We trust dogs not only because they love us, but because we can share anything with them and they will listen.
Lent and grief have a lot in common. They both can seem endlessly long, and they both lead to something difficult to understand and to bear. We journey through Lent being urged to lighten up, to change our ways, and to find a new path. Grief is much the same. Death has visited and someone we loved has gone from our sight, and we feel heavier and sadder. We don’t lighten up.
Lent and grief—perhaps all of life – have something else in common: they are easier to bear when we walk the journey with another. Perhaps this is the wisdom of Jesus sending us out two and two. We have someone to share our story and to listen on the hard days. Sometimes, we model the trusted dog—we listen and let our partner weep. But above all, we are simply there.
Compassion really is about showing up. Words are optional.