How I Surmounted the Year of Grief

3 Jun

Wednesday marked one year since my best friend left. That is, my beloved mutt and companion of nearly 14 years, Amica, died. I still miss her every day. Every once in a while, there are still tears. I think it’ll always feel like this word I started saying even before her death: amputation.

a golden Labrador mix dog kisses the author's cheek
my beloved Amica

The day after her deathiversary (as I called it), I felt something unexpected. I felt relieved. I realized I had achieved a significant milestone, which was to get through that year of “firsts.” There was her 14th birthday that she wasn’t there to reach and celebrate. Visiting family without her being my plus-one. Then traveling for business without her, not needing the pet-friendly lodging anymore. Holidays (including our Valentine’s tradition), my own birthday, and all the little things in between, like not sharing my chicken nuggets.

How did I get through this past year?

Well, it began with the coping mechanisms I do not advise, which was unhealthy excess of comfort food and comfort beverages. There was excess of binge watching and LEGO building, not quite as unhealthy if one has the financial and time budgets to accommodate (I had been slowly filling a dark corner in the back of my closet with toys and clearing my business calendar).

Then I came to more healthy and productive activities. I reached out to a friend of mine who’s involved with multiple pet rescues to donate Amica’s leftover medications and other supplies. I pet her dogs and asked about rescue transporting, something I’d been interested in for quite some time. Soon after, I drove my first rescue dog transport, moving a sweet English setter named Griffin for a 90-mile stretch of his cross-state relay to his forever home.

an English setting lying in the back seat of a car, tail blurry in a wag
Griffin en route (tail wag constant)

Next, I started dog-sitting. Via an app, social media, and just word of mouth, I filled my calendar and home with dogs, up to four at a time! This helped immensely with the loneliness, the horror of the empty house, and that compulsion to make sure the dog water bowl was always filled (after Amica died and I finally picked up her bowls, I had the constant feeling something was missing). Now, when my house was empty, I was simply relieved to have a break from *other people’s dogs*!

long-haired daschund puppy passed out in a dog toy pile
my tiniest and youngest client
3 collies playing with a toy in a yard
my collie clients
4 dogs waiting for a treat
a few more clients
the author with a man and a cat standing on his shoulder
me, Charles, Scout

I got busy with work. I got very busy. I fell in love with a human. Wow, was this a gift! I wish this were something that everyone grieving could do, then I would absolutely advise it. But I can only note the immense blessing of the timing.

I guess what I can advise is to keep your heart open. Don’t get so lost in the devastation that you miss a greatest gift.

My new human partner came with the epic bonus of a kitty cat named Scout, who bonded with me instantly and generously. We all live together now, and sometimes Charles (the human) and I will drive an English setter on a leg of his or her journey. We even kept one overnight.

cat curled up on the author's chest
Scout’s favorite spot
English setter cuddling against a man in a chair
our sweet house guest, Luke

Then this past week was the final piece, getting through the anniversary of Amica’s death. It was certainly nothing to celebrate, but it was something I wanted to mark, and I wanted it to be an uplifting mark. So, I booked us a couple nights in a cabin in Shenandoah National Park. One of my favorite parts of life with Amica was exploring National Parks together (Amica had been to 17, plus several more National Monuments, National Seashore, etc.). Shenandoah is the nearest one to where I currently live, and it happens to be both the first and last place Amica and I camped together. Plus, the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia is where she was born.

a rustic cabin
our cabin at Big Meadows
a mixed-breed dog in a tent
2-year-old Amica in our tent at Big Meadows Campground
a large golden dog in a tent
13-year-old Amica in our tent at Big Meadows Campground

Our full day in the park was May 31st, the deathiversary. The weather was perfect (I had made sure to change the rain and storm forecast ahead of the trip), and the fibromyalgia and (I think it’s…) long-COVID fatigue that had been debilitating for the couple weeks prior had finally and miraculously eased up a good bit. My partner and I decided to go for a little hike to see Lewis Falls.

First of all, let me tell you….

That “little hike”….

Well, the trail guide explained it to be a “moderate” hike, 2 miles long. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, my fitness watch declared that it was a 4-mile 2-mile hike (it thought I walked 4 miles when it was only 2), which must have to do with the quantity of short strides I took due to the steep incline and the rocks to be climbed down and up.

While I was there that day to work through grieving over my dog, the real work became more in-the-moment. Of course, I was thinking about Amica constantly, sharing stories about her throughout the hike, but the task here was the hike itself.

As we descended over 800 feet on narrow, boulder-strewn, switchback trails, I marveled with gratitude that I was able to do this. I felt healthy, able-bodied, and even athletic (which I’ve been wanting so much lately)! I remarked that there are lots of people who can’t even do this (I know, low blow and no fair, but sometimes I dig dark just to be on the winning side of “no fair” for once … please forgive me).

the author on a rocky trail
navigating the “moderate”-ness
author smiling in a selfie
me all joyful and proud of myself on the trail

I also remarked that yep, pretty sure the osteoarthritis is in my knees, too.

After over an hour of twisting and plopping down the mountainside, it was seeming like we’d never reach the promised waterfall. There was a point when I said, “OK, if we’re not there in the next 15 minutes, let’s just turn back.”

15 minutes later, we still weren’t there, but we were finally able to *hear* the waterfall, and we pressed on.

We made it.

At an overlook, I stood on my quivering knees and watched a skinny waterfall dance its perpetual 80-foot dive from the wide stream where we had to leapfrog across rocks to its unseen destination in the forest below. The journey, the day, the sharing with my partner, the reminiscing, that waterfall — it was all so beautiful.

a tall waterfall in the woods
Lewis Falls

But that was only half the journey, of course. We had to get back up that mountain!

At first, I continued with the thrill of what I had been able to do. I definitely felt like an athlete and marveled how this was the first time in a very long time that I got to do a fitnessy thing that got me sweating and winded.

But then not far past that, my victorious gratitude flipped to an exact opposite mindset. Now my heart was pounding scary fast, my whole body was throbbing, I was panting like a dog who’d just fetched 1,000 balls in a desert, I was dizzy and my head felt squished, and the task ahead was impossible … yet necessary.

I felt so disabled. I was so angry with my body for *not* letting me do what a normal person should be able to do. I felt desperate and stuck and helpless.

My dear partner reminded me that we had all day, that I can take my time, rest, go at the pace I needed.

And I reminded me that I have fibromyalgia and arthritis, that I need to always balance my expectations of myself and life with this reality, no matter how more or less real it is in a moment. And I reminded myself again that I was here in this beautiful place, doing this actual thing, and it was pretty great, no matter where I sit on that spectrum of comparison.

Then I looked ahead up that steep trail, raised my arm and pointed, and said, “That bend up there, I’m going to walk up to that.”

I reached the bend and looked up and said, “That rectangle-ish rock up there, I’m going for that.”

the author on a trail in the woods
me making my way up

It took an hour and a half to ascend that mountain at a pace that convinced my watch I’d walked 4 miles instead of 2, but short stride by short stride, bend by rock, marker by marker, I finally reached the top.

And I guess that’s how I did it all, this year. I looked ahead at that first box of chicken nuggets I’d have to finish on my own, and reached that point. Then the next. At every first, I made the turn, scaled the boulder, and I made it out on top where any direction I look is the breath-giving vista of nostalgia.

view of rolling blue mountains
view from the top

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