On a Couch With a Dog: Lessons, Love, and Loss

When everything else in our lives is consistently shifting, we want to be able to come home to familiar surroundings, and feel as though something is permanent and stable. However, even those things that seem constant are subject to the will of time, and will change.
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It seems that despite the difficult year that 2014 turned out to be, 2015 will offer no respite from heartbreak. Internationally, we mourn the lives of those lost at Charlie Hebdo; condemn the violence that has killed thousands and forced thousands more from their homes in Nigeria; struggle with questions about the Air Asia flight that went down in the Java Sea; and stand up with those who feel ostracized and alone in the wake of Leelah Alcorn's suicide. In my hometown, we are mourning the lives of two young men lost far too young - one to the flu, and another to an accident. Personally, I am grieving the loss of my beloved dog, Jasper, who passed away just over a week ago.

Jasper's death was perhaps the hardest experience I have ever endured, as I have been lucky enough to have never lost a family member or close friend. So I was surprised to find that loss, and the grief that follows it, is a remarkably visceral and painful emotional experience. It's dizzying, nauseating, and exhausting all at once, and it comes in waves at the most unexpected of times.

Yet as horrible as it is to lose a loved one, it turns out that there are lessons to be learned from experiences like this. The first, (and perhaps, most obvious) is that guilt is a ubiquitous part of loss. We will all experience regret for the things that we should have (could have, would have?) said and done. The last day that Jasper was with us, he stopped eating, and as I had been coaxing him to eat for several weeks, I blamed myself, thinking that I had failed to keep my dog healthy. After he passed away, all I could think about was how I had spent the last three years of his life away at school, instead of spending precious moments with him.

The thing about guilt is that it is poisonous, and rubs salt into an already gaping wound. We cannot change the past, and clinging to our regrets mars the healing process. It is okay to feel guilt - it's a natural part of grief - but don't let it overwhelm the positive memories that are truly worth cherishing.

The second lesson learned comes from the weeks that I spent with Jasper before he passed away. After he came home from the veterinary hospital, we spent most of our time sitting with him in some of his favorite places in our house. However, amidst the worrying and the anxious hovering, there were a couple of moments of happiness - an afternoon out in the sun, a cuddle session with his big sister (after he kept her up most of the night).

These moments are particularly special because we almost didn't have them. Jasper went into kidney failure several days after I came back for break, and many dogs in renal failure do not live much more than a few days. So while it was difficult to watch him decline, I am so grateful that I had time to say goodbye, and to tell him I loved him. I am so grateful that, if it had to happen, that it at least happened while I was on break, so I didn't have to rush home. Gratitude - for the big things, the little things, and all those moments in between - will help combat the guilt and help you focus on the things that are truly important.

The question now is what to do next - faced with a world that contains loss and sadness, which is filled with bigotry and hate and ignorance even in the face of horrendous tragedies, how do we respond? The natural response, which I indulged for several days after Jasper passed away, is to curl into a ball and pretend that the world doesn't exist. Unfortunately, that's not a particularly productive response. More fortunately, there are better ways to cope with a sometimes bleak and harsh reality.

The most important lesson that Jasper taught me, discovered in those now-treasured little moments, is that love has no limit, no bounds, and no expectations. Jasper managed to fit a thousand lifetimes worth of unconditional love into only twelve years - we, with average lifetimes almost seven times longer than that, must strive to do the same. We must love others without prerequisite and without judgment if we want to be able to let go of our grief and be content with our gratitude.

So, if you haven't given up on your resolutions yet, I'd like you to add just one more - this year, despite its less than auspicious start, take some time to practice compassion. Forget the mile, and spend a day in someone else's shoes (or paws). Take advantage of all of the opportunities that are presented to you, and take a class on something you've never even heard of before. Hatred comes from ignorance, so take the chance while you're in college, and have all of the resources in the world at your fingertips, to educate yourself about a different perspective. Love without expecting anything in return.

I know that I'm asking you to do something different, and uncomfortable, and that that kind of change can be scary - trust me, I know how that feels too. As college students, we don't always want change. When everything else in our lives is consistently shifting, we want to be able to come home to familiar surroundings, and feel as though something is permanent and stable. However, even those things that seem constant are subject to the will of time, and will change.

I'm not okay yet, and I don't know how long it will take for me to be okay. I may never be, and that's okay too. I thought that after I lost Jasper, there would be a massive hole in my chest where my heart used to be. But surprisingly, it is still there, and still mostly intact, because although Jasper is gone, I still carry the love that he gave me, and I always will. And if I can spread a little of that love to someone else, who can spread it to someone else, and give them the strength to face the sorrows of the world, then maybe this year isn't quite doomed yet - and Jasper will have left the best legacy that I could have hoped for.

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