I’ve danced with sadness for most of my life. What I mean by that, is that for as long as I can remember, I’ve felt sadness waiting for me to embrace it. I’m not entirely sure that that is a bad thing, I just know that it took a long time to understand it.
When I was three years old, my first dog, Grizzly Bear, passed away suddenly. I remember the day so clearly because it was the day that shaped who I am as a person. It was my first heartbreak, and my first understanding that life is not everlasting.
This grief over the loss of my dog brother, stayed with me throughout my childhood. I clung to it during times of new sadness when I knew of no other ways to express my feelings, and when I could not find words to explain why I was upset, I would just say, “I miss Grizzly Bear.”
My understanding of grief has come a long way since then, but it’s not perfect. It has taken me two years to be able to write about the grief I have experienced since my sweet Cohen passed away on March 7th, 2016, and to be honest, I’m still struggling to find the right words. I have loved so many animals in my life, but only twice have I felt the earth crack when one of them died. First when I was a small child, and again just two years ago.
For the first year after Cohen died, I cried a lot. I felt an immense amount of guilt and pain when I thought about him and his last day. The grief was nothing like I had experienced before. It was as if my chest was opening like a yawn that never reaches the point of exhale. There was no end to it, at least not that I could see.
Then, some things started changing in my life. I quit my day job in January 2017 to focus full time on my work as an animal photographer, capturing the stories of animals for the people who love them. When the one year anniversary of Cohen’s death arrived, I was flying home from a dream weekend spent at a wild horse sanctuary. I looked up at the stars from my window seat, and I thought of Cohen. I still felt grief, but it had changed. I realized that I had embraced the sadness. I had accepted the dance, not to be sad, but to learn from it.
You see, there is beauty in sadness. The experience of losing someone you love connects you to other people who have also experienced this sort of loss. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what you believe, etc. We all live, we all love, we all experience grief in some way. I’d love to tell you that that plane ride was the end of my struggle with the guilt and pain I carried, but it wasn’t. Despite my newfound clarity, I had not yet given up this part of my grief.
A couple of months later, I had a session with a wonderful EMDR trauma therapist, Seth Ellner, here in Seattle. If you are not aware of what EMDR therapy is, please take a look at Seth’s website to learn how it can help you with so many forms of trauma. What I learned in this session was that I was focusing on that one bad day. Cohen’s last day. I wasn’t really letting myself remember how that was the only bad day. I wasn’t letting myself celebrate how much I loved him. As soon as I realized that my love for him was bigger than any one single day, I was able to let go of the pain and the guilt.
And here we are. The day I put my grief into words has arrived, and I’m okay. I’ve cried just three times while writing this, but I have also smiled at least five times which is awesome. If I could give you just one more thing before I finish this, it would be to ask you to share your story of grief. Share it for yourself, or share it for someone you think may need to hear it. Even if it’s in just a few words, or with photographs, connecting with one another is what matters. It’s what makes us great, and what keeps us going.