Today I met with a friend whose father passed away a year ago. She told me how she has not been able to cry properly yet. She talked of her grief being locked away; of how it surfaces without warning, brimming and threatening to spill, but how it is quickly buried again. ‘I can’t let it out. I don’t want to walk around being miserable all the time,’ she said. I told her that I didn’t grieve properly until at least a year was past. In fact, I don’t think I faced the raw pain of it until I had to deal with another death, over two years on from losing Dad. And then it was the death of an animal that did it.
Two months ago our lovely Labrador, Kenna, became unwell very suddenly. One morning at breakfast time instead of wolfing her food down in seconds, she stood over her bowl, looked at the food and then looked at me. The sorrow in her eyes was unbearable. It was clear what she was saying. ‘I want to eat, but I can’t.’ She then took to her basket and lay, panting, her back legs shaking. I assumed she had been poisoned or had had an allergic reaction, so I took her to the vet, expecting to be sent packing with the appropriate prescription.
Instead we were sent to the bigger veterinary practice in the next town and I had to leave her there. For tests. Two short words whose length belies the weight and darkness of their meaning.
A few hours later I was weeping down the phone as I decoded the young vet’s careful phrases. ‘It appears there is a mass attached to her spleen. We could operate, but it might not achieve the desired outcome.’
I called a friend. She drove me to my dog. We lay on the floor, either side of her, stroked her head, her paws and told her she had been a perfect companion, a lovely creature, but that we were very sorry, the time had come to let her go. As we said this, she began to whimper. I ran to get the vet. She administered the drug and Kenna sighed her last and closed her eyes.
The next day I went back with my husband and son. We lifted her already decomposing body into the back of the car. We drove home, the smell of her filling the air around us. We carried her into the garage while we set about digging her grave. The ground here is full of sandstone. It had begun to rain. My husband dug so far and then handed the pickaxe and spade to me. The hole was too deep and the ground too hard so I lay on the wet grass, my head in the grave as I scooped out handfuls of earth and stone and howled and howled and howled, not caring who might see or hear.
We carried her body from the garage to the grave. We lowered her in and said some words. I didn’t want to let go of her soft head, her velvet ears, her gentle nose. I had to be pulled off her.
I wish I could have buried Dad like that. I wish I could have given him a dog’s death. So much more real and pure and raging than a sanitised cremation with some lovely hymns. I wish I could have wrapped his body in a sheet and dug a grave with my bare hands and lowered his body into the earth and got down into it with him. I wish I could have done that last thing for him – given him an authentic send-off with all the blood and fluids and smells and dirt and mess that it would have entailed. Birth is not neat and clean – my children were handed to me covered in blood and mucus and they were beautiful. Why can’t we handle death in its messy reality too?
I said all this to my friend today. She nodded, tears in her eyes.
‘I sound like a madwoman, don’t I?’ I said.
‘No,’ she said. ‘No. Perfectly sane if you ask me.’