“It is no small gift” wrote the poet Mary Oliver about the joy a dog brings into our lives. In the week that we had to say goodbye to Penny, we remember the many gifts this timid little whirlwind brought into our lives and made them so much richer. We also explore why so many of us find grieving for a pet so difficult.
5th April, Tuesday
"The trees are still here;
Broken reflections crookedly oiling
the surface of the canal.
And the blackbird still sings
his river of song from his alder tower.
The sun, when it appears,
still shines its green spring warmth.
But I stand, incomplete, without a shadow...
No, that is not how it feels.
It’s is as if I have found that I am just a shadow, thin and grey,
cast adrift on the dried mud and fallen twigs.
No longer tethered to the warmth of a living soul."
In this episode I read a couple of short extracts from Mary Oliver’s short essay ‘Dog Talk’ published in her book Dog Songs (2013 and 2021) published by Hachett UK.
I also refer to Guy Winch’s article ‘Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously’ from the Scientific American (May, 2018).
Photographs of Penny
A young Penny not long after she came to join us
Although she couldn't swim properly, Penny loved nothing better than being in water and in the sea in particular.
Happy beach girl
Drinking at the waterfalls (Brecon)
Penny making sure the hens don't get up to mischief!
Penny loved looking after the hens and spent as much time as she could with them
Even as she grew older and was losing her sight, she never lost her love for the ball.
There is a part of me that will always continue this walk....
For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters
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In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
All other audio recorded on site.
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Tonight, it feels a little strange and hard. For the first time, there is no one curled up beside the desk here. There is no sound of snoring, or grumphing knocks and bangs, or the sound of rugs and floorboards and walls being licked.
Monday was the day that we never wanted to come, but increasingly were aware that it was near and we had to say goodbye and thankyou to Penny, who had given to us so much and had enriched our lives so much and filled with so such fun and laughter.
Eleven years ago, almost to the day, she came into our lives like a timid whirlwind, filled with such enthusiasm and worry, fears and open-hearted acceptance of life. Those contradictions remained with her all her life -both fearful and fearless, enthusiastic and yet, at the same time, timorous and hesitant. Her early life was a dark history unknown to us. We met her in a kennel at a local Dog's Trust homing centre. Little was known about her life before her rescue, apart from the dark shadows that our love could only partially dispel. By then, she had lost most of her teeth, either having been pulled out, or through her trying to escape a wire cage. She hated dark and enclosed spaces and, initially, was very reluctant to enter inside our home.
Our contact was minimal. She would tolerate Donna touching her, but was clearly uncomfortable with me. Her gentle spirit often masking the anxieties that were raging below the surface. Donna had read about non-verbal canine communication, particularly mirroring eye blinks and yawns -two indictors of stress and important calming signals. Through them, Donna and Penny built up an unbreakable bond, which then created the space and security for me to join. Even to the last days, shared blinking and yawns were important points of contact, but the repertoire also included more playful signals.
The very first thing we learnt from her was her love of playing ball. The ball was her way of making contact with us. I can remember in the early weeks, standing in the back garden for hours, throwing a ball to her. Her body, proud and jaunty, ears and tail up, bringing it back to me, over and over and over again.
She never lost that love for the ball and, bless her, she never got any better at catching it! Even when, more recently she was losing her eyesight she would look expectantly up at me, wag her tail, loll her tongue. And I would, almost literally, post it into her mouth, she still looked as pleased as punch with our applause and 'good girls.'
The only time when she wasn't focused on the ball was when other dogs were around. That's when the collie in her kicked in. She loved nothing better than when I threw it to the other dogs and she would run after them to herd them. She had a lot of friends. When she was young, she was fast, adopting the long outrun of a sheepdog going round behind the flock, and then tightly shepherding them back.
When out, she would naturally shepherd us too. I can remember early on, when we were walking round Banbury and aware of the dog weaving behind me, hard on my heals, saying 'I refuse to be shepherded around town by a dog!' Of course, there was no hope of that ever stopping. Just got used to it and the periodic clunk of her jaw on my heel - the stop to apologise, usually resulting in her head crashing in to the back of my legs, which evoked more apologies! But Penny's main chosen role was to shepherd us through life. She knew our daily routines and would guide us through them with a dogged, persistent patience. Usually 30 minutes too early - she hated tardiness. She had a black belt in passive aggression!
In fact you could quite accurately have described Penny as a dog of obsessions. As well as the ball and herding, we ended up keeping hens to partly keep her constructively employed, a task that she worked at assiduously and always going first up to the run to check on them. The hens would come over and cluster up to her. When they were out in the garden, she was constantly on the go, checking and re-checking, bringing straying hens back to the pack, much to their annoyance and frustration! On the boat in particular, she became obsessed with the rugs that we put down to stop her slipping. She was constantly re-arranging them so much so that it became a standing joke about Penny and her decided opinions on soft furnishings!
And so, eleven years ago, Penny figuratively and literally nestled down into the centre of our family and the two of us became three. We each shared our lives with completeness and totality and because of this we were transformed by a little soul with a fearful but courageous heart and gentle spirit. She barked only when asleep, or towards the end, when she wanted to join us on the canal bank or on the stern. Vert quickly she became the pivot around which all the different worlds we lived turned. And, as such, she was the central constant in our lives to whom we would return and find that much needed feeling of what was normal.
Penny taught me so much. At times it could appear temptingly simple and challenged the complications that I heaped upon mine. But I was also very conscious it could be a frightening world filled with threat beyond my cognition; gun shots, bird scarers, aeroplanes, whistles, thunder could all send her into an instant state of terrified panic. Every time Donna left the room it was clear she never really knew if she would be coming back. But it wasn't just her existential world that was different, it was her physical one too and I learnt so much from that. The way she covered the ground, read it, understood it, got the feel of it, eager, but unhurried, almost devouring the landscape? … We might have shared the ground, but we experienced it so differently, me blind to her world, the thrill, anticipation and excitement of it. However, there were a few times when I could catch a glimpse of it. When a layer of snow fell in the evening capturing the layers of movements through the night, birds, rabbits', fox, cats, deer. A tracery of footsteps, paths, histories, news, familiar to Penny for a short while made plain, crystallised in the cold.
But Penny taught me other things too. It was she who taught me how to raise my voice clear and free when other people were around. I hated shouting. But making in contact with a little racing body diving through undergrowth at the edge of a field was a joy. It was she who helped me talk and be much more open with strangers - to curb my suspicion and wariness with an open heart, but to also read signs. Her lack of socialisation as a puppy meant that, at first, meeting other dogs could be a trial and sometimes even a trauma. I learnt to read her body as she learnt to read those of other dogs. The warnings, the de-escalation signals, the invitation to play - and I could learn them too.
Above all, despite her early life she welcomed each day as if it were new. Without reservation or regret, or fear. As she built her confidence, she built mine for the life I was leading and for the life I was to lead.
And so it was hard and painful saying goodbye to a trusted friend. She fell asleep licking Donna's hand while I scritched her ears - something she loved so much as we told her how proud we were of her, She lay on the surgery floor, her tongue sticking out, as it always did when she was asleep, and we both knew she had gone. And I miss her. We both miss her and how do we deal with the turbulent cauldron of emotions that churn within us?
I miss her not being there, on the rug, beside me - where she always was. And me having to stop recording because she had begun to lick the walls - another obsession. I'd read that it could be destressing technique and possibly a hangover from her poor start and the insecurities she never quite managed to shift. But I have also heard it is a collie trait (like a hatred of going out in the rain - another point of contention between us. On opening the door on a rainy day, she'd look up at me with appalled disgust as if to say, "Why have you made it do that?!" I'd say that she was bred for the rain-lashed moors and mountains of highland Scotland and Wales and this should not be a problem. She'd then go out into it as if somehow I have managed the break the day!).
Perhaps, you too miss her. She has been a quiet presence in these podcasts I know - well sort of quiet!! If so, I am sorry. And thank you to everyone who has reached out and commented. Your words have been a comfort and strength.
It helps because grief is such a strange thing and grief over a other than-human life is even stranger. I am not sure if it is a particularly British thing, but we seem to have a very awkward relationship with grief and bereavement. We acknowledge its existence and even the need for it (for humans at least), but it still sometimes feel self-indulgent, turning a loss into something rather egoistic, selfishly turning the attention from the deceased to what I am feeling.
For so many of us it is almost something we feel guilty about, a personal, psychological failing. We should be stronger, able to cope. I noticed this on social media during the early stages of the pandemic, when people had lost relatives or friends naturally, it would be prefaced with almost an apology, acknowledging others who loss was far worse and heavier. Even this last week, I read what - I think- was intended to be well meaning comment made to someone who was having a real struggle in coming to terms with loss reminding them that there were those in Ukraine who were facing real grief and trauma and perhaps he needed to get his life together a bit better like they were doing. Whatever its intention, it was a stupid and crass comment, but it pointed to this discomfort we seem to have with the almost visceral rawness of grief and the open emotions it foments.
Emotions relating to the loss of a pet are even more complex and conflicted. It digs deeply into the cultural biases we have - it is caused through developing and fostering an over sentimental relationship that is viewed as somehow inappropriate, that it must be a surrogate for a proper human relationship. That it must be unreal, a fabricated selfish relationship about projecting our feelings and emotions on them.
It is as if we think we can truly only have a relationship with other humans and that relationships are only possible for humans.
Again, we hit against that crazy idea of human exceptionalism.
Relationships with pets are not the same as relationships with humans. There are points of overlap and similarity (plenty of them), but they are also different and it is some of those differences that can make grieving for them so painful.
The lack of language (although we both constantly talked to Penny and all the other pets we have had) means that we relate and, importantly, communicate with them at a different level. The bonds which are formed early and lastingly are formed not through vocalisation but through a deeper emotional level. In that sense our relationship has to cut through the surface living levels upon which most of our social relationships function and exist. We talk to each other through our hearts. This means that the relationship has roots that reach down deep within us, often difficult to fully articulate. Human relationships can naturally cycle through deep and shallow periods, other than human relationships have no space to take the foot off the pedal. It is therefore not surprising that loss can feel devastating and touch a type of grief that is not so common with human loss.
Bereavement relating to other than-human life can also be heightened by other factors. In some respects Penny had the cognition of a 3-5 year old. Consequently, we often needed to treat her as a child just developing from being a toddler. Moreover, she displayed and expressed that childlike dependency and trust, built through habit and routines. Most companion pets do. But it does mean that the relationship we build does not experience that arc that human relationships do - growing older, maturing, changing and adapting. The shifts that can, at times, be quite painful and cause tension and argument, but are natural within human relationships. My relationship with Penny deepened over the years, but the basis remained unchanged. She trusted me that I would do her no harm and that simple trust I understood and took the responsibility of it seriously. However, I knew from the first day I ever told her that 'it's ok, Penny. Everything'll be alright', that there would be a day, when I could not say that to her - because, "it was not ok. Everything will not be alright." I used to push those thoughts down. Hope that one night, she’d fall asleep and not wake up. But on Monday, that day came. As we walked into the vet, hoping for good news, but knowing in our heart of hearts 'everything was not ok' - I could not break that trust. I was about to say goodbye not to someone who understood, but to a toddler. One who still trusted us to care for her, protect her, keep her safe from that ultimate threat of death.
I am glad that research is beginning to recognise the depth and reality of grief for an other than human companion. A 2018 article in the Scientific American states that, "Losing a beloved pet is often an emotionally devastating experience... Symptoms of acute grief after the loss of a pet can last from one to two months, with symptoms of grief persisting up to a full year (on average)."'
This is not to argue that other than human relationships are better or worse than those with humans, they are just different. One is certainly not good and the other bad, or one natural and the other a constructed substitute for real relationships.
Penny, in a very real sense, became the warm and living hearth of our family. Our lives moulded around her. She seamlessly became the hub and heart of our lives together. That is nothing to do with anthropomorphism or substituting a non-human for a human. It was Penny's doggishness that we cherished and loved. She never once ceased being a dog - to do so would have been a devaluation and denial of her essential being. It was allowing and enabling her to live out the complexity of her doggishness that freed her to become such a beautiful and warm part of our lives.
And it is her doggishness that we miss.