Grieving before he's gone

Knowing the end is near doesn’t make things easier.

There’s a photo hanging near my bathroom sink of my now-deceased husband, Jamie, and my now-elderly dog, Henry. Whenever I look at it, often while brushing my teeth, a swirling mix of love and sadness washes over me.

The year is 2011, and it’s a brilliant and brisk Fall day in the North Georgia mountains. Jamie and Henry, both young and full of energy, venture down a sunlit path. Jamie is breathing in the fresh air, while Henry sniffs the unfamiliar ground. Although you can’t see their faces, it’s clear that they’re happy.

Sometimes, I look at this picture and think, if there’s an afterlife, this is what it will soon look like.

My dog, Henry—Henry Barfight, if we’re being proper—turned 13 this month. That’s a pretty long time for a dog, and it shows. Henry doesn’t get around as well as he used to. His legs get stiff, his joints become achy, and he doesn’t always succeed in hitting his target when he tries to leap onto the bed. Henry’s eyes are cloudy, his hearing is poor, and he’s sometimes picky with his food. Various lumpy growths have appeared under his fur; they’re benign areas that his veterinarian says to not worry about, but I can’t help but eye them with concern. When he falls into a deep sleep, I watch his chest rise and fall, and wonder when he’ll take his last breath.

Last week, a newsletter reader suggested I check out the book Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation. Peeking at the prologue online, I quickly felt a connection—and plan to read the book in its entirety soon (thanks, Katie, for the recommendation!). 

In the opening pages, author Kyo Maclear writes about the toll of witnessing her father’s health decline. 

It is possible too that I was experiencing something known as ‘anticipatory grief,’ the mourning that occurs before a certain loss. Anticipatory. Expectatory. Trepidatory. This grief had a dampness. It did not drench or drown me, but it hung in the air like a pallid cloud, thinning but never entirely vanishing. It followed me wherever I went and gradually I grew used to looking at the world through it.

Maclear adds:

The grief I felt was not upending my life. It did not, for instance, prevent me from socializing and exercising and tracking down orange blossom water for a new cake recipe. It did not prevent me from lying in corpse pose in a crowded yoga studio, simulating my own proximity to the void. But it unmoored me and remained the subtext of my days.

Yes! This. What I’m encountering these days with Henry is a good, old-fashioned case of anticipatory grief. Like Maclear observed, the trepidation I’m feeling doesn’t affect how I function in life. From the outside, things seem fine. But on the inside, it’s as if I’m perpetually holding my breath—waiting for the inevitable moment when Henry’s life ends, and my life once again feels like it’s been ripped apart.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that grief—anticipatory or not—keeps a constant thrum in our daily lives. Grief isn’t always the all-consuming experience that we associate with the death of someone close to us. We also grieve the times that once were, the times that will never be, and the cumulative losses that come with age. We grieve as we witness natural destruction—mourning for the animals, people, and lands that suffer, and bracing ourselves for future disasters to come. We grieve not only for ourselves, but for others experiencing their own pain.

Grief is uncomfortable. We grieve because we love, and talking about what we love is a vulnerable thing to do. It’s normal to want to push it away. But grief, for all its pain and discomfort, can be incredibly instructive. The more I’ve lived with grief, the more I’ve learned from it. 

The secret, I’ve discovered, is not to let grief rule you, but to guide you. 

I was the one behind the camera on that beautiful Fall day. I hung back, letting Jamie and Henry walk ahead, towards the golden-hued trees. I captured that sweet moment because I knew I wanted to remember it. And I’m glad I did, even if what was once a purely happy memory is now tinged with sadness.

If there is an afterlife, I have no doubt that Jamie and Henry will be reunited. That boy loved his dog so damned much. Imagining the two of them together brings me joy, and there’s a small part of me that’s comforted knowing that Jamie will never have to mourn Henry here on earth.

Still, I can’t help but anticipate how hard Henry’s death will be for me. I won’t just be saying goodbye to my dog—though that loss alone is significant—but to the little family I loved so dearly. Losing Henry will mean losing another tangible connection to Jamie, another real-world representation of the life I once had. There are plenty of times when Henry, simply because he’s my wonderful pup, has made me laugh or tear up or let out an unexpected “awww.” In those times, I feel especially close to Jamie; he, too, was infatuated with Henry, as many pet owners tend to be. Those moments, of deeply loving Henry and feeling deeply connected to Jamie, are the ones I will miss most.

So what am I left to do, in this moment of dark anticipation? I let it guide me.

I know too well that we don’t always get to foretell the moments when loved ones will leave us. Henry’s slow decline quietly teaches me that I must accept his departure. It reminds me that every moment of our lives is fleeting. Most importantly, it motivates me to treasure the time that we do have together.

When my anxiety over losing Henry is at its highest, the cure is to love him as best I can. I take him on extra-long walks, letting him explore smells as much as he wants; I snuggle next to him on the bed, scratching his ears just the way he likes; I play tug-of-war with one of his favorite toys, enjoying a brief but sweet burst of energy that reminds me of his younger days.

It’s tempting to look at that photo now and think of myself as being left behind—especially with the three-year mark since Jamie’s death not far away. But that’s not how I view it. To me, it appears like Jamie and Henry are paving the path ahead. They’re showing me the beauty of life, reminding me what truly matters, and teaching me more than I ever thought possible.



p.s. I’d love to hear about your experiences with anticipatory grief. What did you learn from it? Did it feel like “a dampness,” like Maclear described? And if you have any tips on saying goodbye to a furry friend, I welcome those too. This is largely new territory for me.

See you next ... Thursday?

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This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, whose wonderful dog, Sherlock, turned 10 last month. She’s on that anticipatory-grief train, too.