Shadow of Hope

“It’s just an animal.”

So say some people when you lose a pet. They may try to sympathize, but they don’t really feel it. Not everyone understands. It’s not just about who’s gone, but who remains.

Our family cat Shadow died suddenly this past week from an unsuspected cancer. He was just ten. Only last week we were joking about his chances of making it to twenty. His departure was a shock. We still find ourselves watching for him at the door, listening for his cry.

It makes you think that life’s unfair. It reminds you that everything’s so fragile. And how.

Those same people who don’t understand might say that keeping a pet is selfish. Of course it’s about us too, but there’s more to it than that. Some pet owners would have kept him going for a few more painful months, but we reserve that particular torture for our fellow humans. We spare our pets the pain, and ourselves as well.

You can choose what to think, but not what to feel

Thinking about how we form relationships, I recall the character Data from Star Trek. He was an android who puzzled constantly about what feelings were like. When a fellow crew-member died he expressed his friendship with her as ‘a sort of familiarity,’ and her absence as something he would ‘notice.’ We certainly notice Shadow’s absence. He was our friend.

Some would reply that Shadow was there for us because we gave him food and lodging. You could also say that we were there for him because he was warm and squishy. That exchange was constant and simple, unlike any human relationship.

We feel a hole and know it will heal, but that knowledge changes nothing until time works its mystery. Hope returns. With his indelible memory Data wouldn’t understand the impotence of knowledge. You can choose what to think, but not what to feel.

Sadness will be overtaken again by hope; that’s survival

So in time the hole in our heart will pass. The feeling will shrink to a memory. Sadness will be overtaken again by hope. That’s survival.

Everything changes. Nothing is reliable. We all die, and yet our hearts return constantly to hope. We know it’s a set-up. We do it anyway, without even having a choice. Knowledge can’t free us from the pangs of life. I used to think it could. I used to think that that’s what Buddhism was all about, but it was just a dream.

The best we can do with life is to awaken from that dream. The jolt of loss delivers us to reality. Painful and acute it may be, but it brings immediacy, a mindfulness we could never invent, a freedom we could never imagine. Hope may be treacherous, but we keep going back.

Where else can we go?

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Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

17 thoughts on “Shadow of Hope”

  1. The hole will shrink, but never truly fade. Somehow most of us manage to move on. I think that over time we let go of the acute pain of our loss and then we’re able to celebrate the love we shared; whether it’s family, friends or our beloved pets.

  2. Caroline, Stephen, yes the hole will shrink but very very slowly and gradually you realise just how much your little pet gave you with his silent presence in the house and how little he wanted from you but a cuddle every now and then and somewhere soft to lie. The relationship between humans and animals is extraordinary and never fully understood by those who don’t keep pets for they not only keep us company but make us so much more aware of the world around us. Every cat we have had has had something wrong with it as Terry picks up strays on a regular basis, and yet every one has left a hole in our hearts when their time came. My love to you both.

    1. Thanks Yolanda: Shadow too was a stray who lived his first Montreal winter on the streets. I though if he could survive that. he’d survive anything. Still, we had nine good years with him.

  3. So sorry to hear about the loss of your furry friend, Shadow. I am sure you have learned many lessons from him as I have from my dog. When I replied to your last blog about losing my husband and two sons, I had completely forgotten that the same week my youngest son died, I had to put my Opie down. Obviously the death of a loving animal took a back seat to the loss of one’s son. Nevertheless, Opie was a wonderful German Shepherd who, at age five, came to live with me four days before my husband died. Opie proved to be a wonderful companion giving me much needed love during my time of grief and mourning. I am fortunate to be able to travel a few times a year so a having a dog at home would not suit my present lifestyle. Therefore, in order to satisfy my ‘doggie’ needs, I dog sit.

  4. >So in time the hole in our heart will pass<

    I would posit that persistence of 'the hole' is directly related to the severity of the impact on your person. If the many physical and spiritual nicks and scratches that we experience in our daily lives did not heal and pass we would present a rather scary, scratched up physical and spiritual countenance.

    But for those profound hurts, like the loss of a child, I maintain that the hole in your heart never heals, you just become very adept over time at avoiding the hole in your daily life.

    When you accidentally stumble into that 'hole' by way of an innocent question, or a memory, or surprise 'find' of an object or letter – without your control you go all the way to the bottom of that hole, and have to climb out again, often be forced to relive many of the 'forgotten' or repressed emotions along the way.

    With an open and curious mind – hopefully you learn something new from each of these unplanned and unavoidable 'journeys'.

    1. John: It seems like that, but I feel that the ‘hole’ of the event as it happens is rather different from the hole we are reminded of by the found object or letter. In the latter case, we strangely inflict extra suffering on ourselves, don’t you think?

      1. >we strangely inflict extra suffering on ourselves, don’t you think?<

        Very perceptive Stephen. In fact, that strange urge is common, if not universal, among those of us in this least of all desirable 'fraternities'.

        There are two thoughts that have risen above the chaff for me. . .
        1. Grief is based on the loss of a future. We don't grieve when our child no longer crawls. . .because they are now walking. . .and we don't grieve the amusing gait of a toddler when they begin to run. What we grieve is that there will be no more 'new events'.

        2. The reason that we self-inflict (reading obits, bringing back out reminders, writings, etc) is because we are 'afraid' that we will begin to forget 'the lost loved one' over time.

        1. Well said John ! We grieve the lost future ..absolutely. Both your points have amazing understanding of loss which not many people can articulate with such clarity.
          That hole never really fills we just learn to avoid it.

  5. Sorry for your loss Stephen (I had to euthanize my Bulldog after 10 years due to cancer)
    I fully agree, what I find worse than death is total loss of hope.
    Therefore hope is imperative in such circumstances until TIME takes over. We don’t wake up one day and get old, we grow old over a period of unnoticeable, daily, personal erosions, (how many young persons have said: “please kill me before I get there”. Really?
    Habituation is our resource (moments of sadness) as well as our liability (moments of happiness).
    Take care sir

    1. Ralph: death is presumably not a problem for the dead; only for the living. I find myself smiling as I write it, which first struck me as a little strange. Then I realized that more important than hope itself is that ability to laugh at our fate!

  6. Is the loss of a child an “event” that only happens in the moment you first become aware of it and then it’s over?
    Seems to me that a day, a year, a decade later, it’s not a memory of a loss but a new loss every time you become aware of it again. They aren’t there right then, in that moment a day later, in that moment a year later, in that moment a decade later.

  7. Some tings are never over it seems, until our minds stop, but don;t you think there’s a difference between the pang when it happens and when we recall it?

    1. Of course there’s a difference.

      What I’m saying is that I don’t think losing your children ever stops happening. You can recall the first moment you realized it but it is also still happening now. Maybe the difference is that my children are still alive so there’s no real end. Maybe it’s just because it’s still too new and someday it will become something that happened in the past. Will the 5th Mother’s Day be easier than the 1st or her 40th birthday be easier than her 30th? Probably. Some days now are easier than others. But she is still not here today and she will still not be here every day that she isn’t. Maybe one or both of them will find the heart and courage to realize the truth and come back to me. It took me 40 years. I don’t have 40 more.

      It seems to me that me the pain and losses of my past are the actually the foundation of my capacity for hope now. You can probably explain that better than I can.

      About two years ago (pre-disaster) I was sitting around with a group of people and someone trotted out the old cliche’ “Whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger”. My instantaneous and heartfelt response was “I’d rather be weak.” I will come through all this “stronger”, if that’s the right word. But I really would have preferred to not and to have my girls with me. Enough.

      And I’ve taken your very real loss over the death of your cat and made it all about me. I’m sorry about Shadow, I know that it is truly hard to lose a beloved pet.

  8. I’ve had several animals die – cats, dogs and horses – and although not all of them have caused me much grief when they died some have had me utterly grief-stricken. I currently have two dogs and a cat. The cat and one of the dogs will elicit much sadness when they eventually die. The other dog is not going to die – that would be simply unacceptable (I do understand that this is a ridiculous thing to state). I love her almost as much as I love my son. I absolutely sympathize with the sentiments experienced by you and your family at the loss of your feline family member, and offer my condolences.

  9. Stephen, the more I read your blog and subsequent readers’ comments the more I come back. Thank you for creating such a beautiful forum to share and heal.

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