It washes over you, at first – a tidal wave. It sits on your chest like a rock. It sucks the air from your lungs. And then it slips beneath the surface where others cannot see it. A song, a beloved photo, even a smell can bring it back suddenly, and without warning. Early on grief is searing. Later it becomes a silent companion which leaks from your heart and fills your throat.
Yesterday marked three years since Caribou left me. Three years. It is hard to imagine because until very recently, her loss felt so acute it could only have been days since she closed her eyes for the last time. Caribou was a dog, but she was more than that to me. She was my search and rescue partner. She was a loyal friend. She rescued me from the depths of depression, and then showed me there was still joy in my future when she brought me to my husband through his dog, Argus.
After Caribou died, I shared my early anguish…and then I fell silent. My grief for her become solitary. My husband and I got a new puppy – Raven – very quickly. I loved her, of course I did, but I didn’t open my heart all the way to this new puppy. I just could not. It seemed around every corner was this memory of another dog, a friend to whom I was not ready to say good-by. Not yet.
After Raven came to live with us, I was asked many times if I would train her to do search and rescue. My answer was always no. My husband and I had talked about it, and in the end decided we were done with that part of our lives. Truthfully, I had lost my heart for it. The thought of slipping into my search gear and stepping out into the woods to train a new dog filled me with something like despair.
A month ago, however, I did just that. It was a beautiful sunny day with a cool breeze. My husband and I called it a hike, but we both knew we were doing something bigger. We clipped a search vest on Raven, fastened a bell to her collar, and headed into the woods to play search games. Raven is a natural. She took to the game as though she had just been waiting for the day we would ask her to “go search.” She ran with abandon, tongue lolling, eyes bright. And I found myself laughing, encouraging her, praising her every effort. We had fun.
Fast forward several weeks now. My husband and I are walking back to our vehicle and Raven is prancing, head up and proud of her training session. The sun is filtering through the pines and the wind has reddened our cheeks. A joy has filled my heart and as I watch my dog, I realize I am not thinking of Caribou. Instead I am enjoying Raven with her easy going personality, her sense that life is a big game…and love swells inside me. I have not noticed grief walking away, but suddenly I recognize its absence in the lightness of my step and the unfurling of joy from my heart.
That is the nature of grief, I think. It is there for a long time, and then it slips away and leaves in its wake a small scar. It makes way for something else eventually. For me, that something is the ability to enjoy a hike with my dog again, to find laughter in playing a search game, to feel a connection with another being who I had first held at a distance.
My husband and I are not returning to canine search and rescue. We have no plans to certify Raven. We are simply enjoying the time together – the three of us.