Monday, August 11, 2014

The Void

Our kids had grown up and moved out. Chuck, Booboo and I had settled into a comfortable routine…now that it was just the three of us. Rather than being “the family dog,” Booboo had become our companion. We spent a good amount of time just hanging out with him.

Booboo was getting older, 11 or 12 years old, and I realized that his time with us would wrap up in the not-too-distant future. I was concerned about how our family would handle his death. Actually, I was concerned about how our kids would handle his death…for us! I decided I’d better nip this in the bud. Do a bit of preventive communication. I made it clear that no matter how sad we were when Booboo died, do not, under any circumstances, get us another puppy to cheer us up.

Well in advance of Booboo’s death, Chuck and I were planning to be pet-free…once Booboo was gone. As much as we loved him and would miss him, we were ready for a phase of life when traveling, in particular, would be less complicated.

Are you planning to get another dog?” is a regular question we’ve gotten since Booboo’s death. For Chuck, the answer is a definite “no.” For me, the answer is “not at this time.” Then comes the question, “But what about the void?” It surprised me how many people used the same phrase…the void…and talked about it as if it were a power beyond our control. A black hole that relentlessly pulls at your heart strings, reminding you of what’s been lost, until you give in and refill it.

It didn’t take long for me to encounter the void. The empty space that used to be filled with Booboo’s energy, spirit, and personality…as well as his physical presence. The routines that were so much a part of my day, were now altered or non-existent. Routines like taking Booboo for a walk when I got up in the morning and when I got home from work in the evening…no need to do that anymore. Bringing a ball and his bed to the laundromat, so we could play fetch while we wait for the dryer to finish…no one to play fetch with now. Lying in bed and reaching to pet Booboo, who always cuddled up next to me…it’s just an empty space.

The void. The sudden emptiness that used to be so full of energy…and love. Even when death is long expected, the emptiness feels sudden. Like turning off a light switch that won’t go back on. Even if the bulb has slowly gotten dimmer, one’s eyes have adjusted. When it switches off for good, it’s quick and irreversible.

I can only imagine how difficult the void would be when a loved one’s health is good and death comes unexpectedly. Then you’re going from full light to complete darkness…in an instant. The book Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, who lost her parents, husband, and two young sons in the 2004 tsunami, tells the story of such loss, and the unbearable emptiness that follows. I read this book shortly after Booboo’s passing. While the intensity of her loss was much greater than ours, I found many similarities in her process of grieving and healing…and particularly her reference to the void.

I can see why people will choose to get a new dog fairly quickly after the death of their previous one. Even though it’s not the same animal as the one you loved and lost, it allows you to keep a similar routine and calm the power of the void. You again have someone to take for a walk, greet you when you come home, and cuddle with in the evenings.

Rather than filling the void, I wanted to understand it and learn to work through it. I didn’t miss having a dog. I missed Booboo. I missed my friend. The dog who converted many self-proclaimed non-dog people to at least liking this dog. The dog who would settle into my arms, and often fall asleep, while I did a variety of activities…such as shopping, conversation, and cooking. The dog who loved to hunt for Easter eggs and get his own presents from under the Christmas tree, leaving all other presents undisturbed. The dog who some people wanted to clone, because they had never met a dog like Booboo and wanted one just like him. (I always discouraged the cloning idea.)

Getting another dog would not be the same. The void would be filled superficially. I would soon have to come to terms with the fact that the new animal is a dog, but not the same dog. And like I said before, I didn’t miss having a dog. I missed Booboo.

The first few months were the hardest. I still expected him to be there. Every routine, every memory caused me to have to lose him over and over again. Coming home and looking for him…no, he’s gone. Waking up in the morning and reaching to pet him…no, he’s dead. Seeing a toy or snack at the store that he would like…no need, he’s no longer with us.

Once the reality of his absence sunk in and many of my routines had been changed, I no longer had to keep reminding myself that he was gone. At that point, my memories of him became a source of comfort, rather than a painful reminder of loss. And the void started to calm.

I am grateful that Booboo came into our lives, and I now delight in the memories of our time together. Everyone I’ve known, and especially those I’ve loved, are deeply a part of me…never to be separated completely. Working through this void has been quite a worthwhile lesson. Getting beyond what’s been lost, to the point of joy and gratitude for what was gained. The lessons learned from Booboo, with him, and because of him will help in all other areas of my life.

The void can be filled or can be worked through and calmed…or some combination of the two. My old routines have been replaced with new ones. Some intentionally altered, like playing solitaire at the laundromat instead of fetch, and others more naturally changed, like being able to stay downtown after work, rather than having to come home first. Life after the void is different, and yet in a new way it’s still good.

Will we get another dog some day? Hard to say for sure. When I’m an old lady, another dog might be a welcome addition. We’ll see. The void has calmed. My memories of Booboo now bring a smile of joy, more often than a tear of sadness. Change is a part of life. Loss is a part of life. But the love stays with you…through it all.