I’ve had at least one dog ever since the seventies, often as many as three but usually two. Because I did rescue, several of them did not have an especially long lifespan. I got them when they were sick or maimed, blind, deaf, or old, something that made them undesirable to others.
There are eight graves now in my backyard. I loved each of them, and the passing of each one grieved me. In fact, I tried to make it a rule never to have just one, because I knew that having another one to care for would lighten my grief at least a little. I noticed too how the remaining dog would react to the absence of the one who’d passed. It wasn’t any different. Like me, they would become more attached, need more affection. Seeing their response, I know that my own is part of nature.
The same response occurs with any kind of loss. We cherish what is left to us. Not just through death, but friendships lost through betrayal or atrophy, a job on which we’d become dependent as a part of us, a treasured object, and even such losses as identity, purpose, health, or dreams, goals, desires. The mutability of our lives is always spelled in loss. If age has any blessings—and it has—one of the greatest is learning the acceptance of loss.
For people who have no faith, love is a god. And if they have been fortunate enough to have a loving marriage, family, and friends, they are affirmed in their belief that human love constitutes all the meaning of life. But if they somehow lose everything they love, perhaps by outliving them all, they are devastated. It’s not uncommon among the elderly that a profound depression ensues, followed by serious illness and death or even suicide. I’ve seen films that attempt to address this loss by encouraging the consolation of memory.
But if I’ve learned anything about loss, I’ve learned that the only real consolation is gain. We turn to what is left to us because it’s our only choice, and if nothing is left, nothing is left. Human lives are mortal, and so are human loves. Ultimately, we will lose our own lives; our physical bodies will die. But for people who have faith, this last loss will be the greatest gain of all: We will be reunited with all those we loved and there will never be loss again.
God teaches us gently, little by little, how to lose. We learn slowly that nothing was ever our own. Everything and everyone always belonged to him alone, and thus we learn gratitude, something that the secular world by its own definition can never teach us. We are grateful for the beloved’s presence in our lives, and as each loss happens, we find that he is closer to us, ever closer. That’s how the grief-stricken are comforted, and it’s how the poor in spirit receive the kingdom the heaven, for most blessed of all are those who lose everything except him.