Love, Loss, and Learning to Be Human

By Shanna Trenholm

Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.

Kahlil Gibran

Love and loss. We crave the first, fear the last…hell, we often fear the first one, too. Love pries us open, invites us to be vulnerable, out-of-control, and oddly, so does loss. These two experiences are flip-sides to the same coin. Without love, that deep, gooey, connectedness, we could not know the knife-stabby feeling of loss.

Loss comes in on a winter wind, regardless of the season, and strangles us just to the point of barely breathing. Love makes us feel expansive — at least the good variety does — filling our hearts with warmth as if emanating from a soft-focus lens under the influence of good lighting and even better wine. Yes, love looks great on us. Loss? Not so much.

Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Yeah, right, Al, sure. That’s like saying it’s better to have had your teeth kicked in by small invisible fairies, than not at all. When in the grip of grief, it’s hard to agree with the sentiment. Sometimes it feels like it would be better to have not bothered with love so as to avoid the pain of its end.

Alas, that is not why we are here. And I don’t mean “here” as in you, here, reading this, but why we are here as a species. We have the gift, like it or not, of complexity consciousness, meaning that the more complex our thought processes, the more self-aware we become. Too bad we haven’t learned to channel this gift so that we can think our way out of the hurt. No, we must go through it to get to the other side.

At the time that I started writing this piece (it’s taken me a while), I was facing a loss of heart-smashing proportions. In fact, by the time you read this, my beloved French bulldog, Lola, my little sidekick for the last eleven years, will be gone. Some people say it’s just a dog, and to that I say, how many relationships with sentient beings have you had — good ones — that have lasted eleven years or more? We gain so much from the animals in our lives and feel their absence with a visceral ache.

Lola, especially during her yearlong battle with cancer, taught me a lot about being human. About being a better human. About love and caring and showing up. I had to show up for her — she needed meds three times a day and had to go out to pee nearly every two hours since the Prednisone wreaked havoc on her kidneys.

She reminded me to be grateful each day. Grateful that I work from home so I could give her the best care possible. Grateful that I have the best friends, family, and the best vet on the planet. Grateful that she was still lovable and sweet, even toward the last few weeks when she was so tired. I will be grateful to leave this mortal coil with as much dignity as that little dog did.

Lola showed me that taking myself too seriously was no fun at all. She made comical chortling noises when I was on the phone with clients and would dance a wild bucking-bronco sort of jig when I wasn’t paying attention to her. She grounded me and made me laugh.

Lola, that funny little dog with the flat face and the bat ears, contributed to my development, and for that I am blessed. And as I move forward on my path with a heart full of loss and love, it’s the humans in my life who will benefit from my growth, a gift from the master teacher and superlative canine, Lola.

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Featured image by Flickr user “Penguin & Fish,” used under a Creative Commons license.

Shanna is a writer, catalyst, and force of nature; at least that’s what her business card says. She loves to travel, relishing both the great outdoors and the great indoors. She holds a black belt in napping. Shanna enjoys discovering inspiration in the ordinary; magic in the mundane. You can hire her for legal things (mainly writing) or follow her witticisms and sage commentary on Twitter, Facebook, and on her website. Photo by Lori Brookes

11 Responses to “Love, Loss, and Learning to Be Human”

  1. Gerry Estoque says:

    Shanna, I’ve always loved your insightful writing!!!…hope your doing well. I wish i would have known you better.

    Gerry

  2. Laura Gates says:

    Shanna

    A couple of years ago I lost my cat, Che, to cancer. He was with me for 18 years. A birthday gift from my ex-husband who found him in a bakery in Hoboken, NJ. The baker (either joking or serious) said the kitten was going into a bucket in the back yard if my husband didn’t take it home. I will never forget coming into our apartment on that raining evening… the door partially opened, and this tiny little shivering kitten staring at me. It was love at first sight. And as you said, this relationship between he and I transcended and outlasted many relationships, including my first marriage. Che was also my monitor. If he didn’t like someone, I didn’t. I trusted his instincts and ended some relationships at the outset if he clued me in that it was not going to go well! I so feel the pain of love and loss in your story. Thanks for opening your heart to us!

    • shanna says:

      Laura,

      I love the story of Che. And 18 years is a long time–we develop habits and routines with our 4-legged friends that take, what often feels like forever, to dissipate. I often think I see my cat, Murphy, slink through the living room or down the hall and I lost him nearly 3 years ago.

      Loss and the pain of that loss can make us much better people if we use those experiences as opportunities for growth and healing. I know I am a better woman for the animals that have come and passed through my life :)

  3. Ahhhhh this post touched me deeply. I am in this place of love and loss bleeding together on a canvas of hope. I hope I’ll get through it with grace. I hope I can articulate it as beautifully as you. I love the lessons from Lola that you share here, Shanna. They remind me of a beautiful story I used to read to my first graders (actually two) when they were grappling with a loss too big for their little hearts to bear. The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst. Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant. I think I will keep your post and those book close at hand as I navigate these waters because in them I see bittersweet. And this time it’s not about chocolate.

    • shanna says:

      Sue Ann,

      Your line “love and loss bleeding together on a canvas of hope” takes my breath away. Isn’t that it, really? The essence living a life from a place of love and grace? I so understand where you are and I extend my heart to you–we are so lucky to be able to travel this path, fraught though it may be with sorrow, as we journey toward understanding and emotional evolution. I am pleased my writing gives you some solace as you navigate the waters of life. xo

  4. nasrine says:

    Bittersweet it is, love, loss and learning to be human. What an enchanting title, I simply adore it. Lola was/is a wonderful creature for us all to celebrate and learn from. “I say, how many relationships with sentient beings have you had — good ones — that have lasted eleven years or more? We gain so much from the animals in our lives and feel their absence with a visceral ache.” How profound and correct you are. The animal world teaches us mere humans how to be human, how to be real, how to return to the “force” mama earth which bore us all. Your writing always makes my heart sing even if it’s full of tears.

    • shanna says:

      Nasrine!

      Thank you so much for your kind words. We have all had Lolas in our lives–what great teachers these little givers of unconditional love are. Perhaps it’s in their passing, their short lives, that force us to see how limited our time truly is and how important it is to make the most of it. At least that’s what I took from Lola’s passing–and believe me,

      I am dedicated to living this half of my life reveling in the joys (and sorrows) that life has to offer. What greater opportunity is there for us to show our humanity?

  5. Kathleen says:

    Shanna! So wonderful to receive you here, in this place… so fully and present with the full catastrophe that life presents us with. Oh how I agree with you that in the midst of our suffering words like Tennyson’s should be spewed far from us, for in THAT moment the pain is just too much. The loss has eclipsed the love shared and threatens to swallow us whole. This I experienced with the loss of my father, my sister, then my mother… without having experienced any death before these. I was uninitiated by a society that holds little consciousness around it let alone rituals. Death is in hiding.

    So when my dear little cat Captain, suddenly became ill and had to go to the vet with no me having no sense at all that she was dying… and then receiving the call that she needed to be put down… I was completely STUNNED by the level of pain this loss put me through. She had only been in my life 5 years… but numbers like this do not matter to the heart. Somehow she had woven herself into the very fabric of my bodysoul and I was torn asunder in the pain that engulfed me over those first weeks.

    Now as I look at these lives and these deaths, I do not see them separate. Somehow the life & the death are woven together in a larger tapestry which truly is named the ecstasy and the agony of love and the full catastrophe that life is.

    And… our hearts return to it over and over again.

  6. Oh, Shanna, as I write this, my kitty cat sits nestled against my leg, his look pensive, his thought elusive. I have no idea why he prefers to sit where he’s obstructing my arm as I type, but my guess would be that he craves companionship as much as any human.

    Pets teach us so much about what it means to be alive– to fully show up for this moment. And I know your beautiful Lola was no exception.

    As one of the humans who has benefited from who you are, I’d like to offer up a heartful prayer of love and gratitude to that sweet, smart little canine for playing the role she did in making you the wonderful, brilliant, amazing, loving (and side-splittingly humorous and witty!) human being you are. BIG love to you… xoxo

  7. Kimby says:

    “Love pries us open, invites us to be vulnerable, out-of-control, and oddly, so does loss.” I’m at a loss for words after that, so I’m sending hugs.

    Thank you for sharing your poignant life-experience, Shanna.

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