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In the Face of Loss, How Gratitude Helped Me Thrive

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Sarah's dog Gem. (Photos courtesy of Sarah Agan) Sarah's dog Gem. (Photos courtesy of Sarah Agan)

December 1, 2011: “I am grateful for life and breath and Robert and woofers.” – Sarah

December 1, 2011: “I am grateful for my lovely Sarah and all she brings in my life.” - Robert

Last December my husband Robert and I did an experiment we called “31 Days of Gratitude.” Each day we wrote down what we are grateful for. Robert wrote bullets (of course)—I wrote paragraphs. I do some version of gratitude journaling on a sporadic and unpredictable basis and recognize how powerful it is to express gratitude. When I invited Robert to do it with me last year I was both surprised and overjoyed that he agreed. To say our gratitude experiment was “really great” doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the depths of what we got from the experience of doing this practice together for a specific period of time.

  

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Little did we know when we started our experiment on December 1 that five days later one of our three dogs, Coby, would have a seizure in the middle of the night. We rushed to the emergency clinic where he stayed overnight. When we took him the next day to our regular vet for a more thorough check-up we took along one of other dogs, Gem. Though 13.5 years old it seemed Gem had been really slowing down so we wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything going on with her. Coby was fine. Gem was not. Her red blood cell counts were dangerously low. She had cancer all over her body; the disease had already attacked her lungs. It was devastating news. Gem, the first dog my husband and I got together. Gem, who came to us from German Shorthair Pointer rescue during Christmas 2000, who taught us about unconditional love, the beauty of satisfying simple needs, and the importance of making time to play. We loved her too much to even entertain the selfish possibility of putting her through some heroic attempts at extending the inevitably short rest of her life.

We brought her home and cried a lot. We did our gratitude thing:

December 6, 2011: “I am grateful to remember the past, know the present, and dream the future.” – Robert

December 11, 2011: “I am grateful that Robert is (in his word) “digging this gratefulness thing.” I’m grateful for a roof over my head, Christmas music to calm my soul, a perfect Christmas tree to remind me to be charitable and grateful, family close by, friends to make cupcakes for, charitable causes to contribute to, a good day with our dear Gem and for our three lovely dogs to help us keep things in perspective. I’m grateful that I’m about to rub Robert’s feet.”

In the quiet of the days after Gem’s MRI we were forced to come to terms with what at the time felt like a brutal reality we knew we would never be ready to face. In the midst of what was a heartbreaking time for us we continued to express our gratitude. We watched Gem each hour, each day as she persevered and did what she could to navigate with the grace and dignity that which defined her canine being. We watched her back legs give out when she needed to go to the bathroom. So we supported her back legs. We watched her look longingly at the couch – knowing she could no longer spring up to her comfy napping spot. So we helped her up to the couch. We struggled to get her to eat. So we fed her whatever she wanted to try and keep up the little strength she had (she ate a lot of bacon in those last days of her life). We watched with twisted hearts as she collapsed to the floor after lowering her head to drink water. So we held her steady while she drank.

We cried a lot. We did our gratitude thing.

December 19th: “I’m grateful for the armed services men and women for their time spent protecting our country. I’m grateful for a warm home.” – Robert

December 25th: “I’m grateful for this Christmas morning – coffee and holiday music and Gem here in front of the tree. I’m grateful for Zeke (our other dog) and Coby and Robert. I’m grateful for my life. I’m grateful for the freedom to make choices. I’m grateful for deep satisfying breath and I’m grateful for the times when Zeke licks my feet. I’m grateful for the comfort of heat on a cold winter’s day. I’m grateful for a good night’s sleep. I’m grateful for the freedom to dream and to love and to feel. I’m grateful for Zeke’s watchful eye. - Sarah

On December 26 Robert and I watched Gem watch us. Her big brown eyes locked on Robert then locked on me. This went on for hours as we visited with family and friends and played scrabble. She was alert. It was like she was taking in everything she could – as if she knew some long journey lay ahead. Robert carried her out that evening to go to the bathroom and she managed a brief stance on her own as she looked across the valley at the setting sun. Later that night we told Gem we would never be ready for her to go. Then we told her when she needed to go, it was OK. We called our dear friend and neighbor who is a vet. We let her know we might need her help the next day. We asked her to come to our house in the morning to see how Gem was doing and to be prepared to help us say goodbye to her. We would never be ready to say goodbye.

At 10:15 a.m. on Dec. 27, Gem left for eternal pastures and fields to run and romp and play. She was ready and she went with extraordinary peace.

December 27th: “I’m grateful to love Gem enough that we didn’t let her suffer anymore. I’m grateful she got to see the beginnings of one last sunset. I’m grateful to Coby for alerting us to Gem’s condition so we could give her the best possible last days on this earth.” – Sarah

December 27th: “I’m grateful for learning through hard experiences.” – Robert

December 28th: “I’m grateful for tears to release our heart’s expression.” – Sarah

December 29th: “I’m grateful for companionship and love. I am extremely grateful for our incredible Gem. There is so much to say. A wonderful being that has helped me become more vulnerable. The wisdom in her curious eyes made me become a loudly silent person.” – Robert

The world spins through the cosmos oblivious to our lives - never stopping to ask us if we’d like it to pause for a rest so we can deal with our life. Alas, the world does not stop doing its thing. Ready or not, the world keeps spinning and life goes on. We are surrounded by sorrow and joy and pain and beauty and struggles and dreams. These are the fabrics that weave the tapestry that is our life. In the midst of all, remember that no matter what, there is always something for which or someone for whom to be grateful. Know it. Share it.

December 1, 2012: “I’m grateful for this day, for deep breath, and for the opportunity to share this story with you.” – Sarah

December 1, 2012: “Today I am grateful for remembering and reflecting on the friendship I had with my sweet girl Gem.” - Robert

Robert and I invite you to join us in our “31 Days of Gratitude” this December 2012. 

Sarah Agan is a regular contributor to Excellence in Government. She has spent the past 17 years working with clients across the federal government with a focus on helping individuals and organizations thrive.

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