On the Other Side of Sadness

Learning to sit with my daughter’s emotions, and my own.

altanaka/Dollar Photo Club

My six-year-old daughter, Opal, wants nothing more than to go to the Humane Society to visit the dogs that “need the most love.” So we leave right from a half-day of school to do just that, eating almond butter and jelly sandwiches on the way.

The entryway of the Boulder Valley Humane Society smells like wood chips. There is a stack of hamster cages by the front door, placed like intended impulse purchases, like Chapstick and breath mints at Target.

“May I help you?” The pleasant lady behind the counter says with a mouth that is more gums than teeth.  I tell her we’d like to visit a dog or two that are especially in need of love.

“Hmmm,” she says, thinking, with a close-mouthed smile. “Yes, Leo could use a visit. He’s big, that ok?”

We have an 85-pound lab at home. I assure her we are accustomed to Big.

We find Leo asleep on a bed in a very large crate with a bone-shaped sign marked “Sweetie pie.”  He is a five-year-old pit bull with a face as wide as a loaf of bread and fur the shade of sand. We return to the front room where we wait for a staff person to bring him out.

I notice as we walk through the halls, many—but not all—of the dogs have the same bone-shaped signs hanging from their cages, but with all different descriptions: “Playful!” “Timid.” It occurs to me that the ones without the signs must not be as forthcoming in their nameable characteristics. In my mind I imagine hosting a party in the New Year where I’ll have each guest wear a little sign around their neck that states one of their prominent qualities: People pleaser. Observer. Perfectionist.

Leo busts through the swinging doors, pulling a staff member behind him on a pink leash. This should be an indication of what we’re in for, but I grab the leash anyway and out the front doors we go. Walking this dog is essentially like walking a linebacker who is heading in the opposite direction. I desperately try to keep my footing while he pulls me down a muddy decline and we leave Opal behind, yelling MOM!

Giving this dog love is proving to be an arduous task. So we start to head back towards the building where we came from.

As we walk, I notice the fur is missing from the tops of both of Leo’s ears and there are chalky mushroom-shaped lumps on his skin where the hair should be growing. Same on the backs of his legs. There are pin stripes in his short fur where the hair doesn’t grow, much more subtle than the scars that would have come from the mouth or claws of another animals.

Opal says, “Why does he look like that?”

I tell her it looks like he’s been in a fight with another dog. Harmless enough—animals fight. I don’t say that it looks like he has probably been in dogfights. That he was likely rescued from a rough situation with either an abusive owner or an owner who condoned violence. The kind of scenario that gives pit bulls a bad name. He is horrid on a leash—left both of my hands red and burned from the yanking—but he doesn’t seem to have any fear of or aggression towards people. This, to me, is a marvel.

Upon our return, we catch sight of a man playing with a pit bull puppy, smiling and laughing as the pup climbs into his lap then flops over the side. I can see that Opal wants that experience, so we give Leo a final head-scratch and then ask to trade him in for a puppy.

We take one of seven pit bull puppies to a fenced-in area outside. The fresh air and the puppy-energy feel like a relief. He’s as small as a football and slick-black except for his belly and the tips of his paws, which are pure white. Watching him teeter and fumble from point A to point B is pure comedy. Opal is beside herself with delight.

Then she asks the inevitable question: “Can we take him home?”

I tell her no.  A puppy is way too much work. They poop and chew on everything. But we can come visit him next week.

“What if he’s gone by then?”

I tell her that if he’s gone, that would mean a good family adopted him. These puppies would probably get adopted really fast.

Opal doesn’t say much on the way home. “Blackbird” by the Beatles is playing on the radio—Take these broken wings and learn to fly. I can see her in the rear-view mirror gazing out the window with a million-mile stare.

At home, Opal drapes her body over my lap as we sit on the couch. Our huge lab is snoring at my feet. Opal is sniffling and periodically wipes her nose on her sleeve. I caress her hair.

She says, “What if nobody wants to adopt Leo?” Plump little tears pool in the corners of her eyes.

I tell Opal that maybe we shouldn’t return to the Humane Society if it’s just going to break her heart. But that only upsets her more and I quickly realize those words are counter to everything we’ve been teaching her. We—the Grimes family—have spent the better part of a year as a foster family. And we frequently talk about how we never need to shy away from big emotions, especially when they come as a repercussion of helping others. But it’s such a habit to either tense-up or cower in the face of unhappiness, and to want to shield others from the pain of being human.

“Honey, the Humane Society will find a good home for Leo. And for the little puppy and all his brothers and sisters.”

“But what if the man who adopts them is mean?”

I know there are no shortcuts to getting to the other side of sadness aside from going through it.

“Oh honey,” I say. I am constantly at odds with how much truth to share with her about this crazy, uncertain, often-terrifying-but-also-beautiful-and-miraculous world. I swing back and forth between feeling like I say too much, and not knowing what else to say. So I return to simply paying attention—to my own thoughts, my own discomfort, my own shallow breath, my own want to talk about happier things—because I know there are no shortcuts to getting to the other side of sadness aside from going through it.

I ask, “Can you take a deep breath with me?”

“Uh-huh.” She is looking up at me now as we inhale and exhale. Choppy, partial breaths at first, then calm and deep.

“Hey, it’s okay to feel sadness, sweetie. Fact is, there is a lot of sadness in the world. We just keep doing what we can. And you did good today, giving love like you did.”

It in that moment, she stands up, gathers herself, and flashes me a tiny but genuine smile as she moves on with her day.

Two days later, we take a trip to visit our beloved foster baby of nearly a year who returned to live with her parents three weeks earlier—This baby, we’ll call her Little Blue Eyes.

I’m so pleased to find her looking happy and healthy, very connected to her mother. She has an adorable room with quilts on the walls, loads of toys and books. Their pit bull strangely resembles the one from the humane society, though he is exponentially more calm and civilized.

All good news. And yet, in spite of the fact that we will likely see her again, it feels as if this visit is a good-bye. Little Blue Eyes went home days before Christmas and I didn’t realize it, but many of my feelings of loss had been shuffled in with the hubbub of the holidays and travel. The grief is immediately present when I rest my gaze on her face and hear her say OpalOpalOpal.

The sorrow feels like fatigue at first, then grumpy over-sensitivity during dinner. Then, later, after Opal is asleep, a torrent of tears comes like a valve has burst behind my eyes. I can’t stop it, though my first inclination is to do just that. My mindful self is telling me that crying is a natural and healthy reaction, and that I can relax with my sadness. But my body—bones and muscles—wants to make the discomfort go away. I am aware of all of this.

I make my way into our bedroom where Jesse is watching TV. He sees my face and says, “Little Blue Eyes?”

I nod and lie down next to him. I put my head on his chest the way Opal did with me a few days earlier. His heart is in my ear like a distant drum against my shifting breath. I think of how intense these emotions feel to me, a “big strong grown-up,” and I can only imagine how the same vast emotions must feel to my daughter, on the planet only six years and with much less experience in seeing her feelings through to the other side. It’s up to us to show her that emotions are fluid, always in flux.

“It’s okay to feel sad,” Jesse says to me. “I feel sad, too.”

These are the same words I spoke to Opal when we were on the couch, the same compassionate tone. I sit up and stretch my arms high and to the sides, the sound of inner-movement like a soft rumble deep in the canals of my ears. Some life re-enters my bones.

Those words, “It’s okay to feel sad,” open a window in the tiny, claustrophobic room of emotion I am crouched in. And it isn’t so stifling anymore. This is what happens when I am mindful of not trying to manipulate, hide, or wrestle with my sadness. I can let it roam more freely until, naturally and eventually, it simply dissolves on the back of an unsuspecting outbreath.