One of the many reasons why I’ll never be financially endorsed as a mental health advocate is because I don’t think the Mental Health Awareness Week should exist. Something that is possessed by everyone, everyone, should not need an awareness week.
Also, I don’t think the people who hold prejudice towards mental illness give a shit about our awareness weeks. Still, the only way to have even a remote chance to change anything down the line is to talk about it, so I do want to participate nevertheless.
This year’s theme is Kindness and I decided that my contribution will be a post for each day of this week to describe a time when I experienced kindness myself. I hope by writing it out as well as I can, some of the love I experienced in that moment will rub off on you as you read it.
For my first post I’ll tell about when I found out in hospital that my dog had passed away, because this remains as one of the biggest moments of human kindness I have ever felt.
Our second dog was a rescue from Romania. According to the charity where we got her from, she had been found in a forest by a young lady who’s mother ran an animal rescue shelter. The dog’s tail had been cut off with an axe. The small, brown dog was taken to the shelter and named Lillya. That turned into Aliisa once she became a part of our family.
I have named all of our pets. My chihuahua is named Nipsu after one of the Moomin characters by Tove Jansson, so it felt natural to go along with one of Jansson’s creations. While Nipsu is a neurotic and cowardly character, Aliisa is determined and wise beyond her years, a young girl training to become a witch like her grandmother.
She turned out to be a lot older than we had expected her to be. The charity website told us she was five, while in reality she was nine. However, we are grateful for the misinformation as we wouldn’t have taken her because we were looking for a playmate for our then two-year-old chihuahua and despite being older, she was still very active.
One of the things that will always make me recommend rescuing an animal is the incredible gratification you get from seeing them flourish in their new loving environment. Aliisa went through a complete metamorphosis. The scared and timid dog became friendly and approachable, her matted and rough brown fur almost literally fell off and was replaced by silky black-and brown coat. She hardly looked like the same dog.
Her biggest change however was her attitude to men. In the beginning, Aliisa was terrified of men. With time though she began to absolutely adore my dad. There is no question who her favourite was in the family. She would at times sit on the floor and just look at him with such love and adoration that mum and I joked she must’ve thought she was married to my dad and was thinking: “I have such a handsome husband.”
Despite the fact that I never lived with Aliisa full-time (I had already moved to the UK), we were close nevertheless. Whenever I came home from university, I’d spend evenings with her. She found upstairs, where all the bedrooms were, too hot to sleep but wanted company in the evenings so whenever I was at home, I gave my dad a break and watched telly with her on the sofa. She never settled down close enough to actually touch me but fell asleep on an ottoman near my feet, so you could tell she still enjoyed the closeness nevertheless.
When it was time for me to go to bed, she’d always stir and look at me as I turned off the TV and some of the lights. I’d go over to her, pet her and say goodnight to her. Every time without fail she would stretch and then settle down to sleep again. I’d leave a light on for her.
We all loved her dearly.
A few years later, I’m in hospital. I speak to my parents on the phone every evening around the same time.
I know immediately that something is wrong. A mother learns to interpret her child and a child learns to interpret their mother. I know from the tone of her voice that something has happened. She doesn’t say it straight away though.
“Your dad took Aliisa to the vet’s. We thought that it would be good to check her over.”
Tears are running down my face at this point because I already know even though I don’t.
“Then on the way, he said, she just rested her head on dad’s hand, sighed deeply and fell asleep. Then your dad rang to me and just said: ‘We are not in a hurry anymore.'”
It was such a shock to all of us. Granted, she was an older dog and had been vomiting for a few days, but we genuinely didn’t think there was anything seriously wrong with her. We fully expected her to come back from the vet.
I am devastated. There is no other way to describe it. It broke my heart that I couldn’t say goodbye to her, wish her goodnight for one last time.
If she had to go, I’m glad she went the way she did. She loved my dad more than anyone in the world and she loved nothing more than being in the car with him. I can’t imagine a more peaceful and beautiful ending to her at times tragic life.
That still didn’t mean I wasn’t heartbroken by the fact she left us.
Even though I had lived abroad for a number of years at that point, I felt desperately lonely. All I wanted was to have my family. Have my mum and dad comfort me. Even to have my own familiar environment. Instead I was at a strange and clinical psychiatric ward, with no familiar face to offer me comfort.
I still went looking for it. Still crying my eyes out, I went to the nurse’s office. Leaning into the door frame I cried like a little child after a nightmare.
“What on earth is the matter?” one of my favourite nurses, Wendy, asked visibly alarmed.
I just about managed to say that my dog had died.
She immediately leapt from her chair and put her arms around me. I cried against her shoulder as her colleagues gathered around us into that tiny doorway to tell how sorry they were for my loss. You could tell they all had pets themselves. They understood what I had lost. As I cried they would be telling each other how devastated they had been upon losing their cats or dogs or horses. How horrible it was for me not to be able to say goodbye.
I can’t describe how it felt to have that comfort among the clinical efficiency of a hospital. These people didn’t have to react the way they did. They were at work. Still they dropped everything to come together to comfort me. The genuine human kindness of that moment still makes me cry when writing about it now.
Once I step back from that halo of kindness, I panic. I’m not religious but spiritual and my one spiritual tradition is lighting a candle for someone who has passed. In my home whenever we lost an animal or human loved one, we’d put their picture next to a candle that evening to both recognise their existence but to offer them some light into the stage of their path. Now at the hospital I was unable to do that. My parents had reassured me that they would be lighting a candle for her but what if one wasn’t enough? What if Aliisa couldn’t find her way to heaven because I couldn’t light a candle for her too?
I message Amy and Zoe who are my closest friends and explain to them what had happened, ask them to light a candle on my behalf.
Waiting for my evening meds from the dispensary. They’re running late that evening and I’m practically passing out from crying. The tears just keep coming. One of the nurses, Emma, waits with me and tells me about a poem she found comforting when she lost her dog. She goes on to Facebook on her phone, finds me a poem about the rainbow bridge and hands her phone to me so I can read it.
I still can’t read that poem without crying. Not entirely because of Aliisa but because of that precious nurse Emma, who went out of her way to share something with me that had brought her comfort. Finally she gently tells me to go to my room, one of them will bring my evening medication since they’re running so late.
When I get to the room I check my phone. Zoe has got back to me first and has sent a photo. Zoe is an amazing artist. Not only is my blog logo by her, many of my posts feature her artwork. Not only has she lit a candle for Aliisa, she has written her name in a beautiful cursive writing on a card and placed it next to the candle. It’s a small altar in Aliisa’s memory.
There is a knock on my door. A nurse, one who hadn’t joined the others to comfort me, hands me a paper cup of evening pills and a cup of water and watches me take them.
“I am sorry for your loss”, she says, dignified, before taking them from my hands and leaving me be.
Ever since I got out of hospital I have lit countless candles and sent the images to my online and offline friends who have lost a loved one. If one of those pictures manages to capture even an ounce of the love I received that day when I lost Aliisa, it’s well worth my while.