I promise this is an article about running. But first, and foremost, it is an article about grief.
– A.A. Milne
December 6, 2022, was the saddest day of my life. At the time, I was almost 40 years old, and unimaginably, but blessedly, had never really experienced true loss. That is not to say that I have not experienced great sadness in my life or lost people that were important to me, but until December 6, 2022, I had no concept of true, heart staggering, painful beyond all comprehension, loss. On December 6, 2022, I finally experienced it, and have been learning what it is and what it means since then. December 6, 2022 was the day that my smart, stubborn, and bigger-than-life dog, Kirby, passed away in my arms.
Kirby was 17-years-old when I lost him. I got him when he was about 10-months-old and I was starting my second year of law school, freshly transferred to a new school and new city and truly alone and out on my own for the first time in my life. I thought a dog would be the answer to existing in this new place and a pal in this new chapter of my life. I had no idea that the dog I lucked into (which is a whole other incredible story) would become so much more to me, and mean so much more to me, than most people can really fathom.
I have done an enormous amount of reading and learning as one means of coping with my loss of Kirby. Running was another important means of coping (and which I will get into later). From what I have learned, it seems that some people out there understand that losing a dog can be, and is, the equivalent of losing one’s own offspring. But, in the course of sifting through everything out there, I also found that there were others who took major issue with equating the loss of a dog to the loss of a child. In the course of searching for a way to cope with the huge hole in my heart that was rendered on December 6, 2022, I learned the term “disenfranchised grief”. It basically means grief that society does not appreciate, recognize, or honor the same as other forms of accepted loss and grief – namely the loss of people – particularly children, parents, siblings, and close friends. Disenfranchised grief is something that people like me experience – people that have closer than normal connections to their dogs, and value and love them above and beyond what the misnomer “pet” conveys.
The day after Kirby passed, I escaped. I could not stand to be in my house where the site of his last breath occurred. I drove to North Carolina with my boyfriend on a work trip he had scheduled. I took time off work and sat in the hotel room, lying in bed in my pajamas, and scrolling through pictures and videos of Kirby. For the first time in quite a while, I took time off my intense running schedule. I felt numb.
After a couple days, I managed to get the energy up to get on the hotel treadmill. Maybe running would help as it so often has helped in the past to process other emotions and problems in life. Stepping on the treadmill felt like such a normal thing to be doing – like nothing was different in the world. I did not like it. Because everything was different now, and I wanted, and needed, the world to be different. My loss did not feel real if nothing was different. I stared blankly at the TV on the wall while I moved on the treadmill. After a while, I realized I had no idea what I had been watching or any concept of how much time had passed. My head was buzzing.
Two days later, after more time laying around the hotel room, my boyfriend and I went for a trail run together on a trail somewhere south of Charlotte. This time the run did not feel like a normal thing to be doing. I could not think straight and just blindly followed my boyfriend along the twisting path, stepping gingerly over roots. My head was fuzzy. I did not feel like I was supposed to be there. I would not have been there, on that trail, if Kirby was still alive. I stared angrily at the red North Carolina mud that caked itself all over my running shoes as my feet moved. This mud should not have been on my shoes.
The next day, I drove back north toward home while my boyfriend continued south for a follow-on work trip. It was time to stop running away and face my empty house, and the spot on the floor, up against the couch, next to the coffee table, where the blankets and pillows remained piled where I held my baby while he took his last breath.
Coming home was harder than I imagined. The emptiness of the house was stark, and I grew sick to my stomach at the thought of looking at the spot where Kirby took his final breaths. So instead, I put on my running clothes. I moved robotically through my warm-up routine and headed outside. And I ran. This time, everything that had occurred came into sharp focus. The difficult last year of Kirby’s life as we fought through several medical issues, and importantly, the last moments of his life, played on a reel in my head while I moved my feet rhythmically along my local trails. In that moment, my purpose for running changed.
Running, once an activity that brought me so much joy that I would come home and frequently dance afterward (often with Kirby in my arms), became my Kirby-thinking time. My grieving time. Where the memories came unbidden and I let my emotions be what they were. I cried openly on those runs. I would feel the wind on my face and the tears streaming down my cheeks as I waded through the memories of our life together and ran the local trails that were blessedly quiet and free of other hikers and runners.
During this time, I thought of my grandmother and how when we lost her she sent so many signs that she was still with us. She loved Canada geese and they were forever showing up at the oddest of times when we were feeling her loss and needing to feel her spirit with us. Where were my signs from Kirby? I desperately needed signs that he was with me and not gone forever from my world.
Days passed. Finally, one longer run, I got my first sign. I was running on a grassy trail through a field, along a Civil War-era fence line, and a hawk swooped and hovered in front of me. At first, I ignored him. But the hawk was insistent and kept flying back and forth, low, right over me, demanding I stop and acknowledge him. And I did. I paused in the middle of that open field and took him in as he flew round and round in front of me. Connecting with me. After some time, he joined another hawk a bit of a distance away, and they flew in circles together and then moved off, fading into the horizon.
My parents lost their beloved dog several years prior. I had no doubt that that second hawk was her, and she was telling me that Kirby was not alone and she had him now. I had already shed a few tears while I ran that day, but this desperately needed sign threw me over the edge. I was brought to my knees in the middle of that field.
After a while, I gathered myself and marked the spot on the trail in my head. I have run there only once since that day, and did not see my hawk, but I do not need to see him. Kirby has since revealed himself to me in multiple signs on multiple trail runs, and each moment is even more precious to me than the one before. I firmly believe that he is telling me that he is with me and that he is okay.
He is also finally getting the chance to be with me on my trail runs like he was never able to be before. When I took up running several years ago, Kirby was an older (and smaller) dog, and was not really built for long trail runs, or running generally. This was something I had carried some guilt about – spending so much time away from Kirby between the necessity of working and earning a paycheck, and running, which I had begun initially out of a need for health and fitness but grew into an activity that fed my soul. I would often stop back at my house in the middle of long runs to refuel and rehydrate and Kirby would greet me with such excitement, only to be let down when I left the house to finish the balance of my long run. Those moments killed me, when I would leave him to go out and do something I did not have to do, but, at the same time, I had to do (If you are in love with running as much as I am, you know this feeling – no matter how busy you are, you make time for it.).
It was as if, in these signs I would get along the trails following his death, he absolved me of that guilt and was finally running with me, in spirit.
I recently experienced one sign that Kirby was with me on a trail run that was so vivid and so playful, that I was able to finish my run with joy, rather than grief, in my heart again. A very young male deer stopped me in my tracks, though he was not directly on the trail. He was up the hill above the trail in the dense green foliage, but I felt his presence and stopped and looked up and locked eyes with him. The look he gave me, and accompanying snort and hoof pawing at the ground was a Kirby expression and mannerism through and through. I saw him in that deer. When I got home, I danced for the first time since I lost him. Dancing is not the same without Kirby in my arms, but running – running is even better. Running is where I find him now.