On my way to the ranch where I conduct Equine Assisted Psychotherapy sessions each week, I pass a variety of roadside signs, advertising fresh produce, or real estate, or sales on mattresses and other items. Several weeks ago, however, I noticed two new signs in particular: one with a picture of a stern looking bulldog and the caption, “Please return our damn dog, please.” The other one was a scrap of cardboard lettered in black marker: “Cheyenne, please call home,” with a phone number listed below. I found myself thinking about these signs throughout the following weeks, as I continued to drive past their plaintive messages. Both represented the pain of loss, of an unwanted separation or parting. Questions nibbled at the edges of my mind. Had the dog been taken? Or run away? Or run over? Who was Cheyenne? What events or misunderstandings caused her to lose contact with her family? Why was the phone number included on the sign? Had her family moved or changed phone numbers?
Losing a loved one to death is heart breaking. Loss becomes even more complicated when loved ones are missing, and their fate is unknown. Despite the horror of the finality of an untimely death, having a body to bury and knowledge of the circumstances of their end brings some closure to the questions that linger when the loss remains mysterious; the details unknown. When parents of missing children are interviewed, they often confess that knowing their child is dead would almost be a relief compared to the uncertainty of wondering about their fate.
Human beings do not like things that do not make sense to us. We try to impose rules and order on situations to give ourselves a sense of control. Most of us come face to face, at some point in our lives, with an event that we could not foresee and cannot logically reason out. This creates a crisis of meaning, throwing our view of the world and how things are supposed to work into complete chaos. It might be a personal event such as an illness that threatens our life or that of someone we cherish, the loss of a job, divorce or disappointment in a relationship; or a global event like 9/11, a tornado or earthquake or school shooting that leaves us reeling from the devastation. Powerlessness, hopelessness and despair are common reactions after a trauma. “How could this happen?” we ask. “We/they didn’t deserve this.”
Sometimes the “why” is elusive. No matter how much we search for that silver lining or sense of meaning, the tragedy remains stubbornly defined by senseless loss and despair. “I will never be glad this happened, no matter what kind of good comes out of it,” said a parent who lost a child in the Sandy Hook shootings in an interview a year afterwards. “Nothing can ever make this o.k.” Parents are not meant to bury their children. We do not know how to process this kind of loss as it appears to be out of order.
Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “the seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to experience happiness.”
This side of heaven, we will struggle with grief and fear when unexplained and inexplicable losses occur. Sometimes, letting go of needing to understand allows us to move forward with a sliver of peace amidst the wreckage of loss.
I hope the damn dog was found and Cheyenne called home. And if not, I hope their families are finding a way forward in spite of this unresolved loss.