The vet school where I work when I’m not writing the Mount Moriah Mysteries runs a Pet Loss Hotline, and I sometimes volunteer there. Many of the callers use the hotline to support them through the acute, initial phases of grief. The sympathetic ear we provide can be particularly helpful if the pet’s death has been traumatic or sudden, or if the owner’s friends, coworkers, and family are the kind of people who think they’re being helpful when they offer suggestions like, “Let’s go to the Humane Society this weekend and pick out another cat for you.”**
**Note to those inclined to give such advice — For many people, their pets mean as much to them as your human relatives mean to you. So unless you’d feel comforted by someone saying, “Let’s run down to the assisted living facility this weekend and pick you out a new grandma,” maybe keep that particular bit of advice to yourself.
Grandma shopping aside, there’s an aspect of these calls that reminded me of some of the struggles the protagonist of my Mount Moriah mysteries, Lindsay Harding, has faced. Many of the callers are haunted–often for months or even years after their pet’s passing–by unanswered questions. “Did I euthanize Fluffy too soon? Would the cancer really have killed her, or should I have tried another round of chemo?” “What did Max actually die of? Was it really unavoidable, or did my vet just make a mistake and cover it up?” A variation on these calls comes when the pet has simply gone missing. “Where is Bailey? Is he happily living with a new family, or was he hit by a car and killed?” In all these cases, the callers’ brains drive them around the same rutted track, night after night.
My books, too, contain some unresolved mysteries. I don’t want to be accused of dropping spoilers of my own work, so suffice it to say that book two, A Death in Duck, ends with the fate of a major character unresolved. In book three, The Burnt Island Burial Ground, there is still no resolution, and the tension that comes with not knowing impacts many of Lindsay’s actions in that book. I have the luxury of being able to decide if, when, and how the mystery of that character’s fate will be resolved, but my poor protagonist still doesn’t know. One thing I’ve been at pains to have her avoid, though, is seeking closure.
As a hospital chaplain, Lindsay will have heard many variations on the themes of the Pet Loss Hotline’s callers. And I’m sure that she, like me, will have quickly picked up on the idea that it would be counterproductive to offer answers to the person’s questions. Saying something like, “I’m sure Bailey is fine. He was a smart dog, and I bet he’s living a really happy life on a farm,” may fool a five-year-old, but it’s certainly not going to help someone struggling with profound grief. (And if any of you have ever been told the “Bailey went to live on a farm” story as kids, you know how well that worked out!)
So how, then can we find closure when we are confronted by unanswerable questions? Well, we can’t. And I think it’s silly to try.
That may sound harsh, but one thing that has seemed to help callers to the hotline is for me to suggest that humans are hardwired to try to fill in gaps. We are creatures of meaning. We may complain that it’s unrealistic when our favorite TV series ends with a series of perfect weddings and happily-ever-afters, but we roar in agony when they end in cliffhangers, à la The Sopranos. Unanswered questions sit on our brains like itchy scabs, refusing to heal, demanding our attention.
So if we accept that such rumination is normal, what are we to do about it? My belief, which I’ve planted in Lindsay’s head, is to focus on living. Little by little, allow yourself to smile, breathe, and love again. Congratulate yourself when you do. When the unanswered questions start to poke their little fingers into our thoughts, remind yourself that they will always be there, but that you don’t have to let them drag you back to that same mental rut right now. You can choose instead to use those thoughts as reminders to take an action that would honor your loved one or pet. Bailey loved walks? Well, when you start to think about his disappearance, might it honor him if you took a walk and remembered the good times you had? Thinking about Fluffy’s tumor? What is something that might channel that question into something life-affirming? Perhaps putting a dollar in a jar each time you think about her diagnosis, and then donating that money to an animal charity?
As for Lindsay, she struggles to put this into practice, but I’m confident that she’ll keep trying. Sometimes it’s good to know that you’re in control of someone else’s happy endings, because in real life, closure is elusive.