By Author Laurie Plessala
What We Can Learn From Our Dogs About Bearing Witness
I read a beautiful article yesterday about why losing a dog is so painful – why the grief can be so much worse than losing a parent or other family member. “How to Grieve for a Very Good Dog”
It talked about what life with a dog is like. They are with us through weddings, funerals, divorces, children growing up, and pretty much every life event. But there’s something more to it than that, and I feel like I finally put my finger on it today. They bear witness to our lives.
“When we bear witness, we lovingly give our attention to the other without judgment. When we allow another to bear witness to us, we give ourselves the freedom to be known.”
Wow. Just wow. Yes. That’s it. Our dogs lovingly give us their attention without judgment. Doesn’t matter how we look or how much money we have. Doesn’t matter what we do for a living. They love us without judgment. And what it does for us is immeasurable – it allows us to be who we truly are and not be judged.
I think we all want to be loved and accepted for who we really are. But man, it’s scary out there. Rejection, broken hearts, abandonment. There are dozens of bad things that we fear can happen when we’re vulnerable, when we’re seen for who we truly are. For those of us who share our lives/hearts with our dogs, we are allowing them to bear witness to our lives while we bear witness to theirs. It gives our lives and our experiences meaning that is often hard to come by in our human relationships.
It’s sometimes very difficult for people to bear witness for one another. If someone is suffering or struggling, we want to make it better. We want to say the right thing or do the right thing. We want to fix it! Those are all wonderful intentions. But sometimes, what someone needs is for you to just show up. To be with them in the moment. To be silent. To witness this moment in their life. I remember when Gunny died, my best friend called and said, “I’m going to bring you macaroni and cheese. You don’t have to let me in and you don’t have to talk, but I’m coming over.” I did let her in. We did talk. Her willingness to just be with me and not try to make it better when truthfully no one could, was such a gift. She did it again when my divorce was final. That time, with Mexican food.
Hopefully we do the same for our dogs in their time of need. How many hours did I spend near the end of Gunny’s life, just stroking his head, knowing there wasn’t much else that I could do. Although I didn’t look at it that way at the time, I was bearing witness to his life and his impending death. Bearing witness says, “You are not alone. I see you. I witness what you are experiencing. What you are experiencing matters to me. I surround you with my love.” I can only hope that it did for him some small measure of what he had done for me over our almost 15 years together.
I ask this of you today: think about all that your dog’s quiet presence through good times and bad has done for you. Think about offering your presence not only to your dog, but to a friend or family member in need. To see them. To surround them with love without judgment. To let them know that what happens to them matters to you. Our dogs do it so effortlessly, without words. I think it is one of their greatest gifts and one of the most important things that we can learn from them. I’m certainly going to try. I hope you will, too.