Muscle memory. It’s an amazing thing. It’s what keeps my fingers playing “Fur Elise” on the piano long after I stopped taking lessons. It’s the pressure I sense in the crook of my elbow from linking arms with my late husband. It’s why every time I go for a walk I feel the pull of the leash from my dog, Elvis, even though he too is gone.
Muscle memory holds on to real memories. And each time my muscle memory kicks in I want to link arms with my husband, play Beethoven on the piano, and walk my dog.
Two years after my husband Victor died by suicide my 18-year-old Shih Tzu Elvis died. He was an old dog, plagued by a chronic UTI and crippled by arthritis – most “walks” were in a doggy carriage. But his heart was strong, he wagged his tail, ate like a pig, loved car rides – and when he was having a good day, he still ran down the street toward home.
Until he didn’t.
His decline in the last 6 months was steady, but luckily, the end was quick. And, luckily for me, I didn’t have to make The Decision. He made it for me. Within 12 hours he stopped walking, eating, and wagging his tail. He was done trying and he was done struggling and he was just done. I’m glad I recognized it. As heartbreaking as it was, I let him go peacefully and on his own terms.
It’s still tough, as anyone who has lost a beloved pet knows. Between muscle memory, habit, and unconditional love, the death of a pet leaves a huge hole in the heart and in the home.
I always knew that my dog Elvis was the cushion that softened the edges of grief after Victor died. Elvis became my buddy and constant companion. I talked to him, shopped for him, took him everywhere I could, and went above and beyond to keep him healthy. And, as he got older, I didn’t plan anything or go anywhere without considering the impact it would have on him.
And you know what? I could say the same thing about the last years of my husband’s life. The caretaker role that I experienced with my older dog was familiar to me. I slipped seamlessly from caring for my husband as he struggled with depression to caring for my dog in his old age.
Victor’s decline was also steady. And, as he went deeper into his darkness, I didn’t make any decisions, go anywhere, or plan anything without thinking of how it would affect him.
I worked hard to get my husband help and keep him positive and hopeful, healthy, and alive. But it turned out that he too was done trying. He was tired of struggling. Of living with his pain. On good days, I try to respect his decision to end his life, on bad days, I replay what I might have done differently.
I’m not comparing the loss of my dog to that of my husband. The yardstick breaks when one tries to measure grief. But love is love, connection is connection, and emotions run deep no matter what the loss. When Victor died, the love I poured into his life emptied into the love I gave my little dog. And that love for my dog supported me through the most difficult days of my life as I grieved my husband.
Elvis was my pal, my companion, the cute little face I woke up to each morning, a source of laughter, and the reason to get out of bed and go outside. He was four paws of hope during the COVID lockdown. And there’s almost no better way to start a conversation with a passerby than to have a cute little dog by your side, or even better, riding in a “baby” carriage.
And then the dog died.
That wasn’t supposed to happen so soon. After the catastrophic loss of my husband, I wanted a break, a time to catch my breath before the next calamity occurred – a break measured ideally in decades. But the smooth sailing I thought I was entitled to after Victor’s death, the one where there are no upheavals or catastrophes, capsized when Elvis died. It’s a heavy reminder that as much as we think we deserve a break, there is no guarantee that we’ll get one. Or for how long.
Muscle memory. It’s not only physical, it’s also emotional. Physical muscle memory is triggered by an action, emotional muscle memory by a memory: a photograph of a loved one, the smell of rain, a visit to a former home – or the death of a loved one.
It’s been almost a year since Elvis died and over three years since Victor took his life. When Elvis died not only did I grieve his death, but thanks to emotional muscle memory, the pain of my husband’s death, the exhaustion, the confusion, the despair, the sadness – all came roaring back.
But something else returned too. My emotional muscle memory reminded me of what I needed to do to help myself. My previous loss, in essence, coached my current loss. I wasn’t starting over with grief. I knew the drill. I recognized the pitfalls and how to sidestep them and that I would be ok.
Physical muscle memory may be the reminder of the sweet moments in your past, but it will be the emotional muscle memory that will guide you into the future. Never forget that.