The Gentle Grief of Habit

I got a puppy for my 13th birthday, but we didn’t actually take her home until nearly a year later. She was spunky and clumsy, with big paws and ears and a tiny tail. I was almost 14 and fully understood body parts growing at uneven speeds.

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We grew up together, Gracie and I. I learned how to drive, graduated, left home, came back to visit, graduated again, and even introduced her to a kitten. She always remembered, was always excited to see me. She liked to sneeze in your face and play catch in the yard and chase the ducks around the duck pond and wiggle her little butt as she stumbled down the stairs to greet you when you got home.

She died this past March, two months after my grandma died, two months after my grandpa died. There was a lot of loss this year, and I was living in Mexico. Gracie was 10 and had survived several near-death experiences before, but it was still a surprise.

It’s hard to process grief when you’re physically so far away. The wounds start to scab before you’ve really dealt with them properly.

I came home last week and she didn’t greet me at the door. Her bed was replaced by grandma’s chair. There are no more yellow patches in the yard where she peed. I knew this would happen, I’d talked to my parents and prepared for all of these moments. But knowing in my head and knowing in my body, knowing in my footsteps up the stairs without her racing down to meet me, knowing in the sight of the chair where her bed should have been… those are different kinds of knowing.

I hadn’t prepared for backing out of the driveway, though.

My entire driving life, we had her. I grew up in New York, where you can’t even get your permit until you’re 16, and by then Gracie was a fixture in our house and wild with puppy energy in a big dog body. She was an indoor dog who loved the sunshine, so we let her have reign of the yard more often than not.

Every time I’ve backed out of my parents’ driveway, I’ve tilted my mirrors extra low to look for my puppy and make sure I wouldn’t hit her.

I can’t break the habit. The first time I got into my car to drive after returning, my mind was filled with whether or not I even remembered how to drive after all this time… and then I adjusted my mirrors too far down to check if Gracie was behind me. My mind, my heart, everything stopped for a breath, realizing that there was no dog to look for, that she was gone.

Every backing out is a reminder, tearing off a bit more of the scab each time.

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Last week in CVS, I bumped into a woman behind me and said, “Ay, perdón.” She looked at me like I was insane and went on her way and I found another habit that doesn’t fit anymore. Grief isn’t the right word for what I feel about leaving Mexico, but a misplaced habit reminded me that there are things I am leaving behind.

There is always a letting go and a leaving behind in breaking a habit. And I think there’s always some grief too, because in creating a habit we’ve created a part of ourselves. In breaking that, we must remove it. There is grief in that.

For now, I’ll keep adjusting my mirrors and exclaiming in Spanish and waiting for the scars to heal. I’m told they will, that the habits will break and new ones will replace them.

But there’s no rush. I’m learning to embrace the gentle grief of habit.

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