EDITOR'S NOTE: The following are excerpts from Stay: Lessons My Dog taught Me about Life, Loss, and Grace by Dave Burchett
SEE ALSO: Undercover Marriage Chapter Excerpt
SEE ALSO: Lone Star Heiress Chapter Excerpt
Dogs . . . do not ruin their sleep worrying about how to keep the objects they have, and to obtain the objects they have not. There is nothing of value I have to bequeath except my love and my faith.~ Eugene O’Neill, from his Dalmatian, Blemie’s, last will and testament
SEE ALSO: Hannah's Courtship Chapter Excerpt
One reason Hannah is such a special friend is that she entered our lives during a difficult season when her human mom—my wife, Joni—was diagnosed with breast cancer. Hannah provided a comforting presence during a scary time. I found an anonymous quote that sums up one big reason why: “One reason a dog can be such a comfort when you’re feeling blue is that she doesn’t try to find out why.”
Hannah knew how to deal with people going through an emotionally and physically draining valley. Her solution was simple but powerful.
It was just the unsolicited encouragement that Joni and I so needed at the time. When this cancer journey began, we learned a lot of hard lessons. One of the hardest to swallow was people’s reactions, how those close to us dealt with tragedy and illness. We had expectations of who would be there for us during the storm, but those expectations were rarely correct. Some people that we were sure would be steadfast became invisible. Others who we would have wagered the mortgage on to be constant encouragers became awkward and distant. When your expectations are met with inconsistent responses from friends and family, it can devastate your spirit and lead to despair.
Although reasons were never given, I could guess why people struggled with our situation, based on the unique baggage they brought to their own story. Perhaps cancer made them fear their own mortality. Some acted as if cancer is contagious. Perhaps they worried they might say the wrong thing. Others might have felt pressure to make sense of a senseless situation or the need to figure out the spiritual reason for the trial, and when they had no answer to give us, they retreated. I understand all that now, but at the time it hurt.
That’s what Hannah sensed. Her intuitive evaluation of my emotions was uncanny. Hannah would come to me and nudge me as if to say, “I’m here.” As she shifted her big brown eyes toward mine, her gaze communicated, “I don’t know how to help, but I wish I could.”
There was incredible comfort in her presence.
She was right. That was all I needed—presence. When Joni was sick with cancer, all we needed from friends and fellow followers of Jesus was caring presence.
The theology of why bad things happen could wait. The go-to verse that “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28, kjv) could be explored when time gave perspective. You don’t need to explain or spiritualize trials. You need to be present and willing to walk with your friend or loved one in grace and love. Simple, yet incredibly powerful.
Remember me mentioning Job and his suffering in the introduction? At first, Job’s friends were fantastic empathizers. When they simply sat with Job and grieved with him, I am sure he took comfort in these men who cared enough to be present. But then they decided to speak their piece. They resorted to the familiar default mode of needing to “figure out” what Job did to trigger his suffering. They tried to explain what they could not understand.
We had a few “Job friends” in our cancer journey. God was faithful to provide caring people to walk with Joni and me. We thanked Him for those He prompted to love us, instead of wondering why others were not there. That was a spiritual turning point for us.
During Joni’s cancer, Hannah obviously had no idea why we were sad. She had no more understanding of Joni’s disease than she would later have of her own prognosis. But she could sense our sorrow and she was present in the moment.
Joni’s breast cancer treatment included surgery and a year of chemotherapy followed by weeks of radiation. We joked about our weekly dates at the “Slow-Drip Spa,” but there was not much humor to be found in the aftermath of those sessions. Joni fought nausea and her plummeting white blood cell counts were dangerously low, compromising her recovery. One day after we returned home from Joni’s chemotherapy session, she went straight to the bedroom, exhausted, to try to sleep off the nausea. I sat on the couch in our living room staring at nothing as I tried to process all that Joni was going through.
Hannah sensed my sadness but wasn’t sure what to do. She walked by, looked at me, picked up a tennis ball, and brought it to me. I could see a hint of uncertainty in her eyes. I imagined a thought bubble appearing over her head with the message, “Would this help make you less sad?”
I tossed the ball to her, but she did not play with the normal zeal that she had during our games of catch.
This day Hannah caught the ball, calmly brought it back, and gently dropped it in my lap. It was as if she was doing this for me and not her. She was giving me a few moments of respite from my fears. I don’t recall another time that she played in that way.
A recent study done by Goldsmiths College in London suggests that dogs may respond more to our emotions than any other species, including our own. According to the study conducted by Dr. Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer, dogs will even approach strangers to comfort them, regardless of expectation of reward or care. That certainly makes them different from many humans.
The researchers did the following experiment.
Eighteen pet dogs, spanning a range of ages and breeds, were exposed to four separate 20-second experimental conditions in which either the dog’s owner or an unfamiliar person pretended to cry, hummed in an odd manner, or carried out a casual conversation. The dogs demonstrated behaviours consistent with an expression of empathic concern. Significantly more dogs looked at, approached and touched the humans as they were crying as opposed to humming, and no dogs responded during talking.
Humming was included because it is an unusual sound that might arouse the curiosity of the dogs. But interestingly enough, the dogs consistently reacted to the person who was crying instead of the ones humming or talking, regardless of whether the person crying was a dog’s owner or a complete stranger.
Jennifer Mayer summed up the surprising result, which was amazing to me.
If the dogs’ approaches during the crying condition were motivated by self-oriented comfort-seeking, they would be more likely to approach their usual source of comfort, their owner, rather than the stranger. No such preference was found. The dogs approached whoever was crying regardless of their identity. Thus they were responding to the person’s emotion, not their own needs, which is suggestive of empathic-like comfort-offering behaviour.1
The researchers suggested that centuries of breeding had created this type of response in our canine companions. Perhaps. But I align more with Martin Luther’s thoughts on this issue: “The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made his greatest gifts the commonest.”
I think God has given us a model of walking, breathing grace in these amazing creatures.
The empathetic instinct to pain that my friend Hannah possesses can be a template for how I can be present with God. There are times when my baggage or fear causes me to be awkward and distant from God. I am not sure what to say or even if God wants to deal with my weak faith again. I am tempted to talk bravely as if nothing is wrong. But my heart is crying out in pain. God comforts me in the brave talking, but He rushes toward the crying of my soul. I think that is what the apostle Paul is describing in Romans, assuring us that the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf when we are too anguished to even find words:
The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. - Romans 8:26-27
The Holy Spirit senses our hearts and literally interprets our anguish to the Father. God desires that we simply be present with Him. We don’t need to pray eloquent psalms of petition. We simply put our heads in the lap of Abba Father and say, “I’m here.” And isn’t it interesting that it is in this very intimate context of submission and tender dependence on the Holy Spirit that the oft-quoted phrase about how “all things work together for good” occurs?
The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. - Romans 8:26-28, emphasis added
We isolate the verse about “everything working for good” from its context and throw it out as “comfort” for those who are suffering. Paul says that God is with us in our suffering, not just for one specific event, but for all of the trials we will face in our lives. All of them will be ultimately redeemed for those who love God.
The purpose of our trials is not necessarily to have things work out neatly, according to our desires. Romans 8:29 says, “God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son.” God chose believers to become like His Son. All of these trials together will cause us to become more like Jesus. That may or may not mean a particular event will work out well. How often have we wounded a hurting soul with our shallow spiritualizing when he or she just needed a friend?
Learning to be present for a friend or a loved one is a precious skill. Henri Nouwen captures this heart of friendship well.
When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.2
It starts with being present, a lesson well taught by my friend Hannah. She gave me a clear example of being present when your friend is hurting. Just be present. Not all-knowing. Not awkwardly fumbling for words. Simply present.
Tonight I got into bed late, and Hannah got up from her comfy bed and walked to my side. Maybe she needed my presence. Maybe she sensed my need for a therapeutic ear scratch. I suspect the truth is that both of us had needs that were met by that simple action of presence and affection. That is how it works when we drop our fears and selfishness to make ourselves lovingly present in a loved one’s pain. It is therapeutic for everyone involved.
During Joni’s difficult cancer trial we learned that the peace that surpasses all understanding is real. We lived it and we got through a very trying year by leaning on each other, great doctors, good friends, God’s grace, and lots of Hannah nuzzles.
*This Excerpt Published 2/3/2015