Barley and Me
It’s been a big week for Even Keel as it feels like we’ve now started lifting our heads above the parapet of social media and really started getting out there and meeting people. It’s feeling a strong sense of direction and the response has been nothing short of fantastic - but I also don’t want us to ever lose touch of the journey that continues in parallel to this; the one that really inspired the path that the foundation is taking. It’s won’t be for everyone, but our whole ethos with the foundation is about helping at least one..so for now I will continue sharing my innermost journey of grief since MIchael died. It is ongoing. Possibly never ending. But thankfully ever changing. And sadly it’s something that some will very much relate to.
I’ve already spoken a lot about my incredible family and friends and their life saving roles in the last five and a half months, but there’s also been someone else; someone who’s been there by my side night and day, quietly sitting through the rise and fall of every emotion. He’s kind, loyal, patient, and he’s one of the best listeners of all; and his name is Barley.
Barley is my hugely adored four year old shitzu. I’ve of course loved him since the moment I first picked him up as a pup at about nine weeks old, but never have I appreciated his presence in my life quite as much as I do now. People often talk of the intuitive nature of animals and never has that been more noticeable in my life either. In my darkest of days, he would just lie on my chest, his face studying mine, quietly watching me with honest, inquisitive eyes, almost trying to absorb my pain and sadness.
Michael absolute adored Barley. He called him his ‘legend’. It was Michael who put Barley out every morning. It was Michael who’d bring him up to bed with us each night. And it was Michael who Barley would watch with quiet anticipation early in the morning, eagerly hoping for the magic words ‘Come on Barl’ as Michael got ready to leave for the farm. And if he did hear those magic words, never would Barley move so quick - desperate for a day legging it around the yard, pissing off somewhere he shouldn’t, and usually being found in a barn or stable somewhere eating horse shit! The love they had for each other was both palpable and mutual and it shattered my heart that little bit more to realise that Michael had not only left me; he’d also left little Barely too.
Barley’s behaviour definitely altered soon after Michael died - although I’d say for the first few days much of his routine remained the same. He still came up into our bedroom with me each night and he’d still curl up at the bottom of our bed to sleep. He’d also still wake pretty early each morning, and his waking was still being accompanied by the sound of what Michael would so endearingly refer to as Barley ‘noshing himself off!’ (those reading this who knew MIchael will appreciate the infectious laughter that would come with that statement and am sure you all miss that laugh as much as I do..) Instead I was left with no one there to tell Barley to quieten down. Or to wrap their arms around me and to pull me close to in the quiet wake of dawn. Despite Barley’s best efforts, the loneliness and sadness was deafening. And just writing these words takes me back to that feeling in a heartbeat; all still so real and raw.
It was perhaps a week or two later that Barley’s behaviour really began to change; when he really seemed to withdraw. I noticed how he stopped coming into my room so readily at night, almost as if the brutal new reality was sinking in for him too. And I noticed a new sadness and slowness in his movements during the day. Very subtly, but definitely enough for me to feel that he couldn’t bare being surrounded by Michael’s memories at that time either. I truly believe he was going through his own stages of grief - grief of missing Michael and probably grief of seeing me so broken - and he had to deal with that in his own way and his own time. But a dog being a dog; his loyalty and comfort to me - his now sole owner - was always unfaltering.
Much has been written about the emotional and mental health benefits of our four legged friends in life. Be it cat, dog, horse, or whatever variety - the love, presence and the sense of purpose they give their owners leaves little room for challenge and many will rightly advocate the therapeutic benefits from having animals to share our life journey.
Just the silence of an empty house can feel emotionally cold even in normal times, but during times of grief I think the emptiness could feel nothing short of chilling. Having Barley there manages to fill those empty spaces with both life and warmth, and that offers a huge and embracing comfort to me. He’s someone to sit with, cuddle, stroke, lie with, to walk with and to talk to. And his infectious excitement - just from me returning home, or his enthusiasm from my simply putting on the coat that he knows signals time for a walk - never fails to make me smile and remind me that I am still loved.
It was actually the routine of dog walks that first started regularly getting me out of the house on each desperate day. And this very naturally brought together two hugely important therapies in handling grief; for as well as my ‘pet therapy’ I was also allowing the act of walking itself to heal me too. I’ve recently learnt to become a huge believer of really connecting with nature for solace and recuperation, and thankfully I’m fortunate enough to live in an area where I can take advantage of many beautiful trees and countryside walks. The fresh air, the early evening stillness, the morning calmness, the colours - my senses, all gently stimulated, almost stroked, by its healing powers. For anyone who knows me well this might sound somewhat surprising as ‘old Sam’ usually only really liked long walks with a pub as a destination (those walks are still very much welcomed too!), but - as I’ve said in previous posts - losing Michael in the way I have has been truly life changing. And I like to think of Michael smiling down wryly at this newly found peace I’ve discovered from the simplicity of nature; at the way I no longer take it’s beauty so for granted.
A couple of weeks ago I was actually lucky enough to visit a racehorse trainer’s new yard near Cirencester. It was a freezing cold wet day and as I pulled up I remember quietly questioning my own enthusiasm; whether voluntarily marching down to the gallops with icy cold rain lashing against my face was something I really wanted to do -when I could instead be tucked up, cosy at home, having a lazy morning with a cup of tea in hand. Well, I quickly realised that I really needn’t have questioned myself at all, for the beauty of being there literally took my breath away. The undulating rise and fall of the land, the stunning long reaching views, the rhythmical beat of hooves from these amazing creatures galloping past me and just the sheer joy of breathing in nature was simply more exhilarating than my words can describe. I felt so happy. And I felt so alive. And that was such a precious feeling when so much of the last few months had been about feeling the exact polar opposite of that; about the complete loss of ‘me’. As the trainer said it was recently described to him; just being there was like ‘chicken soup for the soul’. And I honestly cannot think of a better way of describing it..
Of course, it’s probably only natural that something as beautiful as an experience like this is now tinged with a sense of wistfulness too; the one person I wanted to text to share my happiness with was the one person I couldn’t. And that’s hard. But those moments are ones that I’ve just had to try to get more used to - and as I now know I’m able to get through them - it sort of makes them okay. Certainly more bearable anyway. And certainly not able to stop me doing and enjoying the things in life that I can now get pleasure from.
So, homeward bound I drove that day, smiling and contented having met some lovely new people and having embraced some beautiful new surroundings. And of course I didn’t return home to the coldness of an empty house; Barley was there, greeting me in his usual excited way. It was a case of boots off, kettle on, feet up, Barley on my lap. And as I stroked him he just sat there and just listened as I silently told my story. Obviously not my plan A. Nothing can be that now. But as I sat there with my beloved four-legged friend I guess there was a realisation that my plan B really could bring me moments of sheer happiness too. And that chicken soup actually tasted better than ever before..
Sending love to all your four legged friends who bring you comfort and happiness too
“The one absolute, unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world—the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous—is his dog.” George Graham Vest 1870
The Even Keel Foundation is not a crisis response service. There are however many people you can talk to. Please visit www.theevenkeelfoundation.com/helplines for a list of organisations that are there to listen and help in confidence to any worries you might have. Or you can call The Samaritans 24 hour helpline on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d feel more comfortable texting someone then you can text SHOUT to 85258