Grief’s Loyal Witness

Ann Marie Houghtailing
4 min readAug 5, 2021

The past two years of my life have been a series of deaths. Some literal, others metaphoric. It began with the sudden death of my 44-year old nephew, my sister’s only son. Three months later, my brother died in an accident, my mother’s only son. Eleven months after that, my mother died. Four months later, my brother-in-law, a man I’ve known my entire life, was gone. Some of these losses came in the midst of the pandemic, so there were no mourners to come and sit with me in my suffering. No ritual. No gathering. No witnesses. But one.

My dog, Coco, is the only living creature who has witnessed my grief in all it’s isolated agony. When my mother was dying at home, Coco never left her side. My mother would always ask, “Where’s my doggie?” Saying “doggie” with a long “o” that always broke my heart. The answer was always, “She’s right here.”

Coco saw my mother out. Few people can sit in another’s suffering. The need to fix, fill the silence, and mitigate the suffering has a kind of erasing effect. The subtext of these well-intended actions make the sufferer feel that there is no room or time for pain. Sitting deep inside of suffering terrifies most people because they do not understand that it’s the only way through. There are no shortcuts, trap doors or gentle pathways.

Witnessing someone’s raw suffering is a singular act of love and wild courage, and Coco is an expert at it. She helped my mother leave this world and promptly got to work helping me stay.

She is the only being who heard me make the animal sounds of grief in the middle of the night or stayed in utter silence with me for an entire 24-hour period where I did absolutely nothing. I have never in my half century on this earth not filled a spare moment with a book or some industrious activity. But I could not even manage to sleep on this day when the shock of grief paralyzed me like a drug. Complete stillness and silence were things I had never valued, needed, or knew that I was capable of, but there I lay in a posture of abject surrender. Coco didn’t leave the bed either. She stayed with me inside of the walls of my sorrow, pressing her warm body and wet nose against me, with the exquisite presence and calm of a monastic.

It is on the second, third or fourth death that people say, “I have no idea what to say to you,” or “There are no words.” These are the only sentences left in the entire English language. Coco has no words of any kind. She doesn’t need to fill the silence, she can crawl up inside of it and just be.

My suffering was not a burden to be endured by Coco, it was a place we would occupy together as long as I required.

Now my sweet girl is moving towards death herself. At what speed, I do not know and would not dare to torture myself with a guess. But it will be much too soon for me. It feels very appropriate that it’s her heart. It’s getting bigger. Too big for this world.

For me, grief has a particular, familiar physical sensation. A tingling ache of nothingness.It tastes like a dirty penny and smells like an ancient piece of cloth dug out of the earth. I feel it inching towards me now. Her death will not be a modest loss.

I will miss the rhythm of her breath as we fall asleep and the way she hits me with her paw to get my attention. I will ache for her tender button eyes looking up at me, reminding me that I’m adored. Only a dog can love with such non prejudicial devotion and constancy.

You can’t mourn a dog the way you mourn a human. It’s not really allowed or honored. But I will. I will howl in silence without her witness. I will honor her ferocious love and match her wild dedication. I will love her out of this world with grace and dignity, the same way she loved my mother out.

When my mother died, my family stood around her bed holding hands and crying while singing Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” We held on to each other and sang loud and hard and off-key through tears with Coco at our feet standing like a silent soldier.

Someday I’ll wish upon a star

Wake up where the clouds are far behind me

Where trouble melts like lemon drops

High above the chimney top

That’s where you’ll find me, oh

When we were done, my youngest son lifted Coco to my mother’s face to smell her and kiss her goodbye. She stood vigil by my mother’s bed until the very end when we wrapped my mother like a gift to be taken into the night. Coco deserves no less when her time comes.



Ann Marie Houghtailing

Ann marie Houghtailing is the co founder of Story Imprinting, a communications firm that teaches clients the art and science of storytelling.