What an Artist Can Teach Us About Saying Goodbye to a Loved Pet

This post is dedicated to my recently-passed friend and neighbor, Sophie the Labrador.  Sophie was lovely old gal who took her responsibilities of watching over the neighborhood seriously. I miss her.

One of my favorite artists is Andy Goldsworthy.Storm King by Andy Goldsworthy

Goldsworthy makes art from natural objects. And I think the  artist has a lot to teach us about loving and losing the animals in our lives.

Everything is ephemeral.

Most of Goldsworthy’s works are impermanent–some only exist long enough to capture in a quick photograph. Others, like a cairn or stone wall, will be acted upon by wind and water and shifting soil until they too pass away.

In the cosmic scope, all life is impermanent. And even dogs, cats, rabbits, and some birds are much shorter-lived than humans. Our awareness of this impermanence gives a sweetness to our relationships.

Some can’t bear the loss. After the death of a pet, they vow to never give their heart to an animal again. But for those courageous enough to face loss over and over again, the riches are innumerable.

Goldsworthy creates works knowing that any one could fail in an instant. That’s why each moment is worthy of his full attention.

Be present in the moment.

When Andy Goldsworthy is working on an installation, his project has his full attention. If he loses focus, Goldsworthy can lose all his work in that moment.

Part of the comfort of having a regular companion in your life is the ability to take him or her for granted. But it’s also a great danger. Because relationships–all relationships–atrophy without regular care.

If we aren’t full present, we can lose the focus of our work–bonding with another creature. Yes, we feed, bathe, walk, clean up after our pets. But all that caregiving is just part of nurturing a relationship. The daily work, done with attention, creates the bond.

Goldsworthy has two places to focus his attention. First in the process of creating and second in recording his work in a photography.

Take pictures.

I have an uneasy relationship with technology. You’ll find no tv, Blu-Ray player, iPod or cell phone in my house. Even my laptop and wireless broadband internet constantly disappoint me.

But I’m thankful for digital cameras. Even my poor quality pictures of Shadow and now, Honey, are better than the lack of pictures of dogs I lived with in the pre-digital era.

Without photos, few people would ever see Mr. Goldsworthy’s work. Photo collections document his work for a large audience.

In a similar way, we document the appearance of our pets and their quirky behaviors online. They live on in the stories we tell about them. And sharing our memories creates a bond with strangers we’ve never met.

The life lessons we need come when we need them and from many places–our pets, our friends, neighbors…. And even from an artist we’ve never met.

If you’re interested in knowing more about Andy Goldsworthy, visit his website. And make a point of seeing the documentary film about his work, Rivers & Tides. Here’s a trailer to whet your appetite.


[Photo by Julia Manzeorva.]

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  1. Beautiful post, Pamela, I love the way you’ve blended Goldsworthy’s art with the ever-so-personal experience of owning a pet. Don’t take anything for granted, live in the present and take photos…that’s very good advice and a good mantra to live by.
    I enjoyed the trailer, what a great and original artist. I’d love to see the documentary.

  2. that’s beautiful work and so fragile. it frustrates me to watch it slip away, even if that’s the point of it.

    as for our dogs, i also regret the pre-camera era [not just pre-digital] and all the pictures i don’t have of Cookie, Shandy, Mickey, Pepper and Caliph. i think i might be over-compensating these days. i only have a few thousand of Georgia so far. what to do? thank goodness for little pieces of memory sticks.

    “we document the appearance of our pets and their quirky behaviors online. They live on in the stories we tell about them. And sharing our memories creates a bond with strangers we’ve never met.”


    p.s. you don’t have a tv or a cellphone? what are you, a recluse?!

    • What’s amazing about Andy Goldsworthy is that he feels compelled to create these fragile pieces. And yet even he is not so “Zen” as to avoid an expletive or sorrowful look when something collapses right in front of him.

      As for the pictures–isn’t it amazing that even without them we remember so much of our old friends?

      And a recluse? Are you kidding? That seems unlikely given the amount of time I spend online. I can’t imagine getting anything done if I watched TV. Although I recently realized that the reason everyone in the world is better at keeping up with blogs is because they’re probably doing it on their cell phones from work–I don’t have a prayer. :)

      • ahh…the cell phones. most of the comments i make on my mob [on the bus] have a way of not being published. very sad.

        i forgot to bring my mob to capoeira class last saturday. the sense of panic at not being contactable for 4 hours was overwhelming. i ended up making a call on my friend’s mob. haha.

  3. I’d not heard of Goldsworthy before. The art world is one I know almost nothing about. But I am certainly interested now. I would never have the patience to work with such a delicate medium. Nor have I ever thought about nature as art before. One of my friends once told me that what makes an artist and artist isn’t the final project, but the ability to see things in a way no one ever has before. It sounds like this fits him exactly. I’d also say it fits you as I doubt Goldsworthy ever imagined someone would be able to compare his work to one’s relationship with a beloved pet.

    You also touched on something else I am trying to understand, how to be present in the moment. With our crazy lives so often I am thinking of the next thing I have to do, or the thing I didn’t do and have to fix, when I am walking the dog or doing something else. Even now my brain isn’t fully focussed on typing this comment. I think once a person knows how to do this, they have achieved something pretty great. Perhaps the secret to enlightenment? Dogs are naturals, of course.

    Good on you for cutting technology out of your life. I don’t think I am that strong. I certainly couldn’t live without Animal Planet. 😛

    • I hope you’ll seek out the whole documentary about Goldsworthy. If you liked the taste from the trailer, I’m sure you’d enjoy it.

      Living in the present is a theme I come back to over and over again. You’re not the only person struggling with it. As a matter of fact, the Buddha would say we all struggle with it. It’s just not that everyone realizes it.

      I once read that people write the books they need to read. I think that’s what I’m doing with this blog–hitting these lessons over and over again until I learn them myself.

      BTW, don’t be so impressed that I’ve cut out tech. I just never had it to begin with. A lot of that comes from being about 15 or so years older than you. And in the tech world, that’s like dog years to human years.

      I remember when cable first came to town (we didn’t need it because I lived between two big cities and got tv reception without it). I remember the internet before the world wide web. I remember the first wireless telephones. It wasn’t like I had to cut things out. I never really got used to them to begin with.

      Oh, and I have a natural contrarian streak. :)

  4. I love that artwork, and also how in the video, he’s not afraid of the process sometimes failing. It wasn’t perfect the first time every time. I really love it as a metaphor for our lives with dogs, too.

    I actually started my blog almost a year after my first Greyhound had passed away. I’d shared different funny stories about her on several message boards that we’d visited, but that wasn’t the same as a permanent recording of those things in one place. As I started life with Bunny, I realized that I wanted a way to record those things about her and our other dogs in a place where I’d always have them. I didn’t necessarily think that other people would really read it, but I wanted it first and foremost for me. I was still so aware of how short our time with them is, and while I hope to have Bunny in my life for a long time to come, I do know that I’ll probably outlive her. It’s not only that now, though, I’ve realized that I enjoy seeing how other people document their own journeys through their own blog that draws me in now. I’ve also been analyzing one of the relationships I have with one of our dogs and realizing that I need to put more into being with her and cherishing her life with us! What a great post today!

    • Interesting to hear what inspired you to start Tales and Tails. I also wanted to have good memories of life with Honey after losing Shadow a few months earlier. Our time together is so short and it’s wonderful to have a record besides our memories.

  5. P.S. I don’t keep up with blogs on my phone, either! lol

    • But does that say something about your phone use? Or something about your job. I don’t think a teacher could get away with typing on a phone during work as much as an office worker can. :)

  6. Mike Webster says:

    Beautiful, sweetheart.

  7. Love that wall. I’ll look for the film on Netflix. Thanks for the idea … and for the message today. All hail Sophie.

  8. Very nice message; yes, we are all but a blip (but so special in the moment of the blip). :) That, friend, is what gets me up some days.

    That trailer makes me want to see more of the artist. What an amazing mind he has!

    And um, now I understand why watching SYTYCD (assuming on the computer) is such a thrill for you. :)

  9. I will comment on the last part about pictures. I have disappointingly few of my childhood dog. It was the age of 35mm cameras so you wouldn’t waste rolls and rolls of film.

    Tonight, a 30 minute dog park trip yielded 120 photos. Still haven’t went through them to see how many are usable but it doesn’t matter so much since one button will delete them easily.

    I love pictures. And I mostly like technology-when it cooperates. LOL

  10. Is it a good thing to be able to appreciate something you can’t understand? I really enjoyed the movie trailer but I think I’d cry when something I’d made that was so beautiful and unique collapsed! I’d get incredibly frustrated. This is probably why I’m no artist.

    One reason I enjoy your blog so much is the way you see things and your mind works. I think you need to visit me and open my eyes to the beauty that surrounds me:)

    I have a TV that I rarely turn on because I’m so engrossed with what I’m doing on the computer. I have a mobile that I use as a convenience and in case of emergencies e.g. I’m walking the dogs and one of them breaks a leg and we’re 30 minutes from the car! I often can’t remember where I left it though. No iPad, an iPod I never use. I actually love technology and would hate to be without my digital camera, but when I think about it, the rest of it (apart from my computer and internet!) I could live without. Oh, and I love my microwave:)

    I think I’m caught up, yay:)

  11. Actually, you have no need to visit me … I need you to visit me:)

  12. Nicely stated. I’m going to send this post to all my grieving friends. I remember how well photos and movies helped me after I lost my yellow lab, Hudson.

  13. Wonderful post… I am not familiar with Goldworthy, but I’ll be checking him out now. The impermanence of his work is very interesting to me… living in the moment is something that is hard to do but I do strive for it.

  14. I find the finiteness of my life with my pets something that spurs me on to remain in the moment with them and to embrace the whole of our relationship, warts and all.