The 3 unexpected life lessons I found in the heartbreaking loss of my dog, Sassa

Written by Nathan Maingard

Nathan Maingard is a wordsmith giving voice to those who feel isolated and lost in these times of mass delusion and dis-ease. A breathwork instructor, modern troubadour (empowering songs, poems & stories) and ILS pro coach, Nathan empowers down-to-earth seekers to be their authentic selves. In this way we can feel, heal, and grow a beautiful world together.

16 Jun 2022

When I was ten years old my mom abandoned me for nine months.

To tell you the story of my dog Sassa, I need to tell you this one first…

It was December 1994 and my parents were at the beginning of what would become eight years of on-and-off divorce war. Many battles won and lost. Few survivors, none unscarred. You know the drill.

On a weekend much like any other, my mom drove us to our family home in Scarborough (where our dad was still living) and left us for a weekend with him. She didn’t come back for nine months. Not a phone call or letter. No moment of knowing what had happened or where she was…or whether she was even still alive.

The only memory I have of that time is at the end. I remember my dad saying “Kids, I have a surprise for you.” He drove us to a friend’s house and there was my mom standing by the side of a little dirt road. I remember so clearly her being surrounded by vibrant Life…yet seeming to me like a walking dream.

My dad has told me that during the time my mom was gone, every time I heard a diesel engine driving past our house, I’d run to the upstairs window to see if it was my mom in her diesel mercedes.

It never was.

First Love, Last Love

When I fell in love for the first time a few years later, the impact of my mother’s leaving shattered the cracked heart I’d been quietly nursing.

In amongst learning uplifting songs, being introduced to masturbation (with sunscreen, hah) and being taught ouija board at Jewish camp, I met my first love.

The first time we kissed, galaxies exploded in my chest and time stood still. My whole body became a lightning rod for infinite love and I leaped in wholeheartedly, with innocent -and in hindsight, probably desperate- abandon.

Three weeks later, sitting on a deck chair beside a swimming pool, my new love said, “I don’t think this is going to work out”.

“OK,” I replied.

I was always ‘ok’, ‘fine’, ‘nice’.

I never wanted to worry anyone. I just wanted them to be happy…and for me to be ‘enough’. So many times I heard adults comment about what a good, happy, well-adjusted kid I was. No-one could see through my masterful disguise. I was crying inside, isolated and terrified of being pushed aside.

“OK,” I responded to my first young love.

Inside me something
-already brittle from my mother’s leaving-
shattered.

A deep part of my subconscious promised never to go through that again. Never risk the pain of abandonment for the risky game of love.

Becoming a Player to Play it Safe

I jammed the shattered pieces of my heart ever deeper inside. All the world could see was the shiny me. Nathan, ‘the gift’. They didn’t know I wished I could return to sender. Faulty product. Please replace with one more suited to life.

That trauma worked on every layer of my being. I refused to fall in love again. Instead I chose to be the leaver. Always in control. I used women, becoming a ‘player’ to shore up my brittle façade. I betrayed friends, treated people like pawns in my game and sought to be in a position of power in relationships.

I’m sorry to any of you who let me into your hearts at that time. I know that, through my own pain, I caused a lot of pain for others.

Please forgive me.

Awakening to My Pain

It was in my twenties that my battered and patched fortress of numbness began to fail me. A cascade of experiences in 2010 cracked me wide open: plant medicine, finding an inner healing guide, ten days of silent meditation, mercury poisoning, Kambo, climbing Kilimanjaro, becoming celibate, meeting someone who truly Witnessed me.

My hidden wounds came pouring out. Fits of self-harming rage, overwhelming fatigue, chronic pain. I was like a live-wire flailing around. Sometimes connecting to something meaningful. Often just electrocuting myself and those I loved.

This was the beginning of years of inner healing. I committed to being a full time modern troubadour (wordsmith and singer-songwriter). I fell in love…more than once. I survived broken hearts. With each shattering, my capacity to love expanded.

I felt more congruent in myself…but I was still trying to build a new me with the shards of a child’s broken dreams.

I allowed my family home in Scarborough be sold without stepping in to see if I could find a way to keep it. That is a mistake I will carry with me forever (another invitation to become responsible for my actions…or lack thereof).

I was still checked out at a deep level.

And then a miracle happened (and is still happening)…

Meeting The Beloved

In February of 2016, I met Carly. A vibrant, juicy, gorgeous bundle of earthiness and fun. We fell in love. Despite my many attempts at sabotage, our love deepened, put down roots and blossomed.

Carly brought dogs into my life, a whole tribe of them. She brought laughter, fun and a lightness of being I had forgotten. We processed deep trauma together. Plant medicine, communication practices, having fun. Through our love I discovered parts of myself I hadn’t realised were missing.

As I write this, Carly is snuggled in bed with our three remaining dogs while rain sings outside.

Which brings us to dogs…and to Sassa.

Sassa, My Medicine Dog

The first time I visited Carly’s farm in Tulbagh, South Africa, she told me I was going to meet a dog she was sure I’d fall in love with. She was more right than either of us knew.

I fell for Sassa…hard. The feeling was mutual. When I moved onto the farm with Carly at the end of 2016, Sassa became my shadow. Never more than a few meters away from me. Always with one eye on me, lovingly keeping watch over me.

She loved me with fullness, faith and ferocious joy. She was stocky, strong and always ready for cuddles. She’d let me squeeze her as tight as I needed. Sassa loved me through some of the darkest moments of my life, as I began to work with a therapist, plant medicines, breathwork and inner healing more consistently.

One of my first meetings of beloved Sassa

Sassa was my medicine dog through my dark night of the soul. She chose me above all others.

Eventually, we took Sassa with us when we left the farm, as she became too depressed without us there. Thank you to Piet, Anna, Emilie and that whole family for understanding and for letting her go.

The years passed. Sassa was already middle-aged when we met and the grey crept ever more across her muzzle. Her arthritis worsened. Sometimes she’d have a bad limp. She still chased baboons with glee, though less often. She came on walks less, content to sit on the couch and joyfully greet us when we returned.

As I healed, in the step by step (often many steps back) way my healing goes, Sassa was there for it all. Sitting beside me as I practiced praying at my altar. Lying with me when I collapsed and watched Netflix for days in bed. She celebrated me without condition. In her eyes I was always Beloved. Her love carried me when I couldn’t carry myself.

Slowly, slowly I began to show up more in my own life. I began my morning practice, rising in the dark to move, breathe, and pray. Sassa would stay in bed until sunrise, then stick her head through the curtains to check on me…then come ambling over to share my sheepskin while I finished my practice.

One of the many things I am grateful for in my time with Sassa is how often I just lay with her, lost in love. Staring into her eyes. Smelling her smell. Showering her in the love she showered on me. We met in that field beyond right and wrong countless times.

We loved ourselves back into One.

And then, she was gone…

Sassa (and Jack) supporting me in my healing practices

Sassa Leaves

Around three weeks before Sassa left, I attended a plant medicine ceremony with Mother Ayahuasca. During the ceremony I had a vision of Sassa passing. In the vision, I held her in my arms, lying on my chest (as she loved to do). I held her as she went, safely wrapped in my love.

I thought that was how it would happen. She’d get so old that either she’d pass naturally or the vet would come to ease her passing. I imagined I’d hold her on my chest and comfort her as she went. I thought that time was many months, or even a few years, away.

The last photo of Sassa and me together (17-12-21)

A week before Sassa ran away, my beloved Carly went on holiday with friend for a few days. For some reason she chose to take our other three dogs, leaving Sassa and me alone together.

One evening, while sitting on the couch on my phone (with Sassa as always lying beside me), a deep sadness visited me. An inexplicable grief that Sassa would someday be gone. I began weeping. Deep sobs as I hadn’t wept in so long. I cradled Sassa in my arms and wept for the loss that hadn’t happened yet. She lay calmly in my embrace as I dove into grief. I collapsed on the floor beside her, sobbing. She observed it all, with love and calm.

It all makes sense in hindsight. The vision, the grief. There was a knowing in me.

Our last days together seem strange now in their ordinariness. I was busy with various other things.

I didn’t consciously know what was coming.

Caring for my mother, abandoning my Sassa

My mother and I have journeyed a deep path of pain and healing. Thankfully, we have both dedicated ourselves to doing the inner work needed to reconnect after many years of wounding and estrangement.

Thank you, Mum!

She was feeling unwell and had asked me to visit for a few days to care for her. I had recently made a promise to Sassa, that I would never leave her again, as she hated it so much. I asked my mom if I could bring Sassa with but my mum was concerned about Sassa traumatising her cats.

I broke my promise to Sassa. Instead of finding another solution or drawing a boundary, I left her with Carly to go care for my mom. This was not unusual. Sassa has known Carly since she was a little puppy (and had been trying to wangle her way into living with Carly since then). The only difference is that this time I had made my own promise to Sassa that I wouldn’t leave her again.

On 21 December ’21, I left Sassa. I’ll never forget her worried eyes staring at me through the gate as I packed the car. I didn’t even say a long goodbye to her, as I felt bad about leaving and didn’t want to make her more sad.

Sassa with her second favourite person

Sassa was relaxed once I had left, hanging out with Carly and the other dogs in her most comfortable place. Nothing could have prepared us for what happened next.

At ten o’clock that evening, hearing distant thunder, Sassa pushed out through the chicken gate I had been meaning to secure for months.

For the first and last time ever, Sassa ran into the unknown.

Not to Piet’s home or the guest house as she always did before when she wanted somewhere else to go, but into the farmlands and out of my life forever.

She ran into the Wild, into Mystery, into the cradle of Mother Earth.

It is hard to write this.

I didn’t do my best and my Sassa is gone because of it.

That’s a big lesson to learn.

The 3 unexpected life lessons I found in the heartbreaking loss of my dog Sassa

I won’t go into the search for Sassa here. There is too much pain in there. Twenty hour days of searching for days in a row. Hopeful moments, convincing scammers, animal communicators with opposing stories, hallucinations of seeing Sassa. Hope and dashed hope again and again and again.

Instead, I’ll share the lessons I learned with Sassa’s passing.

1. We have to feel the loss

As I said at the beginning, I don’t remember what it felt like to be abandoned by my mother when I was ten. I just shut it out. It was too hard and no-one around me held space for me to really feel the loss.

Sassa, even in her leaving, gave me one final medicine dog gift:
the knowing of a loss too big for me to process
as an abandoned ten year old child.

This time, I felt every feeling of abandonment.

Torrents of grief, rage, hopelessness, helplessness, hope, faith, fear and more. Was it my fault? Did she leave because of me? Why would she do this to me? How can I get her back? I’ll be better next time, I promise. Please come home!

I, as a man, was empowered to support myself and be supported by my loved ones as I navigated the fullness of Loss.

When I was ten, there was no-one there to hold space for my experience. I shut it all down. This time I was able to know it all, feel it all, live it all and let it all flow through me.

Sassa could not have chosen a ‘better’ way to leave me than this.
In her sudden loss, one of the deepest unhealed wounds in my life was opened, the festering old hurt finally able
to purge and cleanse.

It was my mother who pointed that out to me. My mother, who left and then returned. My mother, who is willing to sit in the dark and feel the feelings so that there can be healing. My mother, for whom I broke my promise to Sassa. My mother, who offered me the insight I needed to make sense of the magnitude of this loss.

Sassa, my mother. My mother, Sassa.

Thank you, mum. Thank you, Sassa.

2. Forgiveness & Responsibility

If I didn’t forgive myself for the mistakes I have made, I wouldn’t be able to go on.

Sassa’s leaving was an invitation for me to look at all the parts of myself where I lacked forgiveness.

To take responsibility for my actions and then to forgive myself for my mistakes.

To use my mistakes as invitations rather than punishments.

To realise that I am not a victim. I am empowered. Life happens and I get to choose how I respond to it.

I should have chipped her. I should have had a collar on her. I should have brought her with me that day. I should have fixed the chicken gate. I should have thought of getting tracker dogs before the rain washed her scent away. I should have stayed up longer, looked harder, contacted one more animal communicator.

If I kept carrying all of that forever, it would crush me. I did my best with the knowledge at hand. I made some mistakes. I have learned from them. The price is high.

Sassa’s leaving gifted me with an ever-deepening knowing of my responsibilities as a human. It is critical that I develop the skills, tools and practices necessary to be response-able, able to respond to whatever life brings me.

Thank you, Sassa.

3. The humility and empathy of loss

We all know loss.

For some, there is a chance to prepare. Knowing that the person/beloved/thing is going. Having time to make peace. For others, everything is torn away in an instant. The tree lands on the house. The bomb drops. The war begins. The dog runs. Or even: the parents ignore the needs of the child, the toy is lost, the needs aren’t met.

When I was first coming to terms with Sassa’s loss, other people would share their stories of loss with me. I admit (sorry) that at first I thought, “Yes, but you didn’t know the love that Sassa and I shared.”

Then I checked myself and had the humbling realisation that every loss is as poignant, painful, inexplicable and vast as what I was going through. I suddenly looked with gentler eyes on my fellow humans. My love and my loss have made me more empathetic.

I now know the loss I couldn’t face as a ten year old child. I now know the loss of my soulmate Sassa.

I know loss. I know your loss. I love you.

Thank you, Sassa.

A song for Sassa (coming to the end)

Here we are, friends, at the end of this story.

I am sharing this all to honour the gifts Sassa brought me. I am sharing this in the hopes that it serves all who are needing support in times of loss. Whether loss of old versions of self, beliefs, loved ones or just time…this is for you.

Sassa’s final gift to us all is a song.
It’s called Broken Open (Sailing a Holy Sea of Loss).

May it serve us all in our loss and healing.

We lose it all, eventually. But only because we get it all, first.

This is the price of Life.

I am willing to pay it, again and again, for this beautiful miracles of Carly, Sassa, family, friends, nature, ocean, music, dancing, fire and and and…all of it.

Blessings on your journey Home, beloved traveller.

Always wandering. Always here now.

With all my love
Nathan

PS: thank you to every one of the thousands of people who shared our posts about Sassa on social media, who reached out, who prayed and cared about our loss. I see you. We thank you.

PPS: If you’re still here, please share your own stories of loss, love and healing in the comments. We are not alone. Grief shared is grief released. Love to you, thank you for being here.

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4 Comments

  1. Dana

    I fully understand your feelings for loosing Sassa….I lost my beloved Lucky and been tormented for years with guilt, I should have done more, but, as you sad, I did my best with what I had on hands back then….Lucky teached me unconditionally love, I will always be grateful for this, its…simply magic. I’m so grateful to find I can share with somebody my loss, my love, my pain,my having been blessed with the oportunity to knowledge the amazing bond with a soul, my dear, so dear Lucky.
    Love, Dana

    Reply
    • Nathan Maingard

      Thank you for sharing, Dana. The pain is so big sometimes I wonder how we can feel it and still live. But here we are, feeling it and living! To know unconditional love is such a gift. Thank you to Sassa and Lucky for teaching us so beautifully. Thank you For sharing, dear Dana ??

      Reply
  2. Mishka Latib

    Shoo. Thank you for your words, your heart, and your song. Today it’s given me the courage to accept, feel and integrate even further the earth shattering loss of my beloved Indi.

    Indi was a cat who was with me for a short while, but bonded to me as a child. He went all over with me. In 2018, due to extreme circumstances, I tried to take my own life. As I felt I was dying, my first thought was of the pain and fear of Indi not knowing what happened to me. It made me want to live, and luckily I survived. In the month of the wake of my recovery, Indi had become incredibly depressed and unkept and I was unable to care for him. I resented myself for it too but was preoccupied with the chaos that was unfolding around me. I still remember the day I saw him last. He came to me, I offered him some food(in a half cleaned bowl) and a soft apology for not being around. He looked straight at me, went to the window, looked back at me one more time, and jumped out. I felt deeply that I should’ve closed that window. I brushed it off, hearing the voices of others in my head, saying that he needs to be free and I’m probably being silly…. That was the last time I saw him.

    Indi was found hit by a car and was buried by someone in my building. They saw a post I’d made and called to let me know, 2 weeks in. I smoked dmt for the first time straight after that call, perhaps in some subconscious desperation for death. To me, my cat child lost the will to live and ran into the road. Something he never, never did. It has been an unbearable thing to process in one go, and has been deepening in stages, over time. His is the only grave I visit. My beautiful child.

    I had the privilege of experiencing him again during ayahuasca, and was told that his reincarnated energy feels my love when I think of him… I’ve come to learn SO much through the retrospective lense of our time together. It broke me out of wanting to be a parent, and I had to go on a long hard journey of being rebroken again and again, into the knowing that I am worthy. I can forgive myself. I have grown. I am Love.

    Today you’ve allowed another part of my heart to crack open, and space to share a story of this weight. I get to shake hands with Loss. So thank you Nathan. Thank you.

    I very recently channeled this, and offer it to you: the essence of juniper can be used to help heal the exposed ‘flesh’ from when our hearts break open. When we crack, the cracks get filled in with love, and our capacity for All that Is, expands…

    Sending you Love during your Expansion.
    X

    Reply
    • Nathan Maingard

      Your message is such a gift. Thank you to beautiful Indi for being such a courageous beloved. Tears roll from my eyes, filled with awe and ache and gratitude for all this cracking open.

      Your message is so real, so raw and beautiful, filled with an honouring of the life of Indi.

      I don’t even have the words to express the depths of it all. All this reflection, this pain and this depth of knowing.

      Thank you, Mishka. Thank you, Indi. Thank you

      Reply

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