April 16, 2019, started as any other day. I left the house that morning, turning the front door’s lock, never realizing that it would be the last time. I wish I could have hit the “Pause” button that moment. Even more, I wish I could press “Rewind” now and warn myself. I wish that day had never happened. The Greatest Loss.
When my daughter and I returned home that morning, firefighters were putting out flames. Evidently, the dryer had caught fire while we were out. We lost our belongings, our cat, Poppy, and our dog, Finnegan. The grief overwhelmed us. At the time, all we could think about was our pets. Concern for our belongings came later. Still, we no longer had clean clothes or anything with which to cook a meal or to brush our hair or teeth. And while these lost household items were a concern, it paled in comparison to losing our beloved Poppy and Finnegan.
Why our pets? Perhaps one small memory will help explain. After a particularly difficult day at school, our daughter rushed home, flew past everyone in the house, and ran upstairs to her room. It happened so fast that we couldn’t see that she was upset and crying. We missed that she needed someone to talk with. But Finnegan, our Irish Setter, missed nothing. He ran up the stairs after her and sat by her side until she calmed down and stopped crying. Then he leaned in for hugs. To say that our animals were an important part of our family is an understatement. They gave unconditional love and were a palpable healing force for which we will be forever grateful.
My Struggle to Cope. During the weeks after the fire, I spent much time in a grief-stricken, exhaustion-induced stupor. I cried uncontrollably as I pumped gas or scanned groceries in the self-checkout lane. I surprised even myself by responding angrily to people’s well-meaning sympathy. I knew I was turning my pain against innocent people, but I couldn’t help it. In a text, one family member asked me, “Were you able to salvage much after the fire?” And I replied accusingly, “How about Finnegan? Was I able to save him? Maybe you shouldn’t text me anymore.”
Another such irrational episode propelled my husband into action. I had yelled at him for yet another nonissue, and he hinted that it was time to get help. I’m not a yeller. He knew that I was drowning in grief. We found a Catholic therapist to act as a sounding board for me. Often we began sessions in tranquil prayer, but they always ended the same way: I sobbed. I began bringing my own tissue box.
Seeing other dog owners walk their pets or let them hang out of the car window set me off sobbing. My therapist explained that these “triggers” caused waves of grief that blindsided me and added frustration to grief.
A small ray of hope came from three earthly angels—my sister, my mom, and my sister-in-law, who spent countless hours alongside me in my pain. They reminisced with me, they looked at photographs of our pets with me, and almost daily they sent Scripture verses to encourage me. Words like, “The Lord supports all who are falling” (Psalm 145:14) kept my head above water as my feet dangled in the current.
“I Have Delivered You.” When your home burns down, you never forget the burning smell. It’s a strong trigger. A fireplace, a barbeque stand, even making s’mores—suddenly all of these harmless things become passageways to a real and painful past. And so it was for us. My husband tried to salvage a favorite pair of hiking boots from the garage, but the smell followed him wherever he walked. Eventually, he threw them out.
At Mass a couple of months after the fire, I kept getting whiffs of that unmistakable smell. The smell would come and go, but I couldn’t find its source. I sniffed my hair, my shirt, the missalette. Finally, I looked at my husband’s shoes, thinking perhaps he had salvaged the boots after all. Nope. Finally, I heard a voice—more like an inner thought. It clearly said, “Let this smell be a reminder. I have delivered you from the fire.”
I sat in the pew and contemplated these words. Then it hit me. If I had put the wash into the dryer the night before the fire instead of the next day, we would all have been asleep when the house caught fire. If my daughter hadn’t had a last-minute change of heart and decided to run errands with me, she would have been upstairs when the house caught fire. God was with us.
See His Hand at Work. I wondered why I hadn’t realized this before. It was so obvious. Instead of spending so much time in despair and anger, I had every reason to be on my knees thanking God. He had saved me and my family. He had not abandoned me or left my side. He continued to work for my good during the most difficult time. I just needed to take the blinders off and see his mighty, loving hand at work.
Triggers still occasionally surprise me. There was the morning when I awoke to the feeling of Finnegan pressing his nose into my back. “Okay,” I thought, “I’ll let you out. Give me a second.” Then I realized there was no nose; there was no Finnegan. I still cry, but it’s more bittersweet. I know that God is a deliverer. I trust him even more now and find solace in knowing that his love and mercy save.
Joy may not come back immediately after something hard happens. But it does come eventually. God comes to meet us and to show us his presence, wherever we are.
April McMurray Aiello lives in Villanova, Pennsylvania, with her husband.