Monument.

A few weeks ago I heard an interview with social-cognitive neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman on the NPR show “Science Friday” about his research into the social underpinnings of our cognitive and emotional processes. The interviewer asked about Dr. Lieberman’s counterintuitive finding: that grief can activate the reward centers of the brain. My ears perked up. How could that be, I wondered? When I think about the process of mourning Alec, I recall pain, despair, torment, and confusion…but pleasure? Nope, not even close.

It turns out he was referring specifically to chronic or long-term grief — also called “complicated” grief. This is what occurs when a bereaved person becomes “stuck” in grief and shows no signs of improvement after a specified period of time. I became familiar with the distinction between acute and chronic grief after losing Alec, as one of my coping mechanisms was to read every book and article about grief I could find in an effort to understand what the heck I was experiencing. After several months passed and I seemed to not be improving (by this point, I had learned to fake it well enough on the outside most of the time, but on the inside I was the same — in pretty bad shape), I wondered if I was sliding into complicated grief, the kind that wasn’t going to resolve itself with the passage of time and active attention.

As no two relationships are the same, no two grieving experiences will be the same, but there are patterns, and I read with interest the factors that can lead to chronic grief and becoming “stuck” (e.g. the nature of the relationship, the circumstances surrounding the death, other sources of social support, etc.). I wondered what prevented people from being able to move forward and to heal. I wondered, idly, if that was going to be me.

It wasn’t. I got better, eventually. Acute grief periods vary in length and mine lasted about a year, which is on the longer end of the spectrum. But after around a year I began to feel the fog lift some. It is not a coincidence that this coincided with my adopting Teagan.

That’s just some background on my interest in the subject. In all my reading about grief reactions, including normal behavior versus warning signs, I had never come across this research suggesting long-term grief can activate the reward center of our brain (and hence contribute to keeping people stuck). For me, I hit a crossroads eventually where it became very clear to me that moving forward was a choice I could make, that I was in control. This realization seems simple, obvious, but it was in marked contrast to the overwhelming feeling that is typical of many grievers in the acute stage of grief: loss of control. Not only could you not control your loved one’s death, but your emotions and even your thoughts seem to careen out of control. It is a scary place. So getting to a place where I felt in control of the choice to feel better or not was a revelation, a huge step forward. I realized staying stuck was also a choice.

I don’t mean to minimize the experience of being stuck. I was truly that way until I turned a corner and wasn’t. Reading this, or hearing of others’ experiences, wouldn’t have helped me before I arrived there in my own time. The light bulb went on when it went on.

As we listened to the interview together, C. suggested maybe self-pity could be activating the reward center. This didn’t resonate with me and my experience, although I tried to honestly examine my reaction to see if it was because “self-pity” has an obvious negative connotation that most people instinctively reject as a descriptive label for their behavior or motivation. But I truly think it just didn’t resonate, though for some perhaps this would have relevance. In trying to objectively analyze what does feel true for me (Ha! As if I can objectively analyze myself — this is the true province of subjectivity. But we can still try, right?), I realized what I do think is that the pain can feel like a tribute, a measure of love, an offering, even a sacrifice. Because it is all you have left of the beloved, your pain can become a monument. Or at least it can feel like your grief is all you have left of your loved one, the only thing remaining to bind you together in the shadow of their physical absence. Without it, will we be untethered forever?

While it undoubtedly can feel this way, it’s of course not true. You don’t lose them more when you stop actively grieving (and you cannot keep them with you by clinging to the pain, by stoking it and keeping it alive like some twisted bonfire of sorrow), and you can honor them with joy and happiness. I remember being so bewildered, so utterly lost. “Adrift” was a word that resonated with me. For a time, Alec was my world. I loved him so intensely, so immensely. When he was gone there was a gaping hole where he’d been. The pain closed the gap, almost like a bridge from me to him. Grief can act as a string, permanently tying us to the person who has gone. Many grievers upon beginning to feel better experience an unexpected jolt of guilt. How can I be smiling when my loved one is gone? How can I laugh when he suffered so much? It is not rational, it is just something that grievers at times experience. When you begin to smile again, it can feel like you are abandoning them in some way.

Although it is a common aphorism and I had never thought of it critically until now, I’m not sure I believe that the depth of our pain is the measure of our love. However, our culture feeds this idea. How many times have you heard (or read in sympathy cards) that the depth of the sorrow we feel in our time of mourning is a reflection of how much we loved the being we have lost? This is true to an extent. Beyond, it can become almost a competition with yourself. Competition isn’t really the right word, but if the pain begins to recede (as inevitably it will, except in cases of complicated grief, which is not something to which to aspire) does that mean I did not love them enough? This doesn’t make sense at all if you haven’t experienced it. It barely makes sense to me as a type it. But I know this was working below the surface of my consciousness at different times in my grief process. I had a few glimpses of clarity where I realized that by holding my pain, I was trying to hold Alec. I tried a few times to loosen my grip, to let myself experience joy, and I realized I could feel closer to him in these moments of beauty. It was a seemingly small revelation, but a big step forward.

I vividly remember driving home one day listening to a song I liked, and the sun was setting and the light was beautiful, golden. And I cried. But it was okay. I was crying because the light was beautiful and Alec was beautiful and his life was beautiful and my love for him, also beautiful, and I could see all of this, and the tears took on a different tone. It was a tiny moment that was a significant part of my being able to move forward…to experience him, to feel him, to remember him, in moments of happiness and joy, not just pain and sorrow. I imagine most people who move out of the acute grief stage (whether it lasts two months or two years [I recently read that six weeks is average]) experience some version of this shift. Not of letting go (I will never let him go) but of shifting our grip.

So is that how long-term grief can activate the reward centers of our brain, I wondered? Was it something about grief becoming a stand-in for our beloved? The mistaken belief that if we loosen our grip on the pain, then we will lose them definitively and forever? (Mistaken because, of course, we have already lost them.) But staying actively stuck in grief can be one way to keep memories alive, and maybe it can facilitate the feeling that the lost love is still an ongoing presence. I understand that. I am not saying it is a healthy adaption to loss, but I think I get it.

I still think of Alec, but it’s nothing like when I was in the acute stages of grief. The year after he died, it was like I was living with a ghost. I miss that ghost, but I don’t miss the pain. It became a self-destructive force. Choosing to live, and to love again (Teagan!!), was for me a better way to honor and remember Alec than trying to tie his ghost to me permanently. But everyone copes differently and I’m not judging. Being self-reflective about what I am feeling and experiencing is just another coping mechanism for me (in addition to the book-reading). To try to stand outside myself and see my experience as objectively as possible, within the confines of my own consciousness. I don’t know how successful any of us can be at this, but for some reason I am compelled to try. And undoubtedly, engaging in reflection, to the extent I could remove myself a bit from the pain I was feeling in the acute stage of grief, was therapeutic for me.

So what of this interview? It appears I have made this entire post about ME. Bait and switch! Gee, I didn’t intend to. But I guess that’s okay; this blog is a chronicle of my personal experience grieving for the dog who was the love of my life. I barely remember the findings of that research now. But I had felt stuck and wanting to write again, and it served that purpose (thanks C. for the suggestion). You can read more here and here, but basically the idea is that engaging in memories of the dearly departed caused a pleasurable surge, almost akin to addiction, and this was the mechanism by which the reward centers were activated in people stuck in chronic grief. This is a nice summary, from the second article linked above:

Grief is universal, and most of us will probably experience the pain grief brings at some point in our lives, usually with the death of a loved one. In time, we move on, accepting the loss.
But for a substantial minority, it’s impossible to let go, and even years later, any reminder of their loss — a picture, a memory — brings on a fresh wave of grief and yearning. The question is, why? Why do some grieve and ultimately adapt, while others can’t get over the loss of someone held dear?
Reporting in the journal NeuroImage, scientists at UCLA suggest that such long-term or “complicated” grief activates neurons in the reward centers of the brain, possibly giving these memories addiction-like properties. Their research is currently available in the journal’s online edition.
This study is the first to compare those with complicated and noncomplicated grief, and future research in this area may help psychologists do a better job of treating those with complicated grief, according to Mary-Frances O’Connor, UCLA assistant professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study.
“The idea is that when our loved ones are alive, we get a rewarding cue from seeing them or things that remind us of them,” O’Connor said. “After the loved one dies, those who adapt to the loss stop getting this neural reward. But those who don’t adapt continue to crave it, because each time they do see a cue, they still get that neural reward.
“Of course, all of this is outside of conscious thought, so there isn’t an intention about it,” she said.

That’s all for now. Wherever you are in your journey, I wish you peace and comfort. Happy New Year. Keep your chin up.

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10 Healing Tips for Surviving the Loss of an Extra Super Very Beloved Companion Animal

I originally wrote this for the Animal Legal Defense Fund blog; an edited version is here.

This is for everyone who has deeply loved and lost a companion animal. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. It is just a collection of a few things I found helpful as I struggled with my own intense grief after losing my beloved German shepherd Alec in the summer of 2010. If you are bereaved, I hope you will find something here you can use. If you have ever lost a special animal friend, feel free to share your tips for what helped or comforted you. I would love to read them! I can honestly say it felt like nothing helped during the first 6-8 months, but looking back some things were more healing than others. Maybe one day I will make an alternative list, “Destructive things you should not do after losing an animal friend!” But for now we’ll stick with the positive. In no particular order, here goes:

1. Run! Or kick box or cycle or climb or swim or dance – only do something physical. You may need to take a break from things you love because they won’t feel the same. Now is a great time to try something new. I used to love singing and dancing. Not for an audience, mind you! Just for fun, around the house, in the car (just the singing)…but I did it a lot. So much I didn’t even think about how many times a day I would burst into song and/or pop off some silly dance moves. But I noticed it when I stopped. I lost all desire to dance, to sing, to listen to music even (and I LOVE music). These things came back of course, but that’s just to say you may not feel the desire for your most loved activity while you are grieving. Or you may want to throw yourself into it. Everyone’s different, but the universal point here is exercising the body, even though you may not want to get out of bed, is very helpful for your mental and emotional state. I know it’s difficult to get started when you’re feeling depressed, but it’s almost impossible not to feel a little better after some physical activity.

For my part, I decided to train for a half marathon about nine months after Alec died. I was not much of a runner so this was a big deal for me. Sticking to a training schedule was a good counterpoint to the disorganizing effects of grief; it gave me something healthy to do when I felt lost and scattered. It kept my body tired and my mind focused on something constructive. The race also took place on the one-year anniversary of Alec’s death, so it gave me a positive goal for this significant day – I would run for him.

Although the training was a good distraction, I was extremely nervous when race day came. But this anxiety served a purpose too; it helped keep my mind from dwelling on what I was doing at this time last year: saying good-bye to my best friend. Without this race to preoccupy me, I would have been in a very bad place that day. My only goal was to finish, and when I actually did that (remarkably, way under the cut-off time where they sweep you onto the sidewalk) and got my little finisher medal, I was so exhilarated and exhausted that the day passed without me having a meltdown. Mission accomplished.

2. Hike. Or sit near a river, rest on a mountaintop, doze in a garden, stroll along the ocean, or take a walk in the park…just get outside and clear your head. I know hiking is physical, but for me it was qualitatively different from training for the half marathon. To me, hiking is quieter and more contemplative, and the important point I am trying to stress here is to just be in nature as much as possible. I have always loved hiking, so I was no stranger to it, but it became my go-to “keep myself busy” activity after Alec died. I went whenever I could. But I had always had dogs with me before and it was a completely new experience to go hiking utterly alone (kind of scary too, just being honest! but I stuck to popular trails). My brain was so busy after Alec died. It would just chatter and chatter away. It would do this while I was hiking too, but I noticed the farther I hiked eventually…it would…just…stop. And my head would be quiet. During these times I would frequently have flashes of insight or comforting thoughts or other epiphanies. Sometimes it felt like I could talk to Alec in my head. I would have conversations with him, and while I am pretty sure it was just my mind talking back, what is this thing we call “mind” anyway? Either way, they were comforting thoughts that would eventually bust through the sad, mad, confused chatter and that’s all that mattered.

For some reason I needed to be moving through the woods, by myself, for this to happen. I think sitting by a river or on a mountain or in a garden or a park would also be good for quieting your mind and letting the comforting epiphanies rush in. But I am not good at sitting still and I even think better when I’m in motion, so hiking was perfect for me. Plus after hiking 14 miles you are going to be tired enough to fall asleep, which is a bonus if you are having trouble with that.

3. Memento Mori. Remember your mortality. Death comes for us and everyone we love, and we don’t get to choose when. This is not meant to be depressing but rather to remind you that death is a normal part of life and nobody is exempt. The positive spin on this is it should help us to remember to live and love to the fullest, to make the most of our days and nights while we have them. This means different things for everyone, but surely one thing we can all agree brings meaning to our lives is love, not only to be loved but also the incomparable joy that arises from loving another unconditionally – and showing them this every day through our actions.

Also, if you have been blaming yourself in some way for your loved one’s death, stop. You are only human and I’m sure you did the best you could.

4. Remember the good times. If losing your friend was traumatic for you – as it was for me – trust me, the disturbing images, whatever haunts you most, will eventually quiet down. This sounds cliché but while you may never stop missing their presence, and you may never be okay with the circumstances surrounding their death, I promise you will get to a place where you can laugh and smile again when you think of them. I honestly wasn’t sure I would, so if you have doubts about that, I understand. In the early stages of grief it hurts even to think of the good times, at least it did for me. If you get comfort from these happy memories right away, you are probably more evolved than me. I admit I am an extreme case, which is why I am writing this…for the people who are really struggling. I have been there. It will get better.

5. Get out of Dodge. When Alec was here it was not easy for me to travel. He had special needs the last two years of his life (unrelated to the cancer that would kill him), and when he became sick I really couldn’t leave. After he died, I found myself in the strange position of having a lot of time and freedom on my hands. I was so used to caring for Alec and scheduling my life around him (happily, I always feel compelled to add, because I loved him beyond measure and was devoted to his well-being; I never thought of him as a burden), I didn’t know what to do with all this time. Right after he died, I hopped a plane back east and stayed with my best friend for two weeks that turned into a month because I couldn’t face going back. I realize not everyone can do that, but you may have options. I was single and it had just been me and Alec for a long time, so I didn’t have a family to stick around for. Alec was my family, and when he was gone I felt rootless. When I got back to Portland, I moved out of the apartment we shared. It just didn’t feel like home anymore. But I was glad I spent that month in New Jersey, crying on my best friend’s couch.

I also have a friend in Germany I had always wanted to visit, and a few months later I booked the flight. This trip abroad was an important turning point in my healing process. Travel is what you make of it, but it can definitely help clear out the metaphysical cobwebs and give you a new perspective.

By the way, I am talking about temporary travel – avoid big decisions like relocating or quitting your job while grieving. It’s just not the best time to make a major decision. Although I moved out of my apartment and don’t regret it, I stayed in the same city.

6. Love again. Adopt another animal. Some say the best way to honor the life and memory of a dear companion is to save the life of another. I can’t dispute that. Although I vowed I would never adopt again after Alec died, I started to realize how much I still had left to give another animal. And although I could not make a dent in the problem of pet overpopulation, I could make a very big difference in the life of one animal. It goes without saying Alec could never be replaced, but with no one to take care of there was a big, gaping hole in my life. I am so glad I adopted my dear sweet Teagan, who was recently ALDF’s mascot for National Justice for Animals Week due to the abuse and neglect she suffered before being rescued. Teagan came to live with me almost exactly one year after Alec died. She has been with me nine months now and has done more for my healing process than anything on this list by far.

I have approximately a million photos of Teagan here.

7. Talk, talk, talk. Or write, write, write. Just as you need a healthy physical outlet, you need an emotional outlet too. You need to get the thoughts out of your head. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes even close friends don’t know what to say around the bereaved and you may feel like people are avoiding you. It is common for people to avoid bringing up your loved one, and if you do it they may change the subject, trying to steer you away from painful thoughts, worried you will start crying and not realizing that it is healthy, normal, and necessary for you talk about your loved one. It is part of the processing you need to do – processing what happened, and that they are no longer here. Assimilating the loss doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in small steps. People mean well, so just try to clearly communicate your needs. Tell them that it really helps and you actually feel better after talking (even if you end up crying, which you probably will – but you also will feel better. It bears repeating: tears are necessary and healthy!).

My friend Mike was on the receiving end of plenty of tears (I know how much guys love that! He squelched his instinct to run away most of the time, and for that I am grateful)…

…so was my best friend Kristine, who opened her home and heart to me in a million big and small ways. I was (and am!) very fortunate to have her unwavering support.

You may want to visit a pet loss support group if you feel unsupported or alone. Many veterinary specialty hospitals now hold ongoing free groups that meet a couple times a month or sometimes weekly, and you can take advantage of these to meet like-minded people who will understand some of what you are going through. It is immensely important you feel understood. There is nothing wrong with you for feeling this loss so deeply. He or she wasn’t “just an animal,” despite what some thoughtless people might say.

Writing is a good emotional outlet, too – anything that gets the thoughts and emotions out of your head for awhile. You may feel you have nothing to say but when you put pen to journal you might be surprised at what comes pouring out. Give it a try. You might even end up with a blog!

8. Read. It helped me so much when I thought I was going crazy to know that I was not alone, that other people had stood where I had stood and they had gotten through it (notice I did not say “over” it). I read pretty much every book on grief out there, and I have some favorites that were immensely helpful. I definitely took refuge, or looked for it anyway, in books, in shared experiences, as I tried to extract meaning from my own experience.

A few words about books on grief generally (i.e. grief over a person) versus those specifically about pet loss: If legitimizing your grief is an issue, then the latter may be especially helpful for you These books go a long way toward explaining why you may feel alone in your grief or as if no one understands, because bereavement over a companion animal is not considered as socially acceptable as grief over a human friend or family member. This is changing for sure, but depending on your work environment and the level of understanding among your family and friends, you may feel isolated, which will only exacerbate your grief. If, on the other hand, you have a supportive social network, as I was lucky enough to have – I can’t imagine a more supportive workplace than ALDF – or if your relationship with your companion animal was especially profound and deep, you may get more out of reading books about the loss of a child, best friend, or partner.

These were some of the ones that helped me most; none of them are animal-specific:

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9. Create. I pretty much failed at creating any kind of artsy crafty memorial, I think in part due to my unwillingness to let him go, and also just because I moved through my grief at a proverbial snail’s pace, examining every stone on the path, really taking my time, which has seemed to work for me…and partially due to the fact that I am perhaps the least crafty person on the planet. But I did do a collage and meditation activity that was extremely therapeutic for me. I also have a blog (obviously), which fits under the “writing” tip above, but it also serves as a memorial of sorts, and it really is a creative process for me as I also include photos, links to songs, passages from novels, etc. So it has become a memorial space in itself. And it just goes to show your memorial can be whatever you want it to be.

The bottom line is it can be very therapeutic to work on a memorial to honor your friend, whether it is a slideshow, memory scrapbook, poem, or other kind of art. The emergency animal hospital in my city has Memorial Art Therapy Workshops where you can craft a bookmark, prayer candle, fused glass keepsake, paperweight, memory box, or picture frame in honor of your companion animal. I loved the idea of memorial art therapy, but when I finally tried one of these workshops I cried the whole time and then ran away (and that was my second attempt! The first time I sat in the parking lot crying and never made it inside). I was not ready. Plus I think it was not the right outlet or environment for me. But try some things out – you will find something that feels right for you and it will be as constructive as training for a marathon (or even just half of one).

10. Don’t expect to ever get over it.
Now, you might “get over it”- and that’s fine. But some people experience such a profound connection with their animal friend that they will never, ever stop missing them. What you will do is learn to live with it. You will integrate the loss into your life, and you will find a way to make it meaningful. You will think of all the ways your unique relationship, and the pure unconditional love you felt for your dear companion, changed you for the better. And you will nurture these good parts. In doing this you will honor your friend for the rest of your days. And in doing this they will never really leave you because you are not the same person you used to be. They changed you and therefore are a real part of you – that part we call the “self” or identity. And they can continue to inspire you. Your love is beautiful and it is not gone just because their physical presence is. In fact, you may find as you move through your grief process that your love for your departed friend grows even bigger, and you will realize that although they are gone your love never will be. And you can fill their absence with more love. You will find a way. It’s okay if it takes time. Grief knows no schedule. It is a part of life just like love and death. So be gentle with yourself and take your time.

Finally, you are awesome for loving your animal companion that much. I wish everyone did. Thank you.

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Memory, redux.

“Hold on to the corners of today, and we’ll fold it up to save until it’s needed. Stand still. Let me scrub that brackish line that you got when something rose and then receded.”

–John K. Samson, “Watermark,” Lyrics and Poems, 1997-2012

(Stay.)

Now that I have opened the floodgates to a subject I had been assiduously avoiding, I might as well dive in with both feet. Besides the two kinds of memory discussed in “A past that has written itself on you,” I think there is a third, which may or may not be real but in which I have decided to believe –another recurring theme in my Alec writings, just like that iconic poster in Fox Mulder’s office:

The literary term “redux” means “brought back, restored, revived.” Between our faulty and unreliable episodic memories and the indelible bone deep “memory” of a past that has become part of our essential self are the memories that live in our subconscious, sleeping away. Because we can hold only so much data in the accessible regions of our brain, these other memories slip into our subconscious, into the locked vaults. But they are still there. And we do hold the key. Even if we don’t know how to use it yet. That is my theory. And in knowing how episodic memories inevitably fail and deteriorate, I think of the vaults as sort of a safekeeping device. Even if we cannot — and perhaps, more precisely, because we cannot — access them at will, they are preserved. If we could access them they would fade, become distorted, and succumb to the other perils of episodic memory. But because they are safely tucked away they remain intact, pristine.

You may ask, what good are these memories if we can’t access them, if indeed they are locked in our subconscious. They may as well not exist at all then, right? Well, yes and no.  I believe we should be comforted knowing (or believing) these memories are there, knowing that if we kept banging on the door to get in and view them, we would ruin them.

I think if we ever REALLY need those memories we can have them. But I also believe if we pull them out to much to look at them, they will start to fade and disappear. This is another (or maybe the main) reason I avoided the photos for so long; I want them to be fresh, and repeated viewings of any static item inevitably make it stale. But this slip into distortion and staleness, like the episodic memories, is unavoidable. It’s what time does, and our memories and photos are just artifacts. They are not the thing. “The thing” lives in our bones. But what about these memories sleeping away in some hidden corner of our brains? Ah, what of them?



I had a conversation with my friend Sophie sometime after Alec died. She had a special relationship with her dog Promise, which seemed similar in many respects to the bond Alec and I had, and she struggled with losing him too soon (to cancer as well). One day she mentioned she was at a stage in her grief where she was starting to forget the little details (the feel of the fur, the weight of a paw) and this realization was of course upsetting to her. I was in a different stage, one where I could not even think about Alec. This stage lasted quite awhile for me. I kept shoving my thoughts and emotions down when they came, batting them away reflexively, because I simply could not deal with them. It was a stage characterized by numbness and denial.

While Alec was sick, while he was dying, I wrote furiously in my journal every day. Toward the end I feel like I was writing in it almost constantly. Nothing profound, just details, details, as if I could contain him in the pages. It was a lifeline for me. After he died my journal turned into a crazy place that made no sense. Sporadic entries scrawled large across the page in some insane person’s handwriting that I didn’t recognize. I eventually stopped trying to write (until I tentatively stepped back onto this blog). But during this time of non-writing, I would sometimes record little details about him in a notebook, terrified I would forget.


Around this time, as I was lying in bed trying to fall sleep, an image popped into my mind of the soft wispy fur on Alec’s chest between his front shoulders, how it felt, the way I liked to press my cheek against it. Random. I snapped on the light and jotted it down in my notebook (always this faith that words will save me).

That night I had a vivid dream, in which I was pressing my face to Alec’s chest. I could feel his soft wispy fur against my cheek. It seemed so real. When I woke, up it felt like a gift. And that’s when I created my theory — that our brain contains it all, even without us writing it down. It comforted me, so I kept it like a charm. And I told myself that even if I didn’t dream about him every night, there was always the possibility it could happen again. And that it would feel just as real. The promise of a secret world. We take our comfort where we can, and to me this was a tiny balm during a very bad time. I did not examine this too closely, just trusted it and tucked it away.

Since I now believe in ghosts (we take our comfort where we can), I talked with various animal communicators and also just people who are open to that sort of thing. I was distressed I did not see Alec or feel him around me after he died. I read lots of accounts of this happening. Why not with us?? Especially when the only way I got through his death was to tell myself we would still be together; we just had to figure out a way to cross the great divide. (No, I don’t care how nutty that sounds; this is how I kept myself going and it felt like the only option at the time.) Anyway, that really bothered me. I had full expectation I would feel him after he died. Even if it was my wishful mind conjuring him, whatever…I didn’t care that much. That distinction would be something to worry about later, but later never came because I never saw him! Why didn’t he come back to haunt/visit me?** Didn’t he LOVE me?? Etc!

**I pray one prayer. . . may you haunt me, then!…I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul! — Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, p. 167

It was suggested to me by more than one person that I might be trying to hard. This could be my problem, why I could not sense him. So I tried not trying too hard, but you know how that goes. (Warning: this is where things get pretty woo woo.) Someone also told me that when our “vibration” is high we are more likely to connect with the spirit world or whatever. High vibration means basically that we are happy and in a positive, peaceful place. We would be vibrating at a low frequency if we are miserable, depressed, angry, etc. So this lady said being too depressed and sorrowful can interfere with our attempts to connect  with…well, I will just use “ghosts” as a shorthand, but I mean this whole other hypothetical world that we cannot see. And I think this is also related to the memory issue. More on that in a minute. I promise this is going somewhere.

That was sort of a roundabout introduction to talking about CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which was sitting on my coffee table for about a year before I finally got around to reading it. I really liked it. At just 76 pages, it’s a slim volume that documents his personal struggle with the universal issues that affect us all when we lose a profound love, and his grief,  like so many, is complicated by the special factors that make each relationship unique. Although much of Lewis’s struggle revolves around him questioning his god and faith in the aftermath of the death of his beloved wife, many of his reflections resonated with me.

In Lewis’ case, he and “H.” – the great love of his life – had only been together a short time when she was stricken by cancer. It was as if they had waited their whole lives for one another and then, just when they finally found each other, were ripped apart. Lewis was a deeply religious man and his faith in god was shaken by the circumstances surrounding her death. While I did not question “god,” I did question my whole existence (something I had not done with such verve since high school) and these existential questions can be as, if not more, alienating I think. Lewis eventually finds his way back to god, but the existential questions have no comforting answers, at least not to me. (I am also reading Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Maybe it will help! I am still looking for answers though I suspect none will be forthcoming.)

Anyway, it’s a good book! Highly recommended for the bereaved, especially those who find comfort in reading about other people’s experiences, as I have. Long introduction! So this passage (on pages 44-46) reminded me of the themes I have been trying to unpack above. For Lewis, bad day follows bad day follows bad day until, on this particular day, he finally experiences something different:

Something quite unexpected has happened. It came early this morning. For various reasons, not in themselves at all mysterious, my heart was lighter than it had been for many weeks. For one thing, I suppose I am recovering physically from a good deal of mere exhaustion. And I’d had a very tiring but very healthy twelve hours the day before, and a sounder night’s sleep; and after ten days of low-hung grey skies and motionless warm dampness, the sun was shining and there was a light breeze. And suddenly at the very moment when, so far, I mourned H. least, I remembered her best. Indeed it was something (almost) better than memory; an instantaneous, unanswerable impression. To say it was like meeting would be going too far. Yet there was that in it which tempts one to use those words. It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.

Why has no one told me these things? How easily I might have misjudged another man in the same situation? I might have said, ‘He’s got over it. He’s forgotten his wife,’ when the truth was, ‘He remembers her better because he has partly got over it.’

Such was the fact. And I believe I can make sense out of it. You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately; anyway, you can’t get the best out of it. ‘Now! Let’s have a real good talk!’ reduces everyone to silence. ‘I must get a good sleep tonight’ ushers in hours of wakefulness. Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst. Is it similarly the very intensity of the longing that draws the iron curtain, that makes us feel we are staring into a vacuum when we think about our dead? ‘Them as asks’ (at any rate ‘as asks too importunately’) don’t get. Perhaps can’t.

I love this! It’s the same idea as the vibration thing. And this notion that trying too hard, not only to commune with the dead but also to remember them (in itself a type of communion), can be a block to that which we want so desperately: to be with them, and/or failing that, to remember them with precision and in living color. Consider these, my favorite sentences in that lengthy passage:

  • And suddenly at the very moment when, so far, I mourned H. least, I remembered her best.
  • He remembers her better because he has partly got over it.
  • It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.
  • You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately…

There is something here, some measure of comfort, right? These words help us to persevere, knowing that something better waits as we move into another stage of our grief (not a shameful word but a lifelong process! As much a part of life and love as anything else). As we fumble for meaning and secretly fear that feeling happy is a betrayal (this creeps in even as we know it is irrational), we might do well to realize that those first tentative steps into sunlight, rather than carrying us farther away from our loved one, may in fact be one of the keys to the kingdom we feel we have been locked out of forever.

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Filed under Ghosts, Grief and loss, Memory

National Justice for Animals Week 2012

When Alec died, I swore I would never adopt another dog. Losing him was too devastating. Then I heard Teagan’s story and changed my mind. This week, little Teagan is the mascot for ALDF’s National Justice for Animals Week. Check out her video!

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Filed under Grief and loss, LOVE, Teagan

Nothing gold can stay.

Speaking of fragments and the flotsam of a mind working through loss (as I sort of was at the end of my last entry), I had fun looking up this phrase and being reminded it originally came from Robert Frost and not Ponyboy in The Outsiders.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The phrase “nothing gold can stay” popped into my mind, however, not as I was thinking of Ponyboy Curtis but of snowmen, and how they always melt. My good friend Blaine recently made me aware of a poignant (and apparently classic) children’s book that perhaps everyone in the world has heard of but me, Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman. Although Blaine warned me that as with most tales involving snowmen this one did not end happily, I have an affinity for snowmen (especially ones that come to life and stuff) and had to check it out. So check it out I did, after briefly waiting for someone to return it to my local branch of the public library. Clutching it in my hands eagerly (the cover was so cute!) I raced back to my office where I “read” it less than ten minutes (scare quotes because one does not read The Snowman; it is a picture book and WOW are the illustrations gorgeous). I can’t believe I never heard of this book! Thematically it is similar to The Velveteen Rabbit, another of my all-time favorite stories. In a nutshell, boy builds snowman, snowman comes to life, boy has magical night of adventure with snowman, boy hugs snowman goodnight, boy wakes up in the bright dawn of a new day to find snowman melted away, only a pile of clothes where he once stood. I started crying even as they were in the middle of their heart-melting magical adventure… maybe because I knew the terrible ending coming, or maybe because the illustrations of them flying hand in hand above the night cityscape were so breathtakingly beautiful, or maybe both. Either way, I had to close my office door because I was crying kind of loudly.

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I encourage anyone not familiar with The Snowman to check it out; the tale told in pictures of the blossoming friendship between these two different creatures, boy and snowman, is so sweet, so magical. Their story unfolds quickly and is over too fast, but they packed so much beauty and wonder into that one night. I guess maybe it reminds me of something…of someone.

Blaine had warned me! I knew how this tale was going to end. I sent him a quick message to tell him I was holed up in my office with the door shut, weeping over a storybook snowman, thanks to him (but that seriously I loved the book, thanks for the recommendation! *Sniff*) and his response made me think about how nothing gold can stay, and how snowmen always melt away. I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting him, but I quoted Robert Frost in this post too, so Blaine is in good company, right? Right. He responded:

I hate to think I had something to do with making a dear friend cry but, at the same time, I’m so glad you enjoyed the book! : ) It’s strange but I think the sad ending makes the book even more beautiful, somehow. I mean, if the snowman and the boy (or the velveteen rabbit and his boy – another book near and dear to my heart, btw!) simply lived happily ever after, the books probably wouldn’t bring out the same emotions, you know? Both books seem to tap into something very deep and human within us…and they choke me up, too, but in the best way (as far as tears go).

Hmm. I pondered this all the way home, especially because I, too, love The Velveteen Rabbit. I hate sad endings, or I think I do. But do they make the stories more beautiful? Would The Snowman be as compelling if the title character did not melt at the end? If not, why not? And why am I attracted to stories and images of snowmen? (My thrift score dishes even have smiling snowmen on them.) What does that say about me? Am I a masochist? Etc.! But I think what attracts me is the magic, not the sad ending.

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Anyway, Blaine pointing out the obvious-to-anyone-but-me fact that stories featuring snowmen don’t usually have happy endings made me think…and then think some more about this idea that the very thing I hate about them maybe makes them more beautiful. And I think he has a point. They do tap something deep within us (at least us more sensitive souls), but what? I honestly am not attracted to sad endings; I cry enough in regular life and I think there is plenty to feel melancholy about without having to seek out tragedy in my entertainment, you know? (Especially being an animal advocate and knowing the horrible things happening to animals every minute – I actually spend a lot of mental energy studiously avoiding thinking about sad things.) So what’s the deal with snowmen, and with stories about toys coming to life only to become real and leave us, a la The Velveteen Rabbit? I guess the obvious interpretation is they are sort of a metaphor for the human condition. The only constant is change, everything is impermanent, blah blah. It sounds cliche to me now, but wrapping my head around the salience of impermanence was one of the greatest challenges for me in the early stages of mourning Alec.

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Or maybe it’s that when we love deeply with our entire being, we create something new. The relationship becomes a living thing, we create a new entity, we bring something to life, like magic! But that is a bit too abstract; it’s not what attracts me. What always appealed to me (an imaginative child with lots of stuffed animals and imaginary friends) so deeply in the story of the velveteen rabbit was this utterly romantic idea that if you loved something/someone enough you could literally bring it/them to life. And an extension of this magical thinking would be if you loved someone enough you could keep them from dying, right? I didn’t realize some part of me believed this until Alec got sick, and it made losing him harder, though it’s difficult to put gradations on that experience. I blame the fairy tales! Though I guess I can’t really, because they contain both messages: love can bring someone (your snowman, stuffed bunny, etc.), to life, but they always melt in the end (or in the case of the velveteen rabbit, leave). Yet I guess somewhere deep down I really, truly believed my love could keep him alive, not literally (maybe literally), but that’s what it felt like, you know? How could I lose him when I loved him so much?

My love couldn’t keep him here, though. He melted away. But we really flew for awhile. And maybe I’m not the boy in these stories. Maybe I am the snowman, the velveteen rabbit — my love for Alec brought me to life. I recall my friend Mike saying, during one of our many conversations when I was in the initial, noisier and messier, throes of grief, something about how knowing our time with our loved ones is finite makes it more beautiful somehow (and especially in the case of those of us who love dogs, we’re just asking for it since their average life spans are so much shorter). I could be making that up but I am pretty sure he said almost exactly the same thing as Blaine, but rather than referring to stories about snowmen and such he was talking about real life. I thought that was horseshit. I wanted Alec back, that was all. I knew our time together was beautiful. I knew it every day. But I wanted him to grow old. I wanted more time.

But nothing gold can stay. And as with the boy and the snowman in the story, Alec and I packed a lot of life, love, and happiness into our seven years together. Although it wasn’t much of a comfort at the time, I knew this when he was sick: our relationship was so rich, so full of joy and gratitude (on my end – I certainly can’t speak for him!), that we had packed more good stuff into our lives together than many relationships that last much longer. It didn’t make losing him any easier. But as I reflect — as the loss becomes less immediate, making reflection actually possible — I do see the beauty, the magic in it.

Although sometimes I wonder if I made it all up, you know? He’s not here anymore to verify what I once knew so assuredly. It’s just me. Just like the guy in that Weakerthans song who sees Bigfoot and nobody believes him. What does he say? “But the visions that I see believe in me.” I always liked that line. So at the end of my pondering, I have concluded what I like about these stories is the magic, the sense of wonder and possibility, not the sad ending. And that’s okay. Just as it’s okay for others to like, or at least appreciate, the sad endings. It is a fair question — does brevity make things more beautiful? — but as for me I probably would have honestly been just as happy if the snowman and the boy kept having their magical rendezvous every night until the end of their days. But there it is. There is always an end. One night, 30 nights, seven years. I loved Alec before he was mine. To me it was magic not only that we met and connected, but that I got to adopt him at all. Without hyperbole I can say that being able to bring him home, finally, was the fulfillment of the dearest wish I have ever held. There is magic in that…in our wishes coming true, in connecting so strongly with another in this life, whether they be human or nonhuman. I hoped there would be magic in our separation, that I could keep him with me somehow. And who knows?

When I was little I used to play a game called Stuffed Animal Town. I would build a miniature town out of books and have my stuffed animals walk around and do things and talk to one another. Besides reading, it was one of my favorite pastimes and I could get lost in pretending for hours. One of my ex-boyfriends used to tease me when I would go off on my occasional flights of fancy (ahem, not that I do that a lot or anything) by saying I had gone to “stuffed animal town.” I always thought that was funny. But the thing is since an early age I have been imaginative and had a fondness for stories about magical friends and stuff. It is a childish trait that part of me never left behind, which is why these stories are so dear to me. And now I have a real someone to project all of this fanciful stuff onto – Alec! I wrote in my last post that it was a leap for a skeptic like me to decide that Alec and I could never be separated and that he would always be with me (my #1 coping mechanism).But as I ponder, perhaps Stuffed Animal Town is my “religion” and therefore it’s not as big a leap as would first appear. I have always wanted the world to be enchanted, from a young age. I grew up and out of it to an extent (let’s hope so!) but part of me will always be back there playing Stuffed Animal Town and arranging my stuffed animals on the bed so the blanket doesn’t suffocate them while I’m out. I guess that’s part of who I am. And I guess also it’s obvious why these stories speak to me. They are like the ultimate wish fulfillment for someone like me, whereas a more normal person may interpret them, well differently. I don’t have a good conclusion here. Sometimes it’s just good to ponder, and wander. And wonder.

Musical postscript: The theme songs for this post are Bigfoot! by the Weakerthans and “Abominable Snowman in the Market” by Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers. Enjoy.

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Filed under Grief and loss, Magic, Snowmen

A past that has written itself on you.

indelible
adj.

1.
Impossible to remove, erase, or wash away; permanent: indelible ink.
2.
Making a mark not easily erased or washed away: an indelible pen for labeling clothing.
3.
Unable to be forgotten; memorable: an indelible memory.

“Our consciousness is fickle and not worthy of the task of remembering.” (Rowlands, 2009, p. 46)

Memory is a place I have not wanted to go, because memory cedes he is gone, and my way of coping with Alec’s death has been to act as if he is still here with me somehow, because I cannot accept that he died the way he did. There it is. I said it. I still have “work” to do, obviously! I am not surprised. I have re-entered the world of the living wholeheartedly. I have even opened my heart to another dog and allowed myself to feel joy again. I emerged from the fog sometime in late spring, around the time I went to Germany. I felt very clearly that I was at a crossroads, or maybe on a seesaw with my grief is the better analogy. It was like I was teetering between two worlds, light and dark, up and down. That sounds so simple and trite, but I don’t know how else to describe it. Anyway, there was a point where I made a very conscious decision to move forward. I will write about that someday, but this is not that post.

Where was I even going with this?

Right. My fingers in their infinite wisdom, racing faster than my mind, seem to have typed “I cannot accept that he died the way he did.” As often happens, these words appeared on the screen before I knew what I was going to write. Some things we don’t say out loud even to ourselves I guess. So yeah, I still have work to do, despite the fact that I have gotten back up, and made room for other things in my life besides my grief. But even though I don’t walk around crying (or trying not to) every day, I do cry, and I do miss him, and I do still mourn. And I need to stay cognizant, because when I hear myself blurt out things like, “I cannot accept that he died the way he did,” I know I still have plenty of processing to do. I have made a lot of progress. But I am not healed.

Two things I have written about repeatedly are that 1) I have avoided organizing and going through photographs of Alec, and 2) my way of coping with his absence, since the moment he died (and truthfully since before, when I knew I was going to lose him), was to re-conceptualize our bond as not having ended but rather having changed form, like we had a new relationship, one that did not involve nor depend upon his corporeal presence (and as a non-religious person, this was definitely a huge leap of faith, or desperation). I had to tell myself he was still with me, somehow, some way. It was the only way I could  go on. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t explain it. Because I didn’t have all the answers, or even, as Alec’s death drove home, any of them.

“It is in our lives and not, fundamentally, in our conscious experiences that we find the memories of those who are gone.” (Rowlands, 2009, p 46)

So these two things, these recurring themes, are interlinked, right? My not wanting to go into the photos is like not wanting to go into the past is like not wanting to confront MEMORY is like not wanting to have the recalcitrant fact of his death, of his being gone,  hit me in the face. Now, what the heck does that sound like? It sounds like someone dealing with a bit of avoidance is what I would say, if I were hearing this from a friend. It’s funny because in some ways I have been a model of “good grief” (though, honestly, in other ways I have been its very antithesis) in that I certainly allowed myself to cry and cry and cry (and cry some more! no problem there) and I even have been able to use writing as a way to explore and process my feelings. Healthy emotional outlet, check. And yet, here I find myself saying I don’t want to deal with the fact that Alec, and my relationship with him, is a memory now. Because the only way I have made it this far is by dragging him with me, metaphorically, stubbornly refusing to consign him to the past (a topic discussed in other posts). But really, the regrettable transformation from companion to memory is the most obdurate fact in losing a loved one to death.

Memory sucks. Memory scares me, because it’s unreliable, and because it fades. I really haven’t spent much time thinking or writing about it (on purpose) but I always knew one day, when I was ready, I would tackle this subject (“just like the photos, I guess,” I say to myself with chagrin – but here I gently remind myself that grief has no statute of limitations).

As luck or fate or simple circumstance would have it, yesterday I received a nudge in the direction I need to go: forward. As I was reading The Philosopher and the Wolf, I came across an interesting passage on memory. This book is a memoir of sorts, a reflection on philosophy professor Mark Rowlands’ transformative relationship with his companion wolf, Brenin, who dies before the book begins. Rowlands’ ruminations on the difference between episodic memory and another, nameless (but far more meaningful) type resonated deeply with me. I really like his perspective on what for me is a terrifying subject (i.e. the caprice of episodic memory; it’s almost like a second way of losing someone). I am always on the lookout for keys to unlock the various doors in the sprawling prison of my grief. This is one such key. I share an extended excerpt here in hopes it may give someone else the same comfort in grappling with the slippery issue of memory. I have only just begun the third chapter, but I do recommend this book based on what I have read so far. Rowlands’ take on memory, as he apprehends a profound relationship receding into the distance of time, helps me as I continue to grope for meaning, for comfort, for keys. I found his words powerful (from pages 45-6):

There are different ways of remembering. When we think of memory, we overlook what is most important in favour of what is most obvious. A bird does not fly by flapping its wings; this is merely what provides it with forward propulsion. The real principles of flight are to be found in the shape of the bird’s wings, and the resulting differences in the pressure of the air flowing over the upper and lower surfaces of those wings. But in our early attempts to fly, we overlooked what is most important in favour of what is most obvious: we built flapping machines. Our understanding of memory is similar. We think of memory as conscious experiences whereby we recall past events or episodes. Psychologists call this episodic memory.

Episodic memory, I think, is just the flapping of wings, and it is always the first to betray us. Our episodic memory is not particularly reliable at the best of times – decades of psychological research converge on this conclusion – and is the first to fade as our brains begin their long but inexorable descent into indolence, like the flapping of a bird’s wings that gradually fades in the distance.

But there is another, deeper and more important way of remembering: a form of memory that no one ever thought to dignify with a name. This is the memory of a past that has written itself on you, in your character and in the life on which you bring that character to bear. You are not, at least not typically, aware of these memories; often they are not even the sorts of things of which you can be conscious. But they, more than anything else, make you what you are. These memories are exhibited in the decisions you make, the actions you take and the life that you thereby live.

It is in our lives and not, fundamentally, in our conscious experiences that we find the memories of those who are gone. Our consciousness is fickle and not worthy of the task of remembering. The most important way of remembering someone is by being the person they made us – at least in part – and living the life they have helped shape. Sometimes they are not worth remembering. In that case, our most important existential task is to expunge them from the narrative of our lives. But when they are worth remembering, then being someone they have helped fashion and living a life they have helped forge are not only how we remember them; they are how we honour them.

I will always remember my wolf brother.

So there you have it. The most inspirational thing I have read in a long time, and entree for me, a reluctant visitor, into the land of memory and meaning. My fear of the photos, of the past, is really the terror of my memory betraying me, which of course, it will. It betrays us all. But what of this other form of memory, the indelible one? Well, that brings me full circle to my #1 coping mechanism: forging a new relationship with Alec. You see, he can’t be gone. He is written all over me.

Live. Love. Honor. Remember.

Musical postscript: Certain songs sometimes attach themselves to posts as I am working through them. One of the theme songs for this post is Regina Spektor’s “Us”  and another is “Oh, you are the roots that sleep beneath my feet…” by Bright Eyes:

You are the roots that sleep beneath my feet
And hold the earth in place
Each time a faucet opens
Words are spoken
The water runs away
And I hear your name
No, nothing has changed

Roots, statues, love carved into us like poems… as I sort through the fragments of images and lyrics that float to the surface of my consciousness, it occurs to me that these are all metaphors for the same thing. This thing is too big for the words I could use to describe it, but I can feel it in my bones, where it has settled, permanently.

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Filed under Grief and loss, Memory

So many jackets…

. . . so many forgotten cookies to be found in the pockets. It happened again today. I grab an old rain shell from the closet that I hadn’t worn in a long time. When I put it on, I feel something in the pocket. My hand closes around the Buddy Biscuit. And I remember. I remember everything. And I start to cry. It’s unexpected, like the cookie. It is a grief burst. I take the cookie man out of my pocket, put him on the table, and see that he’s broken. I try to put him back together, cry a little more, and then continue out the door with Teagan. I carry on with my day. But I don’t forget those broken pieces, that smiling cookie, my lost friend.

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Filed under Grief and loss, Memory