Category Archives: Love after death

Cookies from heaven?

Something kind of weird happened the other day. I was hanging up a skirt in my closet when one of Ali’s cookies fell onto the floor. I was shocked as I always am by some unexpected reminder of my former life, a life where my pockets were always full of dog biscuits and little crumbs, but instead of crying my immediate reaction was puzzlement. I couldn’t figure out where it had dropped from. I probably looked pretty comical standing there with my mouth hanging open looking around the closet. The skirt had no pockets, and the other skirt sharing its hanger I had not worn in a long time and could not remember ever having worn to walk Ali, though it’s possible. But I also have moved twice since Alec died, both times leaving my clothes on hangers and tossing them haphazardly into the back of my van, so I would think even if I had a cookie in there it would have shaken loose by now. Plus I didn’t even really touch it, the other skirt with the pockets I mean, so even if there was something wedged in there I don’t see how it came loose just then. I didn’t think I had touched anything, other than lightly draping my little stretchy skirt over the hanger. And nothing else on the nearby hangers had pockets. It was just bizarre.

Wherever it dropped from, it made me smile, and I picked it up and put it on the table next to my magic words collage. But even weirder, when I went back into the closet later that afternoon a second cookie appeared on the floor. Very strange! I left this one where it was (it’s still on the floor in there) and took a photo of it.

Mystery cookie

Something else that made me smile this week (see, my posts aren’t always super duper depressing!) was this card I came across in the grocery store. So I plunked down five dollars and bought it for myself. I really like it. I also propped it up next to my Ali collage.

I love you Ali.

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The light.

Dear Alec,

In some ways, everything reminds me of you. I remember driving home one Saturday afternoon a couple months ago and the sunlight filtering through the trees was so gorgeous that it punched me in the gut with how much I missed you, and I started crying. I know, that sounds like a John Denver song. When you were here, sunshine didn’t make me cry. But things are different now. The point is sad things, happy things, unrelated things, relevant things…all remind me of you. Sometimes more starkly than others but it is always there. You are always there. And on that drive I guarantee you were already on my mind, but the golden sunlight triggered a flood of emotions. I don’t know why. I just kept thinking how beautiful it was, and that thought led me directly to you.

The sun: formerly non tear-inducing phenomenon.

Beautiful things, sad things. You are everywhere, in my air, my breath, tangled in my hair and in my dreams at night. Sometimes I picture you walking next to me. You don’t limp anymore. You’re like you were when your body worked perfectly. I don’t need to look at pictures. I can see you. I mean, I pretend.

The way I miss you reminds me of the way I heard grief conceptualized once that stuck with me. It was grief as music: sometimes a symphony and other times background music, but always playing. This metaphor is akin to acute and subtle grief (intense distress vs. the relative calm moments in between). So it is with these reminders. It’s like I’m always thinking of you in the back of my mind. Sometimes it just overpowers me more than at other times. I have also heard grief described as an ocean with waves of different sizes, ebbing and flowing, changing but always there. In and out. Beauty and sadness. Life and death. Love and loss. Me and you.

Everything I say is you in parentheses. I don’t know what that means. But I wrote it down a while ago and it felt true.

When daylight savings time happened in March, I became (more) depressed (than usual). It took me a minute to recognize that the longer days had triggered this more pronounced sense of melancholy. This is when we were supposed to start swimming again after work. The longer days signified all the things I had looked forward to doing with you, but never would again. Triggers come from the strangest places (daylight savings time? this is what throws me over the edge?), but they aren’t really that strange. Nothing is strange in grief. Because everything is strange, unfamiliar, wrong. I’m so tired of crying. I’m so tired of me without you.

It’s a funny coincidence, just last night I read in one of my books (Grieving Mindfully – highly recommended, especially for people with busy brains who feel everything too deeply, like me) that changes in the length of the days can re-trigger grief. So once again, I find I am not alone in my experiences, as bewildering as they may seem; others have been there before and others will be after. We just don’t always talk about it.

Truthfully, after a brief hopeful period around when I did my “magic words” collage and imagined connecting with you, I have been feeling so depressed. Then I thought about the calendar. This time last year was the happy calm before the storm. No wonder I am anxious and feeling sadder than usual. I know the calendar is an arbitrary timekeeper, but does something inside remind us of what we were doing 365 days ago? Do our cells remember when the light changes? I don’t know. But March of last year was the last time I was truly happy. Everything changed in early April. Then I had a brief, all too brief, period of happiness, of elation in fact, when I got the news that it wasn’t cancer. I would learn in May that was not true. A false diagnosis. The lab results had missed a cancer so aggressive it didn’t need any help taking hold, let alone that six-week head start during which we could have started treatment. A mistake. Oops. This month. One year ago. Everything fell apart. Just a calendar. But the light reminds us when we try to forget.

Alec, it’s funny that the almost overwhelming urge to write to you came over me today, out of the blue. I understand people doing that with dead people, but we never talked, not in words, when you were alive, because well, you’re a dog. So why do I want to write to you, as if you could read? I don’t know. Of course I always wished we could communicate better. I always wished I could perfectly understand you, and you, me. Is that why? Is it that my blog feels unfocused, rambling, too sad, with no audience? Maybe with you as my imaginary audience I can gain some of the focus I lamented losing in the magic words post, one of the many things I lost in the fire of your death. These are called secondary losses, and there were so many that came with losing you. Parts of myself burned away, gone like smoke. Whole pieces of my soul gone missing. Important ones.

That’s all for now. If I have any hope to keep writing, and I feel I must, that it’s important somehow, then I must stop over-editing and second guessing myself and just write, let it be raw and unfocused, at least for now. Perhaps out of chaos will come clarity. I have time to see if that’s true, I suppose. With you gone, sweetie, there is not much else that’s really been pressing.

Theme song for this post is “The Light, pt. 2″ by Mason Jennings: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Hu1QQBjhQo

Across the gardens, across the schoolyards
Across the chapels where lovers have leapt
Across the table in our old kitchen
Across the cities where our future slept
It’s the light that’s changing
It’s the light that’s changing
It’s the light that’s changing
It’s only the light

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Of Love and Loopholes.

Grief is big but it is also small. One of the saddest random things: no one to give my kale stems to anymore. Alec was never much of a beggar, but he loved raw kale stalks and every time I took a bunch out of the fridge he would instantly appear in the kitchen doorway with his hopeful and polite begging face. He was never disappointed. One of my favorite sounds: the adorable crunch crunch crunch of Ali contentedly munching on a kale stalk. Sublime. I eat a lot of kale, and his absence tugs at me whenever I start tearing the leaves off the stalks and turn, half forgetting, to find nobody silently standing in the doorway with big brown eyes fixed on me, quietly asking me to share.

After my previous post about the JAVMA article that made me cry at work (don’t get me wrong, I cry a lot, but that was completely uncalled for), I wanted to share a short piece that I liked: “True Love, Loss and the Loophole,” which appeared in Grief Digest Magazine. In this brief essay, grief counselor Ashley Davis Bush uses the Cinderella fairy tale as an analogy for love and loss. Cinderella got her chance to attend the ball but there was a catch, she writes, some fine print: the magic would end at midnight. And as expected, her evening was cut short; it ended in” dashed dreams and a mysterious disappearance.” She asks:

What does this fairy tale have to do with our grief? When we fall in love and make a life with a beloved partner, we enter a similar sort of arrangement. Life is the fairy godmother telling us that there’s a small hitch to this wonderful miracle, that  separation is inevitable. This ‘hitch’ is even built into our marriage vows, “ ‘til death do us part.”

That last sentence is not applicable to partners who are companion animals, um, obviously, but the rest applies — especially knowing that most species of companion animals have shorter life spans than us. Although we don’t take formal vows with our dogs (because they are strictly defined as “property” under the law; despite Gregory M. Morris and the AVMA getting all kerfuffled over the word “guardian,” we in fact have very few legal obligations to them), if we are responsible guardians we make this vow unbidden, and we promise to love them until death parts us (“take care of them” until death parts us may be more accurate because, as the subtitle of my blog implies, love does not end with death. But I digress.).

Death is the bell ringing at midnight, cutting everything short. The reality that one of us will die first is not something that most of us like to dwell on. In fact, we are often shocked when the bell strikes twelve. We might feel cheated, betrayed, ripped off—as if we hadn’t been forewarned. But, inevitably, midnight comes, leaving someone alone on the dance floor, someone struck with the pangs of grief.

Alone on the dance floor. I like this metaphor. And even if we do not consciously think about it, we know we will be separated eventually from the object of our affection, whether through our own death or theirs. With nonhuman animals, given the disparity in our average life spans, the odds are we will be the ones left alone on the dance floor. She then asks:

Here’s a question for you: having experienced the pain of loss, would you have refused the terms of this deal and said, “no thank you”?

Well, my jury is still out on that one, but in light of the inevitability of loss, and the fact that nothing in life is permanent, not even life itself, it is a question worth asking. Especially for people like me, who really aren’t sure if not only the pain of separation, but also the torturous on-ramp leading up to it (pain, sorrow, more pain), were worth it at all. As I sit here wondering if I might be permanently broken, as if some essential part of me has been destroyed or gone missing forever, it is not as easy for me as it seems to be for some people to say “hell yes, it was worth it!” I am only being honest. The alternative — that I had never known Alec, never loved him — is of course also unthinkable. The author, along with most people (in my experience I am almost the only one who hesitates when asked this), comes down squarely on the side of “worth it.” Of course, she is a counselor, what is she going to say? “Don’t ever love again! It is clearly not worth it. Hope you learned your lesson! ” Nah, that would not be a very helpful message I reckon. So, she looks on the bright side:

A choice to avoid pain would seem to be a lonely shadow of life’s fullest potential. So, like Cinderella, we willingly accepted the terms of a curfew because we couldn’t imagine missing the ball. Even a few ‘hours’ of joy were better than sitting home alone—definitely worth the risk of heartbreak.

Maybe so, and maybe not. But her conclusion is my favorite part:

Fortunately, for each of us, not only did we get one beautiful night (so to speak), we also get to live with the blessed loophole that love never dies. To our surprise, we see that even after midnight, the magic continues. Love transcends separation. In other words, death may change the form of our relationship, but it cannot erase the relationship. Our hearts will forever remain full of the good times, full of the open hearted abundance, full of the memories and full of the life-enhancing love.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know she is singing my song. Heck, she practically wrote my song, as her book was one of the first resources that helped me in the beginning, when I was scrambling and grasping for any message of hope, the way a drowning person frantically claws for the surface. And not just any message of hope, but one that felt intuitively right to me. Love transcends separation. Yup, there it was. That was my tune. Still is. I started singing it before he even died. I sang it to both of us during those final days, like a benediction.

So now, as we grieve, as we acknowledge the painful end of the dance, we can turn our attention to the eternal love woven into the fabric of our beings. This love transcends loss in a way that is almost…well…magical. Thank heaven for love and alleluia for the loophole!

A very upbeat ending, and although I am definitely not shouting “alleluia,” I do like this concept of the “loophole.” As with the concept of death changing rather than ending relationships, it gives me something to hold onto. And I am all about the magic because however you define it, my love for Alec felt like some kind of miracle. Something magical indeed. It is kind of hard to describe, but what is this type of love that makes you feel like you could soar from the tops of trees, that your heart could burst, that every hackneyed cliche is true…what is that if not magic? The fact that this indomitable love, which felt like the strongest, most powerful and primal force on earth, the kind of love that lifts cars off people, could not keep him from dying seemed wrong, unfair. It made the magic seem impotent. But maybe there really is a loophole. I think she means it metaphorically but I don’t. There has to be a reason why we feel something so strongly. If true love can’t move mountains, save lives, and most importantly, transcend time and physical dimensions, then what good is it? I am only sort of being facetious. Sometimes my fingers just type these things. But I am inclined to let them have their way because who knows, maybe these unruly fingers have access to an essential truth my left brain – a stern editor – erases when I tap tap tap back and delete some of my more outlandish thoughts. Like the ones about string theory, and how I love that despite my oafish attempts to understand theoretical physics, it is so far over my head that I can use it as frame on which to concoct fantasies of a parallel universe where things turned out differently. In this other universe, Alec and I got our happy ending. We are still together.

It’s like this: all I have left are wishes and fantasy, and I always did have a vivid imagination (unhappily yoked to a hard-nosed skepticism, but imagination is holding its own), and so I am keeping my eyes open for the real loophole. Except in my mind it looks like a little keyhole, and I press my eye up to it, and in my fantasy he is there, on the other side of the door. I just have to find the right key but there is no rush. It will come to me. And then the door will swing open, and we will be together again, at last.

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Lifeboats.

“May I accept the rhythms of grieving. I have enough to worry about without scolding myself that I’m still so vulnerable.” This is the daily affirmation for March 12 from Healing after Loss. Sound advice. So I will not apologize or feel bad about my previous meltdown (or continued blue mood), but in the name of balance, today I would like to discuss something more positive: lifeboats.

After tearfully typing out my previous post I stumbled over to the couch and sank into wretchedness. I was a complete and utter wreck. I tried to read, but could not. I tried to do other menial tasks, but could not. I contemplated leaving my apartment, but could not. So I just sat on the couch and cried. I tried to fend off the tears at first, but once I gave in, they did not want to stop.  As I sat there lost in misery, quickly decimating a box of tissues, my phone rang. It was my friend Mike, asking if I wanted to take a walk with him and his dog and then drive downtown, maybe do some shopping, grab a drink. Oh thank goodness!! It was exactly what I needed and he absolutely rescued me from the the wretchedness of that wretched day. I could not have been more grateful, not only for a reason to leave my apartment, but also for the company. He saved me on a very bad day with the simple act of inviting me out. He listened to me cry as I explained what I was feeling and why, and then we moved onto other subjects. I immediately felt lighter for having talked about it and I  appreciated him asking, and listening. I know it is not easy to sit with someone’s tears and just listen to the stuttering and blubbering (in my case). I’m sure it’s frustrating to know you can’t make it all better, but it is tremendously helpful to someone who is grieving to GET IT OUT (another reason this blog has helped me, but writing is not the same as having a two-sided conversation), especially when enough time has gone by where you don’t feel comfortable reaching out, if you ever did in the first place. Sometimes you don’t know you need to talk until you do it. It was a case of excellent timing, that day. So thanks, Mike.

I will never forget when Mike said good-bye to Alec. He told him: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her.” Though we have had our ups and downs certainly, he has kept his promise and been a lifeboat for me many times since Alec left. Such simple things like friendship and companionship can be so comforting (although nothing is simple when it comes to grief, and some relationships don’t survive the strain). It helps that Mike’s dog is his best friend, too. He “gets it” as much as anyone can, although he is as much a stranger to what I am going through as I was before it happened.

I can’t thank all my little lifeboats here, but Mike would be at the top of the list, along with Kristine, who babysat me for a whole month after Alec died, and Cara, who never stopped checking on me and letting me know in a thousand ways big and small that she was there, even though she lives far away. And of course Alec’s wonderful vet (now my friend), Dr. Kristin Sulis, who patiently and with compassion listened to me cry, beg, bargain, deny, rant, talk in circles, and ask a million questions over, and over, and over again in the heart wrenching days and weeks leading up to the awful day when I was forced to separate myself from Alec, forced to make his suffering stop.

When Alec and I were together, I felt grateful all the time; now it is harder for me to access this feeling. But I am grateful to the people — some good friends and some I have never met — who have reached out to me with love and empathy. So, to anyone who has listened to me cry or laugh or just talk about Alec since he died, thank you. To everyone who has left an encouraging word on my Facebook page or a kind comment on this blog, thank you. I realize how hard it is to know what to say in this situation; I get it. If you said something, anything, thanks. It has truly meant a lot to me.

I happen to have pictures of Ali with three of the people I just mentioned, so this helps me with my slow motion project of starting to go through photos. Today’s entry: Alec and a few of my lifeboats…thanks for keeping me from drowning.

Ali and Mike on a sun-soaked afternoon in June 2010, the month before Alec died. Mike will always have an extra special place in my heart because he was there when I said good-bye to Alec. He also took care of me (and many details I could not handle) that night and in the next few days before I got on a plane and fled to Kristine in N.J. I will never forget he was present when I did the hardest thing I have ever had to do: authorize the shot that would make Alec go to sleep forever. This I had to do because he was suffering. I can’t put words to how awful it was, but it would have been so much worse if Mike wasn’t there.

Thanks, Mike, for making (and keeping) that promise to Alec.

Me and Ali and Cara, June 2009. Even though we had not been friends very long, Cara called and emailed me countless times after Alec died and never gave up reaching out to let me know she was thinking about me, even when I could not respond. Thanks, Cara, for being a constant presence even though you were far away.

Isn’t he beautiful?

And last but not least, my sweet sister Kristine, to whom I ran in my darkest hour of need; she took care of me for a whole month after Alec died. After more than 30 years of friendship, we also share a special and uncommon bond. Thank you, Kristine, for sheltering me. This was taken in December 2009 at Kelly Point Park in North Portland.

Finally, to the greatest lifeboat of all. I miss you so much, Ali.

(and I am most grateful to you.)

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Separation.

A few weeks after Alec died I randomly came across a little poem that perfectly captured the essence of what I was feeling at the time. It’s so cool when poems do that (although the poet was thinking of who knows what when he wrote it; again something I love about poetry and [good] song lyrics for that matter: their ability to be interpreted differently.) It was even neater because I came across it completely by accident; while looking to see if my favorite songwriter Chris McCaughan (whose own gorgeously impressionistic lyrics are the closest thing I have to favorite poems) had any upcoming shows, I stumbled upon a blog he had recently started and there was this poem, just waiting for me to find it:

Separation

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

– W. S. Merwin

Wow. My breath caught in my throat as I read and re-read those few words. Yes, I thought, this is the way things are now. Our bond has changed, not dissolved. My relationship now is with his absence. (This blog has been taken down, incidentally, or I would link to it.)

Since those early days of our separation, the books that have been most helpful, the ones that enabled me to keep breathing, have been those that conceptualize the loss of a loved one as a change in the relationship rather than the end of the relationship. This I felt intuitively when Alec was dying. The cacophony of desperate thoughts that filled my mind during this time were all variations on this single theme: we will not be parted.

I did not know then that many bereavement counselors believe that an important component of “successful” grieving is exactly this: forging a new relationship with the deceased. I highly recommend Ashley Davis Bush’s book Transcending Loss if you are interested in this topic. It’s hard to explain the twists and turns of my process in working through this (not moving on, but moving on WITH…not closure, but transcendence) without launching into a dissertation, but suffice it to say it has been the most useful concept I have encountered so far on this lonesome road.

But when I found Merwin’s poem back in August, I was far from being able to articulate anything about being separated from Alec. At the time, I only knew that his absence loomed as large as his presence. Far from being a void, this absence was tangible; it had weight and color. It took up space, and painted over everything.

It is in this space that I struggle every day to create a new relationship with my baby shepherd: a relationship that transcends life, a love that continues after death. I stubbornly cling to a dream that lingers at the edge of my consciousness because I feel something too strongly in my heart to ignore. This is a temporary separation. Things are not, will never be, the same. But I will discover what is left. Not of me — of us.

Because what if there is something in the shadows beyond our empirical perception?

It is perhaps appropriate that the one photo I have been able to bring myself to display of Alec is a silhouette. A few weeks ago I did look at some older snapshots that I keep in a shoebox (I have not been able to go through the ones on my computer yet), and I cried and cried, but I did it. I selected this one and put it on my fridge. I can look at it. Maybe because of the presence of the shadow. Maybe one day I will put up more photos. Maybe I won’t. But it doesn’t really matter because I am not interested in creating a memorial to him, as if he were gone, as if he could be.

No, Alec, you’re not gone. Just because I can’t see you doesn’t mean you aren’t here. I will keep looking for you in the margins, listening for you in the cracks, feeling for you in the shadows. I will never leave you.

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Magic words.

Last weekend I participated in a New Year’s collage brunch. Every year my friend Kristin (aka “our wonderful vet” from Alec’s Story, Pt. 1) gets together with a group of friends to think about and discuss their goals for the New Year and collage (and also, mimosas!). Though I am a collage neophyte, I was glad she invited me to join them this year.

This time the project was to select 3 adjectives to describe what you want from 2011. Then we would make a collage based on these words. This idea was based on an article she saw in Oprah magazine, which you can read here.

You should read the article, it’s interesting, but the idea was to pick a BIG GOAL for the year (have a baby, start a business, win an Oscar), and rather than focus on the noun-verb expression of the goal (“I want to achieve XYZ”) to imagine how you think you will feel once you have achieved this goal. Then you choose at least three adjectives to describe this feeling. To begin the exercise, you pick your biggest, most ambitious goal, “something for which you frequently hanker,” and then imagine what your life would be like if you achieved this goal. She says to spend some time in the daydream, observing it with all your senses. Then begin listing adjectives that describe how you feel in your dream-come-true scenario. This is simple but not easy, she says, because there is a right brain/left brain switcheroo that happens when we translate feelings into words.

The author, who is a life coach, contends this is a much better way of achieving happiness based on the abundant psychological research that suggests the situational elements people crave do not necessarily increase their feeling of well-being, but finding joy in the present moment does. So the idea is by focusing on these adjectives (rather than the goal itself, which can be limiting) we can scan our lives for situations and relationships that already make us feel this way, and redirect our energies accordingly. There is a sort of creative unlocking process that happens. Anyway, you should read the article. It’s short and describes this technique better.

At first, this seemed a daunting proposition to me. I wanted to be with this supportive group of people to celebrate and contemplate the New Year, but on the other hand, thinking about my goals for 2011 was a bleak prospect. If I am truly honest, all I want is Ali back, and that is not going to happen. (And she says you should be honest in picking your goal.) But then I realized that is not the only thing I want. I also want more than anything to commune with his spirit, to feel him around me, to know he is still with me, to know he is okay. This is a whole separate subject, and I won’t go into it now, but the point is I decided to take the exercise seriously by picking my biggest goal and imagining how it would make me feel.

If I could pick anything what I would want most in 2011 is to know I was right – that our bond was not broken. So I sat on my couch and imagined what it would feel like if I got an irrefutable sign from him, if I saw him, heard him, or felt him in a way that told me with absolute certainty he was not gone – that we were just separated by worlds. Then I wrote down all the words describing how this would make me feel. I came up with a lot more than three so the difficulty became narrowing them down, but I had fun with the thesaurus (I am a grammar nerd, and love words and reading their definitions) and trying to pick which one more perfectly captured the feeling (ecstatic? elated? jubilant?). It was an interesting exercise in itself and I spent a couple hours with it over the weekend.

During an email conversation with Kristin, I had mentioned the difficulty of coming up with a goal for 2011 because without Alec the future is like a blank slate, and I am drifting around directionless. She suggested I focus on the way I felt when Alec and I were together. She asked, “Did Alec give you an excuse for adventure? Then maybe one of your words could be ‘adventurous.’” That was an interesting way to think about it; I had taken the exercise literally and was thinking of a future goal. It had not occurred to me to think about the past and how I felt when we were together. So I tried that and came up with a whole different set of adjectives!

Ultimately, I decided I would rather focus on the future since I have said over and over I want to find a way to bring him with me (and the latest grief research backs me up on this; the concept of “closure” is outdated and not necessarily helpful). And when I am honest this is all I want. And the author said to pick your biggest goal (hey, winning an Oscar may be more difficult than communing with the dead). But I was still having trouble narrowing down the adjectives. Since I had a surplus, I decided to pick the ones that could apply to both scenarios – how I felt when we were together AND how I would feel if I could communicate with him or hear from him somehow now (and yes I know that sounds weird, but I know people who have had such experiences and I choose to believe they can also happen to me). So the ones that easily applied to both were: loved/connected, secure, blissful, and (I snuck in a fourth) focused. Why these four?

LOVED/CONNECTED

Loved is obvious. I felt loved when we were together, but after his death, that love is gone. I mean, my love is still here, but I have nobody to give it to; there’s only one of us now. On a more profound and painful (and I guess mystical) level, the fact that I have not seen or heard from him makes me wonder if he really loved me. This is the one that is hard to say out loud because the doubt is a very significant component to my grief. And while people invariably say, “pshaw!” and “Of course he loved you! How can you doubt that?”… well, that’s what grief does sometimes. It makes you doubt.

Also a complicating factor when mourning the death of an animal companion is that, unlike a human loved one, they cannot talk. Alec could not communicate in words what I meant to him, so it is easy to doubt myself and think I made it all up and that it was one-sided. After all, I am a needy imperfect human and he was a dependent domesticated animal stuck in an anthropocentric society. Hardly equal footing (though I did my very best to respect his alterity) and can true love exist where there is no equality?

Philosophical questions aside, I was always more sure of my love for him than of his for me (this is borne of my own personal insecurity but also the reality of the situation). But it didn’t matter when he was alive. I only wanted to take care of him, to give him a good life, to give my love flight through action. It has never been as important to me to be loved in return (though my soul yearns for it of course); for example, my dog Kobi did not love me I do not believe. His spirit was too wild, too free, and too independent. I loved him though, and as I have written before, I think that is the more important part of the equation – the mysterious unlocking of our capacity to love unconditionally (rarer than most think) that some people and animals bring out in us.

But I thought with Alec things were different, that we did experience a profound bond, only intensified by the challenges we faced together. I also recognize that this is flattering to me – this notion of a deep bond – but that he also needed me and was of anxious temperament. And that circles back to my above concern about dependency and love. Although rather out of context it reminds me of something I just read in the book On my own by Florence Falk:

“Yet, all too often, fear and anticipation of having to endure the absence of a ‘significant other’ causes a psychic backlash  that sends us rushing into someone’s waiting arms, whether or not the relationship is right, or even good. ‘It was marriage that taught me anxiety looks like devotion,’ says the writer Vivian Gornick about her own marriage in Approaching Eye Level…The real fear…is to be with one’s self. And to avoid that confrontation, the desire to be with someone, sometimes anyone, can take on an urgency verging on obsession.” (p. 31)

She is writing obviously about the fact that some people fear being alone so much that they take refuge in less than satisfactory relationships. This does not apply to me, but could we not stretch it to apply to a lonely dog in a crowded kennel, of a breed predisposed to bond with one person (as German shepherds are, and Siberian huskies are not)…a dog with an anxious and nervous temperament, in a chaotic world that lacks stability, as Alec’s life as a guide dog in training was? Then I come along and show him some kindness and WHAM – instant devotion! Or was it anxiety?

Hmmm, that was a rather significant digression. This “love” thing is complicated, even between members of the same species, let alone when talking about trans-species relationships where one member lacks (complete) autonomy. But to get back to the subject at hand, I only survived losing Alec by convincing myself that our bond could not be broken by death (and I do mean that literally, the part about survival). Yet I also believed it, irrationally, with every intuitive fiber of my being. I know other people have had visitations and signs from deceased loved ones; I have talked to some, read about others. So what does it mean that I have not had these experiences? If he loved me, would not he show himself to me, knowing how much comfort I would derive from this simple act, how much of my own suffering and anxiety would be alleviated? If he doesn’t, is the natural conclusion that he didn’t love me as I loved him?

Well, maybe not. People have said I should “give it time,” that maybe I am trying too hard. And also that he might not come while I am grieving so intensely. At any rate, in my dream-come-true scenario I would be free from doubt of the assurance that Alec loved me, that he loves me still, that we are connected always.

SECURE

That leads me to my second adjective and probably my favorite. As I switched the combination of words around, one that always showed up on my list was “secure.” Besides feeling loved, this is the number one feeling that came to mind when I imagined communing with him. This is the primary feeling I have lost in his absence. Security is a beautiful word because it has so many definitions that are slightly different but of the same essence. If I had security, it would knock out a few concerns at once. It has about seven definitions and here the ones that spoke to me:

2. Free from risk of loss; safe

3. Free from fear, anxiety, or doubt

5a. Not likely to fail, or give way; stable

7. Assured; certain

In my dream scenario, I would be free from the risk of losing Alec completely (#2). I would feel safe again (#2 also). Safety was a big issue with me, both keeping him safe and the feeling of safety I had with him by my side. One of the hardest things about losing someone who is dependent on you is the harsh realization that you cannot keep them safe, thus forcing you to give up the illusion of control. I also would be free from the anxiety, fear and doubt (#3) that life is meaningless and cruel and terrible because I would be assured and certain that he was still with me – and that he loved me (#7). Thus I would feel stable again (#5a).

A secondary loss one sometimes experiences through grief is “loss of well being and lack of continued faith in the overall goodness of the world.” (This quote is from – no joke – Grieving for Dummies by Greg Harvey. Yes, there is such a thing as a dummy griever, to go along with all the other dummies in this series! And yes, I did check it out of the library.) This secondary loss was (and is) huge for me, and again comes back to the idea of security.

Another strange loss I had was the experience of “coziness.” This is one I have not seen written about anywhere and I know it taps into other emotions like safety and warmth and contentment and comfort. I had not noticed how “cozy” I could feel with Alec, but in stark contrast when he was gone I never felt cozy. It is hard to explain. I had trouble feeling warm (not just literally). The mattress that we slept on together suddenly felt dismally uncomfortable with him gone. And it was – after our second air bed popped, I went to IKEA and bought the cheapest foam mattress I could find. It was hard and uncomfortable, but I didn’t notice this when he was with me, yet when he was gone I felt like I was sleeping on concrete. It wasn’t his weight distribution because the foam was hard enough not to budge when he was on it. It was psychological. I have since gotten a memory foam topper, which has helped somewhat, but the point is I didn’t realize how many cozy corners of my life disappeared with him.

Through doing this exercise I think what I have really been missing – that feeling of being wrapped up in a warm fuzzy blanket – is security. That elusive coziness was basically the illusion that everything was alright, which enabled me to relax and experience deep contentment and comfort. No matter what personal storms I was weathering or whatever other stresses were present in my life, as long as we were together everything was okay. Because I knew what I had and I was grateful every day. I knew how I would suffer if he ever left me, so just to have him with me in the same room was a form of bliss to which my heart happily responded by allowing me sink into a lovely cozy cocoon, which came from a deep sense of safety, well-being, warmth, and gratitude that slipped away when he did.

BLISSFUL

There are so many words to describe how happy I felt when we were together but, more importantly, how happy I would feel if I knew he were still near: ecstatic, elated, joyful, euphoric, jubilant…and blissful. Blissful was the winner because I like its definition best:

1. Extreme happiness; ecstasy.

2. The ecstasy of salvation; spiritual joy.

FOCUSED

Finally, the fourth adjective: “focused” may seem unrelated but it is important. Besides the formidable loss of Alec’s physical presence, there are many secondary losses, such as the loss of security and comfort I mentioned above. There is also “lost” as an adjective, the opposite of focused. I feel lost myself, adrift and anchorless, like someone pulled my life out from under me and I am still tumbling through the air. I have not only lost our relationship, but my sense of purpose. I also lost my entire routine, which revolved around taking care of Alec (and just spending time with him, enjoying his company), even before he became sick.

He was always important to me, but Alec became the central focus of my life when he developed special needs and he remained there, at the center of everything, until his death two and a half years later. My role as caregiver demanded a significant portion of my attention. I don’t mean to cast this as something I was forced into. No, I chose to devote myself to his well-being. But what that meant in practical terms was that no matter what else was going on my life, nothing was as important as him. It also meant that formerly simple things like trips to the park demanded much more attention from me. As anyone who cares for someone with a disability knows, you learn to scan the environment for obstacles that you never noticed before, indeed never had to. So, the mental focus required of a caregiver for an animal with a disability also narrows your attention (again not in a negative way, only as a practical matter).

Beyond the quotidian elements of daily life, my emotional focus was sharper too because I had almost lost Alec when he became paralyzed due to complications from the spinal surgeries. This shook me out of my complacency (he was only seven and had never had a major health problem; I thought we had years together! That I almost lost him seemed unthinkable) and created a new awareness of the precariousness of life, which in turn caused me to cherish him anew each day.

I also felt I had found my purpose in the book I was going to write about Alec’s story, which inspired me so much, and which I had had hoped might help others with dogs in similar situations.

Finally, from the moment he was diagnosed with cancer to the end of his life (an all too short period) every minute outside of the working day, every square inch of brain space, was devoted to his care or to research about treatment options, supplements, specialists. I was going to save him; I would not let him down; I would do everything in my power. FOCUS. It is no wonder I lost my focus when he was gone, that I felt lost with a capital “L”. If my dream scenario came true, I could regain my focus because I would have confidence and security that he never really left.

Perhaps I should have written a separate post on this subject, which seems infinite.

Besides the tangible losses, there are many ways to feel lost too; existentially is the biggest and broadest. I lost all sense of meaning when Alec died. But grievers feel lost in the literal sense in “smaller,” less cosmic ways too, like getting lost while driving and forgetting conversations instantly after having them, etc. I have had this feeling of not being able to concentrate, of having thoughts fly away, of being in a store wondering what I was doing there. I said it before he died, but Alec was like my compass, and living without him feels like one nightmarish LOST episode without the Dharma initiative and polar bears, but with the “abandoned on a desert island” feeling and suspicions about having possibly landed in purgatory – or hell. I have also felt like I was losing my memory and my mind, that I was maybe going mad. In other words, pretty much the opposite of “focused.”

Who knew my scrappy fourth adjective would produce such fertile ground on which to reflect?

Lastly, the second part of the definition of “focused” (in addition to “close or narrow attention; concentration”) is:

2. a condition in which something can be clearly apprehended or perceived.

I had thought about the adjectives “enlightened,” “aware,” and “awake” as ways I would feel in my dream scenario, but this definition of “focused” also covered this aspect of apprehension – of knowing – pretty well (with regard to the mystical/spiritual/ghost world).

So, it was an interesting exercise coming up with these words, but I didn’t know what to expect of the collage-making session. After a couple failed attempts at art therapy and expressing my emotions through arts and crafts in a group setting, I was wary. But the collage brunch group was very relaxed and supportive and fun and we basically sat down with scissors and a ton of magazines and flipped through them cutting out words or images that represented our adjectives (or that just spoke to us). I found myself drawn almost 100% to words rather than images, but decided to just go with it because I felt like some intuitive part of my mind was kicking in and I wanted to give that part free reign since I am maybe not always so good at accessing my intuition (being a classic over-thinker). My friend Laura was also cutting out mostly words, so I didn’t feel so bad.

At the end, only one person had actually finished her collage (and it was beautiful by the way!). The rest of us had merely cut a bunch of stuff out and would finish the actual collage later. It seemed like a good idea to let things settle for a bit before going back to them too, to do it in stages. I brought my stack of cut-outs home yesterday and have not looked at them, but I am going to pull them out now because I am curious to see what I chose. I am not going to artfully arrange them yet, but just lay them out as a first step. I am not even sure that the words and phrases I cut out necessarily pertained to my four adjectives, but that’s okay too, I figured. Maybe they will show me something else! I will share a photo of it once my collage is done.

One interesting thing about this exercise is that I felt absorbed in the activity while I was doing it, something that psychologist Csíkszentmihályi has famously referred to as “flow,” a state of single-minded immersion and focused motivation. Neuroscientists and psychologists are increasingly recognizing the experience of “flow” as an important key to happiness. So that was a good side effect of this exercise and activity too. Something like four hours passed without me even noticing while I flipped through magazines and snipped images, words, and phrases to which my intuitive mind was drawn without stopping to think too much about them. This can also be a by-product of art therapy so I’m not ready to give up on that yet, especially after this positive experience.

Finally, I know admitting (out loud, in public) that my most cherished goal for 2011 is to commune with Alec’s spirit will make me sound like a nutcase to many people; I have nothing to offer in defense of my dearly departed rationality. All I can say is I would have felt the same way at one time too, but I have become more open-minded since losing Alec, maybe out of necessity. I can’t describe it other than to say I literally had no choice. I need something to hold onto and if my dream is that Alec is still out there and that I can somehow connect with him…well there are worse dreams to have right?

Since Alec has died, I have struggled with increased generalized fear and anxiety, which may be obvious from some of my writing here, but would definitely be apparent if you saw my private journals (heaven forbid!). I remember talking to a friend about staying alone versus potentially adopting another dog (he had suggested this, thinking it might help me out of my tailspin) and I posited that maybe my caretaking behavior was a distraction, a way for me to avoid dealing with my own neuroses, which have become so stark and risen so resolutely to the surface now that he is gone. He replied, “Well, it’s better than smoking crack; some people do that to deal with their problems. There are worse things than taking care of others.” Amen.

Not sure where I was going with that other than to say, I could harbor more nefarious and even dare I say crazy fantasies than one involving me and Alec being reunited in some magical netherworld. Why the hell not? Not that long ago people thought they’d fall off the edge of the world and be devoured by sea monsters if they sailed too far into the great blue ocean. Just sayin’…we don’t know everything. (I guess I am trying to defend my irrational hopes after all! Some habits die hard.)

I will leave you with a song called “As the Crow Flies” (by Chris McCaughan as Sundowner), which I took a break to listen to during my adjective conjuring daydream session. Somehow it became the perfect soundtrack to my beautiful reverie. I don’t know why; it was more the feeling than the literal words. I wrapped my arms around myself and cried and cried, but I felt like Alec was with me. I already liked this song, but now I love it like I love my magic words. You can listen to it here, if you want.

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Filed under Grief and loss, Love after death

Queen of pain.

I am not going to talk about crying or pain in this post, I promise. I know some of that has been necessary but I also know there is only so much relentless sorrow any reader can take, and I want to apologize if my grief has hurt anyone else. My housemate and friend recently told me how helpless he felt hearing me crying in my room every night, more than a month after Alec died (I did try to be quiet, but it’s an old house). As a problem-solver he felt frustrated that no matter what he did he could not “fix” things for me. And he was right of course. There is no fixing this. But he always helped just by listening and talking with me. I always tried to make that clear, but it’s hard for the problem solvers of the world; they tend to underestimate the therapeutic value of just being a good listener. But taking care of someone who is grieving can be exhausting. You don’t know what to do or say. You can’t take away the pain. You wonder if maybe they need professional help. You worry when you find them out in the yard at night, hysterically crying in the rain. You are reminded of your own experiences with grief, past and pending.

Um, by the way, I noticed I mentioned crying twice in the first paragraph so I guess I lied a little in the first sentence. Sorry.

I realize it’s also hard for some people who have suffered a recent (or not so recent) loss to read this kind of stuff. It can be an upsetting reminder of a grief that still may be unresolved. A friend told me she started reading my last post but had to stop; it reminded her too much of her own experience losing a loved one last year. So I felt I should post something (relatively) positive next and maybe apologize in case my pain has inadvertently caused painful feelings in others. My intention was not to hurt other people, but just to give an honest voice to this process because I feel expression is the key to assimilation and indeed survival in my case. Holding it inside forever works for some people; this wasn’t going to work for me because of a variety of factors. I needed to force the cork out of the bottle. That shit isn’t always pretty.

I know my last post was probably a drag to read for anyone who cares about me. I’m sure people expected some progress after four months, not more of the same: “I am in so much pain…also pain…and more pain….nothing but pain!” But this is part of the process. I needed to confront those feelings forthrightly and not try to lock them away. I had sunk into a denial that was not going to be sustainable. I understand why my mind is trying to protect me (thank you subconscious – good lookin’ out, seriously; you are no slouch). I am afraid to face these feelings because they are vast and terrible, but face them I must. I always said I was going to take Alec with me, no matter that his physical presence is gone; I knew from the outset this would be the only feasible way I could integrate his death into the remainder of my life. Honoring my feelings is the first step in figuring out my new relationship with him, the relationship that exists after death.

Speaking of my last post, a dear friend who is much wiser than me showed me a way out of the “how can I deal with the past while mindfully staying in the present moment?” conundrum. She recently suffered her own loss and told me part of staying in the present for her means being with her feelings when they arise, whether that is crying or whatever. Well, that makes sense, and although I am still terrified of really, truly letting all that pain in – the abyss and all – it gives me a starting point for a way to be present without running from the past. This way of “being present” is different from what I had been doing: aggressively focusing on (nothing but) the moment right in front of me (blinders on, head down!). This is a coping mechanism (thanks again, subconscious, for doing your level best), but it is not a good way for me to integrate this loss into my life. I can’t pretend Alec is going to come around the corner any minute…unless in ghost form, which I probably don’t have to tell you I would welcome.

Anyway that’s enough wallowing in self-pity (at least for now). I want this blog to be helpful! Along those lines, I have planned for a while to write a post on complicated grief and how it can be distinguished from “normal grieving.” Complicated grief (also called protracted, unresolved, or traumatic grief) has characteristics of both depression and PTSD and develops when the symptoms that are normal responses to loss linger or become debilitating. There are many risk factors that make the development of this disorder, which may benefit from special treatment, more or less likely. Even if complicated grief (which is rare) does not develop, the factors associated with it can shed light on why certain losses are harder to handle. It may help someone understand why they are having so much trouble compared to someone else. I know there are many factors about losing Alec that have made this particularly unbearable for me. Those are all here in this blog spread out over many posts, but I think it will be helpful as part of my own journey to unpack those. See, I said “helpful!” Can I have a cookie? I am trying.

I would also like to share some books that have particularly helped me, among them Transcending Loss, Grieving Mindfully, and Healing after Loss. I had planned to review these in a future post in hopes they may be helpful to someone else. I have read a LOT of books on grief (maybe most of them), but these three have stood out.

So these entries are on the radar if I can keep writing enough to keep my head above water. I have so much I want to say, and I will say it, for Alec. I will create a corner of my life that is a monument to him. And it will not be full of pain forever. My love for him, still so strong, will help me, like it did when he became paralyzed, to find strength I didn’t know I had. I will find a way up and out. Repeat as necessary.

As a first step, I selected a picture of Alec to post. Anyone who has been reading knows I have not been able to go through my photos of him. But keeping in mind Deb’s cautionary tale (in the comments) about not waiting “too long,” I am going to wade in. Also blogs without photos are really boring. Photos made up so much of Alec’s Story (Part 1) and it pains me to know there will be no more. However, I do have an extensive back catalog. Deep breath. Here goes:

Waiting for me to take his floaty rubber ball out of the backpack so he can hit the water. Sauvie Island, July 23, 2009.

I chose this photo because when I think about him, and when I think about not being able to look at pictures, this one pops into my head often, because it is a favorite. I think it’s because he looks so happy, but also a lot is symbolized in this image: his triumph over paralysis; our adaptation to his lingering disability (swimming instead of running); my commitment to making sure his life remained full and happy despite his physical limitations; and the smile that made my heart melt every time. It also makes me remember how strong he got, how much he improved. He stopped using the wheelchair a month before this was taken. Eventually he did not even need that life vest. Truthfully he probably stopped needing it long before I removed it, but all things considered it was better safe than sorry, and he did not mind his vest.

This photo also makes me remember how I was at my happiest when Alec was happy, contented, and safe. Especially in the beginning I had a lot of fear and anxiety surrounding taking him swimming due to the potential dangers: off leash dogs (aggressive or playful – both posed a threat because he could reinjure himself); rocks hidden under the water, letting him swim so long he’d be too tired to make it back to the car, etc., etc. But after one of these swimming adventures, when I had him safely back home, relaxed and tired, I could finally relax myself and be truly content. My boy had safely exercised, played, and had fun. I felt proud, successful, thankful, in love. There was nothing better in the world. It was another great day.

I miss his smile so much. I used to sing “you are my sunshine,” to Alec a lot. Please don’t take my sunshine away. You see, I always knew that’s what it would be like.

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Filed under Grief and loss, Love after death