Monthly Archives: December 2010

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

The shallow end.

I’ve heard that boats often capsize in slow motion. And that drowning is a deceptively quiet event, without the splashing, waving, and yelling that television has accustomed us to expect. True drowning can look so undramatic that people near the victim may not even notice. I use these metaphors not to highlight the sinking or drowning, (that would sound more alarmist than I intend), but the slow motion aspect…how you can enter a crisis so gradually you don’t notice right away.

I wanted my next post to be somewhat uplifting. Well, if not uplifting, at least helpful. If not helpful, perhaps displaying a measure of progress. This is not that post. Sorry. I need to recognize this: I am in a lot of pain. I would not say it has diminished over the past few months. When I allow myself to sit still and think about it, I realize it has merely shifted, moved deeper somehow.

After my last post, I hoped writing would come easier, but that hasn’t proven to be true. I thought maybe I could help someone going through something similar, but I am useless. The books I was reading, that I thought would help me, sit abandoned on my shelf, halfway finished. I have emails I can’t answer, phone calls I can’t make…and pictures I still can’t look at. I write sometimes, scrawl things in my notebooks, but when I go back and read them, to see if I can extract some meaning, some purpose, I just cry. I can’t organize my words, or thoughts. I have never had this problem before.

At the bottom of everything is a realization I had recently that brought me up short: it hurts too much to think about him. This is the slowly evolving truth I have been denying. It hurts too much to think about him. I am crying as I sit in bed and type this, as I force myself to choke something out because I am afraid I am not doing okay. I know it will take time, and I have tried to be gentle with myself, but maybe I have been too gentle. I may need to force something here. I think I have stalled in a bad place in my grief process…I have capsized in a sort of purgatory or limbo.

If you saw me, you wouldn’t know anything was wrong, probably. I don’t cry in public, not in a way you’d notice anyway. I am reminded of a lyric by another favorite songwriter, John K. Samson of the Weakerthans: “I’ve got this store-bought way of saying I’m okay, and you’ve learned how to cry in total silence.” I always liked that line – it’s evocative – but now I think I understand it.

When the tears well up, I choke them off deftly. I have gotten pretty good at swallowing  them in their nascence. I function through the days. I do my job. I smile and laugh. I carry on conversations (although I find myself feeling less engaged generally). The outside looks okay. But it’s the interior landscape that concerns me. I feel myself choking, in a way. And I’m not sure it’s good that my chest begins to hitch at the mere thought of him, almost every time. Or that my mind seems to have taken some protective measure to build a dam, a wall, something, anything, around this perceived threat.

It’s interesting isn’t it, the way we can split ourselves into two different people, the one on the outside and the one on the inside? Not that I am two different people, or that the person I am with friends is not who I “really” am…it’s just that there is this whole other country inside of me, the nation of emptiness and sorrow that I alone inhabit. I was able to talk about this stuff at first. I didn’t have a choice because I was at grieving ground zero, a place where I was incapable of editing my reactions or holding anything back. I hadn’t yet developed the dubious ability to bury my emotions and swallow my tears. But – and I’m sure this is common for those who are grieving, even human loved ones – the more time that passes, the less comfortable you feel talking about it, like it’s not okay to still be hurting.

Is it because it has been almost four months? In the beginning the pain was searing and total. It was impossible to deny except in the most superficial way; it threatened to drag me under. But at some point during the relentless downward spiral, I caught myself. I realized that despite all of the choices I was forced to make recently for Alec, those I had agonized over but which in the end amounted to nothing, I still had one left. I made a conscious decision to embrace positive growth over destruction and despair. And what real choice did I have? One must go on living. And if I fucked up my life, what kind of tribute would that be to Ali? I don’t often like to say what he would or would not have wanted, because he was a dog after all (he wanted his squeaky toy, plentiful treats, swim time, car rides, a predictable routine, security, companionship, and some threats to protect us from), BUT I will say if he could want such things, if he cared for me even a fraction of how much I cared for him, I don’t think he would want me to be worse off for having known him. You know?

So I tried to find my way, to weave something meaningful out of this loss, to embark on the journey of self-transformation and acceptance that marks successful grieving. That’s where I was at my last post. Now I don’t know where the heck I am. I strayed off the path I tentatively started down and now feel lost all over again. But will anyone read this and understand? Will it just seem like there is something wrong with me when I admit part of me has not been able to come to terms with the fact that he is really gone, that I still cry so much, that I miss him with such unfathomable depth I can’t even acknowledge it? I guess that is the risk I take in opening up like this, but that was the point of this blog after all.

What a mess.

I think in order to “successfully” get through grief it helps to be completely open and honest. But that’s hard for a couple reasons. 1) As I have found, even someone as hyper-reflexive as me is not always aware of what I am feeling. It took me several weeks to even begin to recognize I was sinking into some protracted denial phase, and that I had stalled in my “grief work.” And 2) long-term cultural support for those who are grieving is often inadequate or nonexistent – especially when the lost loved one is a companion animal. You really have to work at being your own support system. But precisely because you are grieving, this “relying on yourself” plan can fail. Similar to how people who are depressed don’t always realize how depressed they are or that they need help – a symptom of the affliction is not recognizing its severity – when you are grieving you may not recognize what you need or even objectively how well you are doing.

Time is supposed to heal all wounds, but what if that “healing” is actually a form of burying…is that truly healing? Perhaps there is nothing wrong with burying things. It eases the pain and, after all, we can’t stay stuck in our grief. We have to move on. Well this brings me to my next point, or maybe this is my first point:

Time does not heal all wounds.

This began to occur to me as I realized I was able to function in the world quite convincingly, but hardly able to think about Alec at all. I can’t even think around the margins, the edges, the outskirts, the godforsaken suburbs of this truth, without getting tears in my eyes. Now it’s tricky because I also know grief does not happen on a predetermined timeline. I have been aware since I started this new blog that grieving would be a long process. I vowed to take my time and not allow myself to feel rushed (whether by myself or others) through the process of mourning the untimely loss of the most important being in my life.

The question is: when does taking one’s time and being gentle with oneself morph into denial? Can denial (that wily anesthetic) masquerade as healthy grieving? I am using “denial” here to mean avoiding consciously thinking of something, not the more radical form where you are unable to accept an obdurate truth. I know Alec is gone. I just can’t think about him. I was patient with myself about the pictures (see last blog post, wherein I accepted that I was simply not ready to go through photos yet). I have been patient with myself for taking things in baby steps. I told myself it was okay to stay in the present (this is a healthy lesson for me in general) and not think about the past. Now I see it is more complicated.

Denial can look a lot like progress, especially on the surface.

Why does it matter? As long as the pain is rendered less acute, even if this is achieved through burying feelings or choking thoughts, what is the harm? Well, the potential danger is Stephen King’s Pet Semetary [sic] type scenario where what is buried does not stay buried. Perhaps that was a tasteless analogy given the topic, but it was the first image that popped into my head. The point is if you don’t grieve “properly,” if you have suffered a profound loss and not dealt with it, the pain might return, only worse. The feelings can come shuffling back like a mutant zombie army – stronger this time. Maybe they will have morphed into a physical ailment. Perhaps you will be lucky and the pain will stay buried forever. But is this the best option? I would argue a la Freud and the first law of thermodynamics that these buried feelings are only displaced or sublimated but not destroyed, meaning they have the potential to manifest themselves in other unhealthy ways. For Freud, sublimation (or transferring certain feelings into socially useful creations such as art) was a successful, as opposed to neurotic, defense mechanism and referred to the libido specifically, so I am appropriating his term and tweaking its meaning here, but I’m sure you get the idea. Ugly, messy, and painful though it may be, when dealing with profound loss, it may be better to keep things out in the open, aboveground.

I don’t mean to suggest we should make a fetish of our pain and dwell on it unnecessarily – that we should set up shop and live there. I am merely saying that it needs to be dealt with in some way. No kidding, you might be thinking. Why even bother stating something so obvious? Because I knew this from the beginning, and I thought I was doing it, yet still I find myself here: skittering along the surface of my days to avoid the pain. Denial is stealthy, which is why I didn’t notice it at first. It crept up on me when I wasn’t expecting it. I guess I thought denial would feel different, come sooner.

Despite my newfound suppression skills and budding talent for faking it, I still cry. I cried at my desk during work today and it was worse than it has been in awhile. I don’t even know why, except that I was thinking about him. Nothing special or out of the ordinary triggered the wave of sorrow. I cut it off, after I allowed myself to weep hopelessly for a few minutes. But I sensed the menacing presence of the abyss and I backed away again. I thought I would face it eventually. Now I’m not so sure. I don’t know how to. Maybe I don’t want to. So I have been aggressively focusing on the present moment, which used to be a goal of mine but now feels like another way of running from the past. I know there is a way to be present without hiding from the past – a way to go deeper without drowning – and I have to find it.

I was recently perusing the blog of grief counselor Enid Traisman, director of the pet loss support program at my local emergency animal hospital, when I came across a post called, “Myths I Have Heard.” I definitely recommend checking out the whole post but one “myth” in particular stood out to me:

Myth: Time heals all wounds. Just give it enough time and you will no longer feel so bad.

Reality: Time by itself does not heal the pain of grief related loss. It’s what you do with your time that matters. A successful course of mourning requires intentional hard work.

I have been patient with myself; I have that part down. This felt like a good thing at first, especially given my penchant for self-criticism. But almost two months later, I realize I need to get back to work. It’s about balance of course, but sometimes the line can become blurry if we do not intentionally check it. Hopefully this is a good start. Time alone might not be magic, but writing seems to hold some magical properties for me. I have written this in fits and starts over the course of several days and I feel calmer now, ready to move forward, to pull myself out of the mire. To try, that is.

I have attempted to be nonjudgmental with myself through this process, knowing there are countless ways to assimilate loss into one’s life. Just as each relationship is unique, so will be our reactions to the death of loved one. There is no perfect way through the thicket of grief, no correct mourning style, no right or wrong emotions. But not being able to think about Alec? As lost and confused as I may be, I know I can’t stay here. It may feel safer in the shallow end of the ocean, but that’s an illusion. It’s time to go deeper, maybe eventually to swim.

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Filed under Grief and loss