Category Archives: Grief and loss

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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Filed under Grief and loss, Love after death


Did I act in his best interest? Not according to Gregory M. Dennis and the AVMA.

It’s funny how you can just be going about your day and then something comes along and punches you in the gut. Not that I have been feeling particularly happy lately. Though my mood is not as relentlessly wretched, I have not quite recovered my equilibrium after that post. I have been feeling sad and melancholy of late, just missing him so much. But today I was at work reading an article on pet guardianship vs. ownership from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that had landed in my inbox when I got to this paragraph:

Guardianship is a fiduciary relationship—the highest civil relationship owed by one person to another—in which a guardian must always act in the best interest of the ward. If this relationship were applied to animals and their owners, Dennis says any number of legal dilemmas could unfold. In veterinary medicine, for instance, euthanasia could become far more problematic because how can ending an animal’s life be in its best interest? (emphasis added)

And then I started crying. “…because how can ending an animal’s life be in its [sic] best interest?” How? Indeed. The guy who said that is an attorney and not a veterinarian. I can’t imagine a veterinarian saying this; in fact my trusted veterinarian gently but emphatically stated many times that NOT ending Alec’s life would not only not have been in his best interests, but also would have crossed the line into the opposite territory, because he had begun to suffer. And he was never going to get better. OR feel better. Ever again. In all likelihood he would die a painful and frightening death if I did not help him transition (a gentle, spiritual way to put what feels like the worst thing you could ever do: kill your best friend [and even as I type this I know it is wrong. I did not kill him – the cancer did. I helped him die, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions that was happening with or without me]). So I can’t imagine a vet saying the above. Even my dad (not exactly a radical type) would disagree. He often says it is ridiculous that humans don’t have the same right (except in Oregon and Washington) to choose death with dignity.

So I know this, right? And I know it is stupid. But why did tears fill my eyes? Why did I feel as though I had been punched in the gut? I emailed Mike and he told me what I needed to hear. He was there, after all. He saw Alec. He saw him more clearly than me because I didn’t want to let go. I had so much trouble. Again words could never capture my agony in taking that final action (how forced I felt…out of options, out of time), which I only could have found the strength to do if I believed with all my heart it was the most compassionate choice – that there really was no other choice if I truly loved Alec. And I did. I do. So I had to. But for some reason, reading this crushed me. I told Mike I feel like there is always just a thin layer between me and crumbling. He said “there is a thin layer for all of us, especially when you care about another being so much.” I guess that’s true.

It’s funny too because while the decision was the hardest most gut wrenching thing I have ever had to do, it wasn’t something I really questioned. Oh I did beforehand, of course. But I never would have made it if it was not the right choice. No, no, no. I have regretted many things since that day – most of all being put in that position in the first place. But I did not make that choice lightly. I guess it will always haunt me even though it was the right thing. What haunts me is having to say good-bye. Of course I wish I hadn’t. But he was dying, with or without my help. And because it was hard on me was not a reason to not end his life. It was an act of compassion, the last one I could do for him. As I have told so many people in a similar position: a painless death is the last gift you can give them (it was so obvious when I said this to my friends; it’s harder to heed your own advice), but it tore my heart out. And there is still a gaping hole there. The wind blows right through.

So you know what? Screw you, Mr. Dennis, for saying that and making me crumble all over again. I know you said it because you have an agenda, which involves trying to scare people away from the term “guardian” with alarmist hypothetical scenarios (even though it has virtually no legal significance). But you should think before you speak. You are wrong and it is not true. How can ending an animal’s life be in his or her interest? Ask a veterinarian. You should be ashamed of yourself, and the AVMA should be ashamed to have you working for them. I am aware that many people euthanize pets prematurely (or put them to death for trivial reasons involving convenience) and this is a tragedy, but many animals also suffer when their guardians, owners, caretakers — whatever terminology we use — well-meaning though they may be, selfishly make their animal companions hold on because they are unable to let go. I am sure you are aware of this fact, but disregarded it in favor of making a dramatic point. Well, I think you are a jerk for making me cry at work.

You see, that’s why writing can be therapeutic. I just shifted from crumbled to righteous indignation in about ten minutes. I am not a big fan of anger, but at least I stopped crying. Until the next punch in the gut. But that’s the thing about grieving: it’s not easy. And sometimes your emotions will be ambushed from the most unexpected places.

For every decision, big and small, I ever had to make on Alec’s behalf throughout his life only one question guided me, and it had nothing to do with finances, convenience, or expediency: What was in his best interests? I don’t mean to imply this was ever easy, especially when he struggled with terminal cancer, and later when his body began to succumb to the disease. In fact these were the most difficult decisions I have ever in my life made (even more difficult than those I had to make after he became paralyzed a mere two years earlier). It is much harder to make life-or-death decisions on behalf of someone else, someone who cannot talk and is entirely dependent upon your judgment. This is a lot of responsibility and it requires setting aside incredibly strong emotions so you can balance your own need to never let go of someone you love so dearly, and the need to see what is in his best interests (and then to act on this knowledge, a separate but equally difficult task).

Alec didn’t like cameras much but I (obviously) overruled him on that; however, I always put his needs first when it counted. There were too many things that were out of my control, but I did the best I could. I think I did okay. I think he was happy most of the time. All I ever wanted was to give Alec a good life. When that was no longer an option, the only thing left for me to give him was a good death. I’m so sorry, Alec. I wish with all my heart I never had to make that decision. I never wanted to let you go. But it would have been wrong to let you suffer.


Filed under Euthanasia, Grief and loss


“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.)


Filed under Grief and loss, Love after death


And today I can’t stop crying. What is this? Nothing makes sense to me anymore. All I keep thinking is, “I am pretending.” I am pretending to be okay. I can’t really grasp what has happened. Not just his death, all the circumstances surrounding it. Why? Why did it happen? I know that no one can answer this. There is no reason. But I miss him so, so, so much. And some days I can’t keep up the pretense that I’m fine without him. That I’m fine with time rocketing me away from the place where I last saw him. What is wrong with me? Will I never be okay again? I know loss can be transformative but not in a bad way, right? Everyone talks about the gifts. I feel nothing but robbed. It sounds self-centered, I know. Why am I not grateful for the time we spent together? Why do I just dwell on him dying too soon? On his being struck down when he had already been through so much. I was so happy. I feel I will never be happy again. There is the ugly truth. It is wretched. I am wretched. And I miss him so much I can’t stop crying even though it has been seven months.  I want him back so badly. Please come back. Please come back. Please. come. back.  How on earth do people deal with this? There is obviously something wrong with me, something missing, that I can’t get over this. Will a drug help me? Some magic pill? I tried to embrace the faith that I will see him again, but some days it is so hard and it seems impossible. I went to a party last night and drank too much. I am hungover today and already felt awful. I know this is making me raw, my emotions are bubbling too close to the surface because I don’t feel well. I guess the lesson is to take care of yourself when you’re grieving. Everything is always worse with hangover. I learned that in the beginning, but I guess some lessons keep coming back around. But this wretchedness is almost unbearable. It is a place without hope or purpose. It is like a trap I can’t get out of, because that trap is me. Me without Alec. Everyone says this is the cost of loving someone deeply, and that it is better to have loved. I just don’t know. The price is too high.

I have a little book called Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Though Grief. In the beginning I read each entry every day; now I flip it open occasionally, usually when I need some help or guidance. Today’s entry was, appropriately, about mood swings:

Whereas previously our moods seemed simply sad with occasional patches of light, now we may find an unsettling variety in our feelings, as happy times seem engrossing and satisfying, and then we are plunged into sadness again. Perhaps we can learn to accept these mood swings, recognizing the reality of each, knowing light gives way to darkness and darkness to light.

When we begin to feel better we enter a new range of feelings, maybe even some guilt – How could I feel good when the one I loved is gone? but even putting that false monster aside, the mood fluctuation can be unsettling. We’ll be having a genuinely wonderful time, freed at last from that continual background music of sadness. Then we remember and it feels like dropping through a trapdoor – a much more sudden and upsetting shift than when sadness was our prevailing mood… (March 6)

It does feel like dropping through a trap door, one with no floor, like you will never stop falling. And the thing is, I know that what I am feeling is normal. There will be ups and downs. Better days and harder days. Hope and despair. I know this intellectually. This is grief. Seven months isn’t that long. There probably isn’t anything wrong with me other than the usual. But this knowledge doesn’t help. It doesn’t lessen the pain. Because while there may be nothing wrong with me, my life feels wrong…which happens to be a title of a nice pop song by East River Pipe, so here you go: My life is wrong. Why not make a mix tape out of my grief?

you were a meteor
you were a dinosaur
you were the two by four
that cracked me in my head last night
let me wake up right
let me wake up right
because I know my life is wrong.

Post Script: I banged this out yesterday morning while sobbing and making my way through half a box of tissues, and yes, it was a wretched day and honestly, it scared the shit out of me. I have had inklings of this feeling, but now I realize it’s hiding just underneath at all times and when I get tired, sick, hungover, or even emotional about something else going on in my life, it comes roaring to the surface, snarling and gnashing its teeth, and makes everything so much worse. I don’t mean to imply I don’t miss him every day – of course I do – but this feeling of frantic desperation, almost of terror, is more rare.

I realized this new cheery certainty that I am going to see him again, that this is a temporary separation (it’s like he’s just out of town! [chirp! smile!]), is like the nervous too-wide smile plastered on the face of someone who is perilously close to panic. I am trying a little too hard to convince myself everything is okay, maybe. I didn’t realize it was work keeping that up. I am not doing it for anyone but myself and it is what I need to do, so I have embraced it, reason be damned (intuition be embraced!). But it’s only part of the story. I guess the takeaway lesson is to never let myself become hungover, tired, or emotionally upset ever again lest the demons of doubt, hopelessness, and wretchedness come screaming back to tear away my tenuous and uneasy peace. Sigh. Good luck with that, right?

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Filed under Grief and loss


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:


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.


Filed under Grief and loss, Love after death

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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Filed under Grief and loss

Breaking the silence.

It is impossible to think of a single “worst thing” about my separation from Alec; there are so many. However one of the worst things has surely been my inability to write. At first I could not even write in my journal. I have come back around to journaling in the last couple weeks, but first I had to let go of my expectations for coherence. I started off gradually, first scribbling in a plain composition notebook, where I knew I would feel less pressure than if I wrote in an actual journal. What is this pressure and why do I put it on myself? I don’t know; I only know I was blocked from writing down my feelings. Once I started to write again I could almost literally feel the therapeutic value of getting the twisted tangle of thoughts and emotions out of my head and onto paper. It functions – much like crying – as a sort of emptying process, if only temporarily.

Despite my return to journaling (always a sporadic habit at best, I picked it up again only recently as a coping mechanism when Alec became sick), I have been unable to write a blog post. I had this idea for a new blog: Alec’s Story, Pt. 2, in essence. I don’t remember if I already mentioned it, and I can’t go back and read my old blog posts now. I can’t even think about him too much or look at pictures without crying. Yes, two months later. It’s not that Alec is not on my mind. Oh, he is. Every minute of every day, he is there. But like the sun, I can’t look directly at this. I have to shield my eyes, only glance at the edges. Is there something wrong with me? I don’t think so. I know I have only begun my grief journey, a journey which will not be “finished” until I join Alec, wherever he may be. And that’s okay.

There is also nothing wrong with people who grieve differently than me. The way we experience grief is a reflection of many factors, including our relationship to the deceased loved one, the circumstances surrounding the death, our personal history of loss, psychological factors and coping mechanisms, available sources of social support, additional life stresses, and cultural background, among others. People who are able to integrate a loss into their lives more quickly did not necessarily love less (despite the adage that says the depth of our pain is equal to the depth of our love), just as someone who takes longer with this process is not necessarily having a pathological response. Everyone copes with grief differently; however, in cases of profound loss, there may be more universals than differences.

Tangent. My mind does not stay in one place very long these days. Anyway, I had this idea for a new blog. I wanted to write, yet I found myself silent. On paper that is. Inside my head is a very busy place. With all of the thoughts and emotions and experiences surrounding the loss accumulating, I thought I would have no problem coming up with topics about which to write. Maybe I could help someone who is going through something similar and thinks they are going crazy (trust me, in all likelihood you’re not… all the books back me up on this one). Maybe I would help myself. I found when Alec was sick, my blog was a lifeline of sorts. Thanks to the kind people who followed his story, I felt like I had a virtual community around me. Although I didn’t think I could write while going through that terrible time, somehow the act of writing, of recording, had therapeutic value. I thought after Alec died I could continue to write about things like the presence of absence and a million other topics having to do with losing a loved one. I thought it would help me stay connected to Alec, and maybe help me heal. But I haven’t been able to do it. Until now.

Lately, I have been going on a lot of long hikes in the woods, and on these hikes I try to quiet my mind. But my brain is very uncooperative (I try not to criticize – “Brain, will you SHUT UP??” – and instead let the thoughts arise and wait for them to drift away without judgment. That is what I am working on, anyway. Just like everything, it is easier said than done). When the incessant mental chatter would finally die down, I often found myself composing blog posts in my head. Ah ha, I would think. That’s what it is like; this is what I want to say. But I would promptly come home and forget everything I wanted to say. That is part of what it’s been like. So many thoughts and emotions coming and going, swirling overhead, resistant to capture or categorization. A jumbled mess.

So this is my attempt to break my silence. I am trying to corral my unruly grief and write about it, and in so doing begin to perhaps weave some meaning out of this loss. In a culture that has no time for grief, I am going to take my time. Because I loved him beyond words, and everything still hurts. I should maybe mention this post is not meant to be an example of me capturing or categorizing anything. This is just me throwing out random post #1, in hopes the next will be easier. That is what happened with my journal; I forced myself to write one day, and the next entry came easier, and I felt like there was maybe just a little bit more space in my lungs, at least for a time.

Writing is not for everyone. But the lesson holds: find something that makes you feel this way and try to do it. Simple but true. Some people have an artistic outlet. For others it might be physical activity, or meditation. Exercise was always my go-to activity to beat depression before losing Ali. It was the one thing that always worked in the past to make me feel better when I was seriously down or in the throes of anxiety. But this time, although I am still exercising regularly, it has not had the same ameliorative effect on my mood. Even our personal antidotes can change over time, as everything does (one of the many lessons I have been trying to internalize is the concept of impermanence).

Lastly, I don’t even do this consciously but I am aware that I feel pressure to write, like somehow I am denying Alec by not writing about this. I know it’s not true, but many of us have “crazy” thoughts when grieving (see above – this does not mean you are crazy). I also have a tendency to be very self-critical, so I have been trying to be compassionate with myself and say, “It’s okay. You will write again when the time is right. There is no rush.” But then again, maybe the internal pressure comes from some part of me that knows writing will be therapeutic. Despite the fact that I don’t know what I am saying or what this post is about (other than me tentatively dipping my toe back into the well of words), I can feel my chest loosening a little from writing something down. Just a little, but maybe that is enough for right now.

The real reason I am posting this is that today (10/10/10) would have been Alec’s 10th birthday. I had planned to put together a photo slideshow and I gave myself today as a “deadline.” Two months ago, October 10th seemed far enough away that I would have plenty of time. Yet here I am, and I have not even been able to look at his pictures. I felt like a failure and anxiety was gnawing at me all week until a friend told me it was okay to wait…that although there will always be tears, I should do this when I can also smile along with the tears; that it should be a celebration. Somehow her words lifted a burden I didn’t even know was on my shoulders. I wanted to post something special for his birthday, and instead here’s what you get. But it’s a start. And while I miss him every minute of every day, the days leading up to his birthday have been harder for me, just as the books all predicted (birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, seasons changing, etc. can all be grief triggers). I don’t have a lot of social support so these books have been invaluable. I am also a hyper-reflexive and analytical person, so I have been acting as my own therapist, along with the books. Wow, typing that I realize part of why it is so busy in my head! And why it has been so hard to write down.

I think that is probably enough randomness for one post. But on this day that should have been a joyful celebration, like it was last year, I offer my sincere if bumbling attempt to continue the story, because I love Alec with every fiber of my being, and because love does not end with death. Happy Birthday, sweetie. Oh, how I wish you were still here with me.


Filed under Grief and loss