I’ve been going through the wringer lately. The wringer of grief, loss, and hardship squeezing every bit of gunk out of me and leaving me with a dry, flattened, and raw new me. Grief has this funny and not-so-funny way of flipping our lives upside down, shaking us to the core, and then asking us to pick ourselves back up to keep going. When we are grieving it’s like we are carrying an invisible load of rocks on our shoulders that no one else can see but it cannot be ignored by the person carrying it. It’s like a 100 pound veil that affects our entire existence while we are deep in grief.
Grief isn’t something new to me, I lost both of my parents within the last decade and this old friend of grief has come to visit again after my dear Labrador Forbes died. I call grief my old friend because it tends to come around when I least expect it and it stays longer and more intrusive than I want it to. The thing is I usually end up learning so much from grief, loss, and death as if she is an old wise friend encouraging me to look deep within and see myself and the world with new perspectives.
I can’t say that I am a grief expert but I have been through three significant losses in my life – so far. My father was diagnosed with a neurological degenerative disease and slowly died over the course of six years. Even though I didn’t know how to express or explain it, grief was in my life for the entirety of his illness as I slowly watched the disease take over every bit of my father’s identity. My mother suddenly died from a heart attack, only three years after my father passed. On Sunday we had lunch and went grocery shopping together and the next day, on a Monday morning, she died. The grief of losing someone so close to me suddenly is some of the most pain and suffering I have ever endured. My sweet dog Forbes was with us for nine years, and I mean by my side every single minute. I haven’t peed or had alone time in years, and as someone who is child-free by choice my dog was the closest being I’ll ever have to an adopted child. We knew from the beginning he was going to have severe hip issues, and about three years ago we placed a harness on his body so we could assist him with getting in and out of the cars, RV, and stairs. We’ve picked him up several times a day for the last three years. From the moment we placed the harness on him, we knew his time was coming but we didn’t know exactly when. His pain increased and these last two months of his life were extremely challenging. We were doing our best to take care of him but even our bodies and minds were exhausted from caregiving. We eventually decided to compassionately goodbye for his peace and ours.
So I’ve experienced a variety of distinctive grief experiences in my life. Even though those times have been some of the most challenging periods of my life, I end up learning new things and seeing the world differently. I believe grief, loss, and death are a huge part of my healing journey – they are some of my greatest teachers. I don’t wish grief on anyone but it’s an inevitable experience we humans will all go through, because death is a part of being alive. We cannot be alive without death, and we cannot have death without rebirth. When I say death that doesn’t always mean the physical death of someone, but it could also mean loss, separation, or change on a very fluid spectrum. As an example, it could be the loss of an identity, the separation of an old friendship, or the change of a career or homestead.
Grief ask us to look straight into the eyes of changes we don’t wish to see.
Whenever there is a significant death, loss, or change, especially with those that we didn’t want, didn’t ask for, or wasn’t ready for, we resist the change. Of course we do! Change takes us out of our comfort zones and into the area we’ve all been conditioned to fear and avoid – the unknown. The unknown of who we are without this person, pet, or thing. The unknown of solid ground beneath our feet. The unknown of what the future holds. The unknown of what we can not control.
These and many more unknowns are scary – trust me, I get it. What I have realized is grief seems to place a spotlight on the things that matter most but we haven’t been paying attention to. Maybe they are things we are scared to admit, things we fear to say and do, or the things we have avoided or ignored for far too long. I will share with you a few of the many lessons I’ve learn along my path:
Things I was scared to admit
I have been grieving the loss of my dog Forbes since we placed the harness on him three years ago. We live in an RV, about 150 sq ft, and since the day we brought him home I have worked from home with Forbes right by my side. I knew this dog’s every move, expression, and bowl movement. In these last few months when his needs became more intense, I started to build resentment. This isn’t easy to say out loud because I truly loved and gave my all to him. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him or treat him well, but I was personally exhausted from years of carrying and catering to him. “How many more years can I take of this?” I’d ask myself over and over. This sadness and exhaustion slowly swells and no one can take on this kind of effort forever, so resentment builds. This resentment was a very similar feeling to watching my father die. He needed constant attention, his disease was incredibly complex, and after years of taking care of him we (my mom and I) were exhausted. As I flow through this grief with Forbes I realize I had never truly healed from my father’s death. I resented him and the disease for so long that I remember the feeling of relief when he died. The shame and guilt I held for feeling relief was incredibly deep and painful for many years after. I was scared, I mean terrified to admit I had grown tired of taking care of my Dad and Forbes. I was scared to admit that there was a bubbling resentful heat inside me, even though I loved both of these beings so much. I was scared to admit that I was ready to move forward in life, even if that meant without them. I was scared to say these things out loud for fear that someone will think I didn’t treat my father or dog with integrity and love. I know now that everything I feel is valid, and admitting, feeling, and accepting those are a path to inner freedom. I am still very much healing from the loss of my Dad and Forbes, and the complex web of emotions around their illnesses, caregiving, and death.
Things we fear to say or do
On the last few days before we compassionately said goodbye to Forbes through euthanasia, my husband and I spent a lot of time curled up in bed with Forbes just loving and talking to him. We ended up putting everything out on the table – all of the I’m sorrys, I love yous, and please forgive mes. I was terrified to tell Forbes how sorry I was for my past actions. I grew up in a household where I learned to hit or push dogs as a disciplinary measure. I, too, was hit and pushed as a disciplinary measure. So in the first year or two of having Forbes, I would sometimes swat him on the nose, hit him on his back, or push him when he was acting out of line. It wasn’t often but it happened and that is so hard to admit. When I started my healing journey I realized that those learned behaviors are not who I am. I may have learned them but I can also unlearn them, and I never hit, swatted, or pushed Forbes again. That old Glenda is of the past but I needed to take responsibility for my actions, even if they were seven years ago. So I was open about each time I remember hitting him out of anger, telling him he didn’t deserve that, and asking for forgiveness. This was probably one of the most healing, cathartic, and hardest things I have ever done. I know deeply that Forbes heard me and forgave me.
The things we have avoided or ignored for far too long
Whenever I go through death and loss, I am reminded of impermanence and presence. Two beautiful lessons that our culture teaches us in the opposite direction. Because of our western society, most of us grew up with the teachings of controlling everything and living only in our thinking minds of the past and future. We didn’t grow up understanding and accepting that everything changes and how little we control what changes or how to be fully present in our lives. Impermanence reminds me that everything no matter how tight our grip is will change and disappear. And presence comes in that when we understand and accept that impermanence will touch every aspect of our lives, the only thing we can control is being present in the moment. When we are aware of the present moment, we’re not thinking about to-do’s, reading between the lines of what the cashier said, or having anxiety about the future. We just are – observers who are aware without judgment. It’s amazing how when I learned how to be present and aware how significantly my life shifted. I became rich with experience and the feeling of aliveness. No matter what situation I am in, I can always be present and experience this peace and safety. I am by no means perfect in being present (remember this is a practice, not perfection), but death and loss seem to remind me of how finite we are and so is everything else. If I want to live with no regrets, one of the most powerful gifts I can give myself is to be aware and present and embrace impermanence.
I am still healing through each and every one of these awarenesses. I am still being curious about what each means or even not attaching a meaning. I am still feeling and healing from them. I am still open to taking as much personal responsibility, asking for forgiveness, forgiving myself, and allowing the process to unfold. I know with all of my heart the more I keep doing this, the more space I’ll make for inner freedom and peace. As you very well know, life is not easy or simple most of the time but I truly believe we can look at hard times to teach us lessons so that we may find our inner peace.