This week we continue with a series on death, dying and grief with guest blogger Deborah Leeds writing about the next step in processing the loss of her dog:
It is now one month since my year-old puppy, Gracie, was hit by a car; She died in my arms as a caring stranger raced us to the vet, where they lay her on a steel table and then told me she had no heartbeat. This loss sits alongside that of my mother, still here but on that strange trajectory that is dementia. She is sweet and loving, and her thinking is.....well, as my brother says, “dimensional”. I am losing her slowly, whereas losing Gracie was sudden, hard, and fast.
No matter the degree of my dislike of all of this - “dislike” being an understatement - I am forced into a reckoning with these experiences of life: death, loss. Change.
Sometimes, walking this path feels like walking on snow: I take one step and there is ground under my feet. The next moment, the next step, looks the same, but the snow unexpectedly drops four inches. So the process of grief is a wild ride, with moments of stability and “normalcy” (such a relief! Normalcy!) followed by a stab of sorrow that is at times so unexpected it is like a body-blow to my whole system. I feel exhausted, depleted, depressed.
At the same time, I am beginning to see a process now. When Gracie first died, I could not bring myself to light a memorial candle for her. That was too much a submission to the truth of her being gone.
But after several days, I wanted to light a candle for her. It was a way to stay connected to her, to find some location to feel into her essence when I needed to be able to “touch” her. When I lit the candle I sensed a shift: I was not fighting her absence. I sat more quietly with the truth. I shared this with a friend, who said that in lighting the candle, or creating a ritual, we “externalize” our grief; That this allows us to relate to our experience and ourselves in it with more consciousness than is the case when we are caught in the wildness of the emotion.
So I have gracefully been reminded about the principle of working with my experience so that I CAN RELATE TO IT, and be conscious with what arises in me rather than being pulled under these huge waves of intense emotion. This is tricky, because it is not about blunting or overriding the feelings. It is the intention to work with my experience rather than be worked over by it. And although it would seem that some things should not be subject to the same consideration: that everything is “grist for the mill”, an opportunity to see clearly the nature of reality, our own minds, and the truth of our own nature as conscious beings, I cannot escape that bottom line. Now, one month later, I do not want to; I want to take refuge in some ground of relating to my experience that is deeper than the unpredictable walk on the snow, that holds me and the wildness of this ride.
So, I am willing to look.I see that grief has many discreet elements that are their own distinct “neighborhoods” in my world. There is helplessness. Anger. Disbelief. Shocking powerlessness. The terrible realization that I do not have ultimate control in my life.The sorrow of someone “being gone from me”. Change. Change that I did not want.
Before Gracie died, I had a daily meditation practice which I had been doing for several months. After Gracie was killed, I couldn’t make myself sit. I didn’t want to be so available to all the pain I knew would be there.....I was already feeling it, for God’s sake! Leave me alone! But one morning I finally made it back to the cushion.And there was a moment in the meditation when I just “stepped back”. I had an experience of being in the place of awareness from which I could watch the experience of grieving....and for a small moment I went “Oh! There it is....that deep and familiar place of calm, neutrality, peace, “okayness”...Watching all of the experience from there. What is THAT place?”.
I realize, again, the significance of intention: either I will work with this, or it will work with me. And grief, although terribly painful, is no different than the rest of our experience: it is experience that I can examine: “how do I relate to this? Can I find the spaces around it? Is there a part of me that is not consumed....where is she? What is she?”
Neil, my husband, tells me that he works with the grief he feels, - and he has had many losses in his life - by “converting it to love”. He compares the inward collapse of depression and grief (isolating) and the extension of our energies outward TO love. He says that this is the healing: the contracted shut down of ourselves and our hearts to that which is itself the open heart of love.
I could not conceive of this when I first heard it, tears running off my chin during an unconsolable moment... But in this moment, I can. And I love the intention it requires, and the wisdom it holds. I feel my desire to respond to this question that is always there in life: will you use your experience to open your eyes and open your heart, or will you be swallowed by the myriad circumstances which life will present to you? Life cracks us open, if we are lucky. As Leonard Cohen beautifully wrote, “There is a crack in everything; That’s where the light gets in”.
Saying “no” to what is makes things harder. We shut down, but that changes nothing and closes our hearts. Although it is absolutely counter-intuitive to “open” to pain, this is the movement that returns us to love. Here is our shared humanity. Look around: There is not a soul you will see who is not carrying a story of sorrow and grief. It is what we do with this, in our hearts, that truly saves us or sinks us, separates us or connects us. A broken heart is painful, but a heart broken open is capable of remarkable love.
Next week: Josh Gressel writes about how American culture and death and grieving interact.
Deborah Leeds, MFT, is a couples and individual therapist with offices in Pleasant Hill and Berkeley, CA. Visit her website at deborahleeds.com
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at email@example.com.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com. He is currently accepting referrals.