You’re Not Going Crazy, You’re Grieving:
Navigating Animal Companion Loss in a Post-Pandemic World
Saturday, August 14, 2021
10:00 a.m. Pacific Time (US and Canada)
As you grieve, the sand may shift beneath your feet, but it need not swallow you.
In the safe space of this interactive webinar, Cat Camp counselors Jackson Galaxy and Animal Companion Loss Recovery Specialist, Stephanie Rogers, GCCA-C, CT, will familiarize you with the landscape of Compounded Grief, a world in which the grief experiences of personal loss are amplified by the universal losses associated with COVID-19.
Whether the loss of your animal companion is recent or happened years ago, we hope you’ll join us and find support in the company of others who are striving to incorporate similar losses into their own lives.
You are not alone.
Click here to register for this limited attendance event.
Popularly known as “The Cat Daddy,” Jackson Galaxy is the host and executive producer of Animal Planet’s long running hit show “My Cat From Hell.” Jackson, an animal advocate and cat behavior and wellness expert, is also a two-time New York Times best-selling author with more than 25 years of experience working with cats and their guardians. Jackson’s mission is to educate people about cats and deepen the human and cat bond, while reducing the number of animals that end up in shelters.
Stephanie Rogers, GCCA-C, CT is a certified Grief Counselor and Thanatologist with specializations in Child and Adolescent Grief and Animal Companion Loss Recovery. She has been a practicing Grief Counselor, Support Group Facilitator, and End-of-Life Speaker and Educator since 2004.
Brought to you by Love & Above Cat Club
Love and Above Cat Club specializes in Self-Care for Cat Lovers. This labor of love was inspired by a love of cats that goes above and beyond. Our mission is to help you love yourself like you love your cat!
It has been eighteen months. Almost to the day.
Eighteen months of loss — living with loss, working with loss, experiencing and re-experiencing loss after loss after loss.
Loss to death, yes. Professionally, every day in the work that I love and know I am meant to do. Personally, when, in the first fifteen months of life without my mother, I had to put down three precious pets, including her own Border Collie, the beloved BelleRogers.
But other losses as well. Less obvious, more insidious losses. Betrayals and desertions. Broken promises. Misplaced trust. The falling away of people and things and circumstances I had expected to carry me through the rest of my life. The loss of home and health and strength and stamina and peace. The loss of dreams. The loss of hope.
“Ambiguous losses”, “Secondary losses”.
The pain and confusion of which has been neither ambiguous nor secondary.
The eighteen hardest months of my life.
Harder than being young and broke and hungry in every way there is to be hungry. Harder than the aftermath of three miscarriages. Harder than the disintegration of a decade-long career. Harder than the dissolution of a twenty year marriage. Harder than the death of my father. Harder than the death of my sister. Harder, even, than the death of my mother itself.
Harder, because through all those other circumstances, all those other experiences and lessons, I still had her. She was with me. Even when I was not with her.
Which was much of the time.
Ours was a difficult relationship. She was not an easy mother. I was not an easy child. I think we often made it look easy, at least far easier than it was. Much of that was due to her ability to be one person outside our home and a completely different one inside it. Much of it was due to my luck in simply not getting caught at the many things I did just to get away and stay away from her — physically, emotionally, mentally Away.
Still, no matter what, no matter when, I always knew she was “there” — whether I wanted her to be or not. I think I spent much, too much, of my life, resenting rather than being grateful for that. Years when I clung too ferociously to memories of bloody lips and even bloodier words, refusing to allow myself the full benefit of the truly unconditional love that was hers, and hers alone, for me.
I thought I had let go all that during the last ten years of her life, those years we spent together. And I did let go much of it. But, I think, not all. Perhaps it is not possible to let go all. Perhaps, even, we are not meant to. Perhaps we are meant, instead, to use it to rise, to evolve into something better, into someone more.
The title of this blog is Embracing Your Grief. Looking back over these eighteen months, I can see that, despite my best efforts, I have failed to do that.
It’s not so much that I have denied my grief. Certainly I have not insisted upon some “alternative fact” to my mother’s death and its subsequent losses. And there have most definitely been times in these eighteen months when I have forced myself to take my own advice and “lean into” the pain of her loss. Those times, those nights of literal Crying Out to and for her, those days of Sitting With the literal inability to breathe in a world in which she no longer does, have, without doubt, saved what sanity I have left.
But it does not mean that I have embraced my grief.
At least not fully.
Because that requires purpose.
And for the past eighteen months, I have had very little purpose beyond just getting through one day, one moment, to the next.
For months now, I have tried to write of the grief I have felt since the night of November 8th, as I watched my greatest fears realized one Electoral College vote after another. I have tried so many times to write of this latest loss, but I have yet to get further than a sentence or two, and, most times, not even that.
It is a national grief, at least for many of us. And it goes far beyond the failure of a particular candidate to be elected to office.
Personally, Hillary Clinton was never “my candidate”. Bernie Sanders was my candidate. Elizabeth Warren could have been my candidate. Not Hillary. However, she was, and is, imminently more qualified than any of the sixteen possible opponents she faced and certainly far more able than the one who was ultimately enthroned by our outmoded, outdated Electoral College system.
But, no, I do not grieve the particular loss of Hillary Clinton as POTUS.
The losses I grieve, the losses I believe so much of the nation joins me in grieving, are much greater, much deeper, much more visceral than that.
I grieve the loss of national compassion. Of tolerance. Of empathy. I grieve the proliferation of national racism. Of greed. Of misogyny. I grieve the fact that intelligence and liberality and open-mindedness have become sins. I grieve the blow to my belief that people are basically, inherently good. That, given opportunity and information, they will make choices that reflect that inherent goodness, not only for their own best interests, but for the Common Good, for the Greater Good.
That is tremendous grief.
And it, like the grief of my mother’s death, has been more than I have been able to embrace.
Yesterday, scrolling through photographs of peaceful protests across not just my country, but the world, by women and the men who are strong enough to support them, I realized that the blow to my belief in the basic goodness of humanity has not been a fatal one.
Not by a long shot.
Yesterday, I saw my mother in the faces of those women. I heard my mother’s voice telling me as it had done from infancy that I could do, could be, anything and anyone I chose, telling me that I did not need a man to give me permission or make it possible for me to do so. I heard my mother telling me that women are the strongest creatures in the world.
Yesterday, I heard my mother remind me of my purpose.
I bear within me the same Cherokee native/Irish immigrant blood that carried her through almost nine decades of a life filled with far greater challenges than any I have ever faced. There is strength and hope in that blood. Great strength. Boundless hope.
The kind of strength and hope that allowed an uneducated 25 year old mother of a severely disabled child to look at doctors and say, “Oh, no, my child will not die. I don’t care what you say — my child will not die.” The kind of strength and hope that fought for that child’s highest quality of life for 58 years, then managed to help that life end with grace and dignity and peace.
The kind of strength and hope on which this entire nation has been built.
Yesterday, my mother reminded me of all that. Yesterday, my mother reminded me that I am her daughter.
No matter what, no matter who, no matter the loss, the heartbreak, the disappointment, the abandonment, the rejection, the fear that has occurred in the last eighteen months, and that no doubt lies ahead, I am Stephanie Dawn Monica Rogers, Betty Jo’s daughter.
Betty Jo’s purposeful daughter.
And she has given me the strength to embrace anything.
So often this time of year, clients say to me, “I just want to go to sleep and not wake up until it’s next year”.
Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can empathize with this feeling as the holiday whirlwind approaches. This is especially true if you are in the midst of “The Firsts” — First Thanksgiving, First Christmas, First Hanukkah, First Ramadan, First any Special Occasion without your loved one.
This year, in the wake of my mother’s death, I personally find the idea of hibernation incredibly appealing. I can so easily see myself climbing into bed the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and not climbing out until after Valentine’s Day. Because who wants to be awake through the bleakness of January anyway?
Even without the added strain of grief, the holidays can be one of the most chaotic and stressful times of the year. The need, fed by retail businesses and the media, to buy the perfect gift, create the perfect day, and be the perfect person, is impossible to meet during the best of times. Add in the sadness, anxiety, fear, and exhaustion of grief, and these unrealistic expectations take on monstrous proportions, with sometimes disastrous results.
I’ve offered many tips for holiday survival through the years, but when it came time to compile them for this post, I was overwhelmed. What good are “Fifty Ways to Take Care of Yourself During the Holidays” when I can barely manage to dress myself in the morning? (Remind me to tell you about the day a few weeks after my mother died, when I managed to put on a blouse, but failed to actually button it up until I was walking across the parking lot into my office…) So, I began culling and cutting the Fifty Ways and wound up with the following four. Four is a number I can manage. At least most days. I hope you can, too.
#1 — Be Your Own Caregiver. Many of us who are grieving have been caregivers. And caregivers are notoriously bad at taking care of themselves. Try imagining what you would do for or say to your dead loved one if he were alive and in your place. Chances are you would tell them that the holidays are not about how much you buy, cook, or do, but about the quality of time you spend with those you love.
S L O W D O W N. My mother often said to me (especially during the holidays), “Stop goin’ at it like you’re killin’ snakes!” Which meant, “Slow down! Just stop, sit down, spend time with me.” Slow down physically, emotionally, financially. Set limits and budgets not just for money, but for the more important things like time, energy, and emotion.
Learn to say “No”. Without apologies, without excuses, just, “No”, simply because No is what’s best for you. In grief, there are days when it takes all we have just to get out of bed. When those days come, reward yourself for simply getting up. Have a quiet cup of tea, take a hot bath, go for a leisurely walk, play — really PLAY — with a child or a pet. And if there’s a day when it is simply impossible to get out of bed, then don’t. Everyone’s holidays will not be ruined if you fail to make a meal, a party, or a shopping trip. Everyone’s holidays will not be ruined if you fail to make ANY meals, parties, or shopping trips. Be gentle with yourself. Be as gentle with yourself as you would be with your loved one were he in your place.
#2 — Allow Yourself to Feel What You Feel. Be in the moment, whatever that moment is. I just spent an amazing weekend with my best friend of 37 years. During the 48 hours we were together, we were totally and completely present. We had no agenda, no script, no idea of what we were going to “do” beyond just Being Together and yet somehow we did more, saw more, said more, and felt more than we could possibly have done with even the best constructed plan. It was incredibly healing. A true holiday.
So, if you’re tired, rest. If you can’t face the shopping mall, don’t go. If you want to talk, find someone who will truly listen. If you need time alone, take it. If you’re happy, laugh. If you feel guilty about being happy, acknowledge the guilt, then let it go. If you feel like crying, cry. You won’t “bring everyone down”. In fact, your ability to express your own grief may well give others (especially children) the permission to do the same.
#3 — Re-think Your Holiday Traditions. Take each tradition and ask these question about it:
Where did it come from?
What does it mean?
What is its purpose in our family?
Why do we continue to do it?
What is its True Cost — in money, time, people, energy?
Is this a tradition we really want to keep?
If the True Cost of a must-keep tradition is prohibitive, look at keeping it in a different way, adapt it, or delegate part of its responsibility/costs to others. Teach a younger family member the secret Christmas Cake recipe, then supervise while they do the work. If you don’t want to give up a tradition entirely, then ask for — and allow — others to help you with it. Consider eating out, or buying pre-made dinners or desserts. If the idea of mall shopping while traditional carols blare all around you is more than you can bear, shop online at home while listening to your favorite non-traditional music. Be sure to include your family in these traditions discussions. You may find that a tradition you assumed was priceless really doesn’t mean that much to the family as a whole. What’s more, you may find that together you create brand new traditions.
The first Thanksgiving after my sister died, when my mother and I learned we were going to be alone for the holiday, I asked her if she would be alright with only a turkey breast since it was just the two of us.
“You know, I hate turkey,” she answered.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think I knew that…”
“Well, I do.” She made an awful face.
“Um, well, Ok…” I said. “We could do a small ham, maybe?”
She shook her head. “I don’t want any of that kinda stuff.”
“You don’t want any dressing?” I asked. “You don’t want my sweet potatoes?”
“Well, ok, Momma. What do you want then?”
“Enchilladas,” she said, not missing a beat. “I want those enchilladas you make with all that cheese.”
I was incredulous. The woman made herself sick on my sweet potatoes every Thanksgiving and Christmas. But she insisted, and so a new tradition was born. We had an Enchillada Thanksgiving Dinner each year for the rest of her life, whether we were alone or not. This year, my first without her, I’m making them in her honour for my co-workers.
The best traditions mirror the families from which they come, families that evolve and change from year to year. Death is one of the greatest changes your family will experience. Don’t be afraid to allow your holiday traditions to reflect that change.
#4 — Include the Elephant. Oftentimes, the death of a loved one sits in the room like the proverbial elephant that everyone sees but no one wants to acknowledge. This is especially true during the holidays.
One of the many blessings of my friend’s weekend visit was that I never felt as though I couldn’t or shouldn’t talk about my mother’s death. I never felt I had to, nor that I was expected to, either. I only knew that her death would be a welcome subject should I need it to be. And sometimes I did. Actually, that’s not quite true. It was more that my mother’s memory arose of its own accord throughout our conversations. A time or two, it was about her death, her actual death or funeral, but mostly it was about her life. It was as though my mother knew she was welcome in our weekend and so she made herself known in funny stories, in music, in shared remembrances that flowed seamlessly in and out of those hours we spent together.
So, don’t worry that you “might make everyone feel bad” — most likely, they already do, just as you do, and recognition of your shared pain can be a great relief. Set a place for your loved one at the holiday table, drink a toast to them, include their favourite food. Encourage everyone to tell their best holiday story about the dead, play the music they loved most, write them a letter or a poem and share it. Take the money you would have spent on their holiday gifts and make a memorial donation to their special charity. Volunteer time to help others in their name. The important thing is to acknowledge their absence. In so doing, you acknowledge your on-going love for them — and theirs for you — and that is how you carry them forward with you into this and every future holiday season.
His name was Eric. He was 14.
His mother had died about three months earlier. I had never met her. She was young, only 35, and by the time she had come onto our hospice service, the GBM (Glioblastoma) that had attacked her brain had changed her into someone her son could not recognize, someone who could not recognize him. During the last days of her life, Eric’s gentle, proper mother had screamed obscenities at him from her death bed, accusing him of being a devil sent to torment her, throwing things at him with a strength that belied her physical condition. In the end, medication and exhaustion sent her into a peaceful sleep that allowed Eric to return to her bedside, but kept him from ever again hearing his mother’s true and loving voice.
By the time his father called me, Eric was experiencing long bouts of insomnia, kept awake by fears of dreams in which his mother’s diseased ravaged voice accused him of killing her; sometimes threatening to kill him. Anxiety and sleeplessness were compounding Eric’s normal grief symptoms of anger and withdrawal to the point that his father was more than a little concerned. Struggling with his own grief, he admitted that he feared for his son’s physical and mental health.
“Every day I’m more afraid of what I might find when I walk in from work,” he told me over the phone. “I don’t know what to do to help him.”
I wasn’t sure I did.
At the time, I was what I now call “A Baby Counselor”. In fact, I wasn’t a Grief Counselor at all. I had been a Bereavement Coordinator with my hospice for only about six months and had only just begun the studies that would lead years later to degrees and certifications. I spent much of those first couple of years terrified that I would do more harm than good to people coming to me for help. This was especially true any time I dealt with children. So, it was with great trepidation that I made Eric’s first appointment for a week from his father’s call.
Adolescents are just amazing. Truly. In so many ways. And this is never more evident that when they are grieving. The ability to sit in stony silence when hormones have your body in constant turmoil is amazing enough, but add to that the anger, fear, and utter confusion that comes with death, especially the death of a parent, and the fact that they can sit in total, unmoving, unwavering S I L E N C E for what may well be eternity, is absolutely astounding. But they can.
And Eric did.
“I’m really glad you agreed to come see me,” I told him after his father left the room.
“Your father is really concerned about you.”
“I know it has to seem a little weird to be expected to come in and talk to a total stranger about personal things.”
Silence. Only this time with the addition of arms crossing his chest and what I thought was an eye roll, though I couldn’t say for sure as his eyes were thickly hooded by the black hair that fell forward from his lowered head.
“Do you have anything you want to ask me?”
“Yeah,” he grunted.
I was elated. “Great! What is it?”
“How long do I have to stay here?” He lifted his head only just enough for me to see the glare in his blue eyes.
I knew that glare. I had seen it many, many times from the eyes of the fourteen year old living in my own house. And while I may not have known much as a grief counselor, I knew enough as a mother to understand that how I answered that question, and that glare, would determine exactly where this relationship was going to go, if it went anywhere at all.
So, I was silent.
For a long time.
I picked up a pen and began writing on some forms. After a moment, I heard Eric shift in his chair. I didn’t look up. Another moment. He cleared his throat. I moved papers, but still didn’t look up. Finally, he said,
“Hmmm?” I asked softly, eyes still glued to the papers.
“So??? How long do I have to stay here???” he almost yelled.
I looked up. Where I had expected to see an angry teenager, was the pinched face of a child very near to tears.
“Well,” I said, glancing at the clock facing me on my desk, “Your dad will be back to pick you up at 4:45. It’s 4:15.”
He slumped forward in his chair as though I had slapped him. I wanted nothing so much as to come around the desk and wrap him up in my arms. Instead, I said, “But you can wait for him outside if you want to,” and went back to my papers.
For a moment, I was afraid he might actually do it, but he continued to sit, staring at his feet, while I scribbled at my papers.
At about 4:25, he stood up. I held my breath. But instead of walking to the door, he walked around my office, going from window to wall, back to window, finally stopping at the bookshelf where he stood staring.
“She yours?” he finally asked, picking up a photograph from a shelf.
“Yes,” I said.
“How old is she?”
“In that picture she was five.”
“Oh.” He replaced the photo, picked up another. “This now?”
“She turned fourteen last month.”
He walked back to the chair, looked straight at me and gave me an, “Ok” that was so much more than just an Ok.
“What time is it now?” he asked.
I looked at the clock, having no idea what had just happened, but knowing something definitely had.
“How often is my Dad gonna make me do this?”
“Well,” I said, “He would like for you to come see me once a week for a while.”
“Ok,” he said again. “I’ll tell you what. I’m gonna ask you a question and if you can answer that question, then I’ll come back next week. But just next week.”
He stretched out his legs in front of him, put his hands behind his head, and suddenly I was dealing with a tycoon instead of child.
It was my turn to say, “Ok…”
“Alright — here goes. Here’s my question.” He sat up, looked straight into my eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “Why?”
I waited, our eyes still locked. Finally, I said, “Why….?”
My mind was racing. I desperately wanted to say anything except the only thing I could think of to say, which was also exactly what I knew he expected me to say, which was, Why what???
So, instead I made one of the worst and most common counseling mistakes I could have made — I assumed.
I assumed he was asking, Why did my mother have to die? and I began babbling the worst possible response, a response full of just about every possible platitude from It Was Her Time to She Was In So Much Pain.
More than a decade later, I still cringe thinking about it.
Fortunately for us both, Eric cut me off.
“No, no, no,” he said with righteous disgust. “That’s not what I’m talking about. I know all that junk. That’s not what I’m talkin’ about.”
“Then what are you talking about?” I said, finally asking the question I should have from the start.
“I’m talking about THIS!” he exclaimed, slapping himself full on the chest.
“This! This! This!” he yelled, hitting himself so hard I thought about stopping him. “T H I S!!! All this pain! Why THIS??? All this fucking pain! Why does it have to hurt so fucking much all the fucking time?!? What’s the fucking point????”
I said nothing. I stared.
“Because, I’m tellin’ ya, if you can’t answer that, if you can’t give me some reason, and I mean some really good, GOOD reason, for why I have to feel like this, then I’m not comin’ back here. I don’t care what my dad says. I’m not ever comin’ back here again!”
He fell back in the chair, breathing hard, tears running down his cheeks, but his eyes still locked on mine.
I don’t know how long we sat like that, staring in silence, until I heard myself say,
“I don’t know.”
My voice was weak. I remember wondering if I’d even said it out loud or if it was just the echo of what was rolling around in my head.
“You don’t know?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No, Eric,” I said a little louder. “I don’t know.”
His flushed face was a mixture of triumph and disappointment. He looked back down at his feet.
“But, I’ll make you a deal now,” I offered. “No, actually, I’ll make you a promise.”
He looked up.
“If you’ll come back, we’ll figure it out. If you’ll keep coming back, we’ll find an answer. We’ll find an answer together.”
He stared hard at me.
“You promise?” he asked.
So, he came back. Every week for about 4 months, he came back. Every week, I dreaded him asking me The Question again. Dreaded, because I still had no answer. Even though I read and studied and researched and prayed and meditated, I still had no Answer. I had answers, I had other people’s answers, I had grief research theories and theses, but I had no Answer. At least none that I knew would meet with anything but a cry of, “Bullshit!” from Eric.
And from myself.
Until one day driving to work, it hit me. It was simple. It was so simple I couldn’t believe it had taken me months to figure it out.
“I think I’ve got it,” I told him during our next session.
“Got what?” he asked.
“The Answer”, I said.
“The answer to your question,” I said. “Your Big Question — from that first day you came here — remember?” .
“Ohhhhhhhhhh!” he said, hanging his head sheepishly. “That. Well. That’s ok. I wasn’t gonna mention it again. I figured you’d just forgotten.”
I couldn’t believe it.
“Forgotten? How could I forget that?”
Eric’s smile was big and genuine.
“Alright,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “Ok. Let’s hear it.”
Suddenly, I was wary. When the answer finally came to me, it seemed so obvious, so true in its simplicity, that I had never stopped to think that Eric might not agree. What if he didn’t buy it? But, there was nothing for it now. I knew in my gut that it was The Answer, besides, it was all that I had to give him.
“Ok,” I began. “But first, I need to ask you something. Do you know what “compassion” means?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I guess so…”
“What do you think it means?”
“Well, it’s like… like feeling sorry for somebody, isn’t it? Like really, really sorry for somebody?”
“Not really,” I said. “At least, not completely. What you’re talking about is more like sympathy — like looking at someone who is hurting and feeling sorry for them.”
“Like when I see a guy get slammed to the mat on WWF and I think, ‘Oh man, that musta hurt!’ — that’s sympathy?”
I stifled a laugh.
“Yes, well, pretty much — yes, that’s sympathy. And that’s a good thing to have — having sympathy is a good thing. But it’s not necessarily compassion. To have compassion for someone requires something more, something deeper. Something called ’empathy'”.
“Empathy?” he asked. “Sounds like the same word as sympathy.”
“I know it does, but it isn’t.”
I could feel I was on the verge of losing him to confusion and boredom, so I decided to stick with his own analogy.
“Say you see that same WWF guy get slammed, only this time say that you yourself have been slammed that exact same way…”
“Oh, man — no way!”
“I know, but let’s just say that you have — that something happened to you sometime — an accident or a car wreck — just something that caused you to be thrown down hard and have all the wind knocked out of you like is happening to him.”
“Say that happened to you one time and then you see this WWF guy get slammed onto the mat and he’s lying there and having trouble breathing and can’t get up, only this time when you see him, you remember what it felt like when YOU got slammed. You remember what it felt like when YOU were down and couldn’t breathe and couldn’t get up. And seeing him slammed down there like that now makes you feel again all the same things you felt when it happened to you — Isn’t that a different feeling that just being sorry for the guy?
“Yeah, I guess so…”
“It’s different because you know exactly how he feels because you’ve felt it yourself. It’s deeper, you feel it in a deeper place, you can actually feel it in your body because you HAVE felt it before yourself.”
I could tell by the look on his face that he was beginning to follow.
“So now you’re not just sorry for the guy because it LOOKS like it hurts, you’re actually FEELING what he feels because you’ve been through it yourself.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said enthusiastically. “Ok, yeah — yeah, I see — it’s sort of like re-living it, huh? Yeah, that really does make it different.”
“Yes, it does,” I nodded gratefully. “And that difference is called EMPATHY. Empathy and not just sympathy. It takes empathy to make compassion. And compassion is so much more than just feeling sorry for someone you see hurting or in trouble. Compassion is what makes you want to actually help them.”
We were quiet. I watched him thinking, hoping that I’d made any sense at all. After a bit he spoke.
“Ok, I think I get it. There’s feeling sorry for somebody — that’s SYMpathy. Then there’s that other thing — the thing where you know what it is they’re really going though because you’ve gone through it yourself– that’s the EMpathy thing. Then when you feel the EMpathy thing, and it makes you wanna help somebody, that’s the compassion thing. Is that it?”
I smiled at him, nodding. I was exhausted.
Suddenly, he laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“I was just thinkin’ — I don’t think those WWF guys need the compassion thing — I mean, you know that’s all fake doncha?”
It was my turn to laugh.
“Ok,” he said with a grin. “But, so, what’s all that stuff got to do with my question?”
I took a deep breath. I’d been so grateful to get through the WWF analogy, I had almost forgotten The Question.
“It has everything to do with it,” I said. “Because it IS the answer.”
“Compassion,” I said.
“Huh???” His face was all confusion.
“Your question was, ‘Why?’ — right? ‘Why all this pain? What is the point of all this pain?'”
“What is the FUCKING point of all this pain…”
I raised an eyebrow at him.
“Yes, well, that was the question, right?”
He smiled and nodded.
“And that one word is my answer. Compassion. Compassion is the point. Compassion is the point of all your pain.”
He stared at me.
I started to elaborate, but decided to wait and see where he might wind up on his own. After a bit, he shook his head.
“I don’t get it… I mean, yeah, I think I kinda do get it, I mean, I think I kinda see sort of…” He shook his head again. “But, no, not really…”
I smiled at him. I was so proud of this boy, this young man. In the four months since he’d first walked into my office, he had grown so much. He had been through so much, was still going through so much. He was working so hard to make sense of it all and yet still somehow have a “normal” life. I wanted so much to give him an answer, a real answer, a truthful answer, an answer that he could hang onto and build on for the rest of his life.
“Ok,” I began. “At some point in your life, in your future, you’re going to meet a child whose mother or father has died. That may happen to you next week. Or, it may not happen until you’re an old man yourself. But at some time in your future, it’s going to happen. And when it does, you are going to know — and I mean really KNOW — how that child feels. You’re going to not just remember, but to feel again, exactly what you felt the day your mother died, exactly how you feel right now. And out of that feeling, out of that knowing, will rise compassion — a strong desire to help that child. Not because you feel sorry for him, but because you know how, exactly how, he’s hurting. And here’s where the real answer to the question comes — you will be able to act on that feeling of compassion, you will be able to help that child exactly — and ONLY — because you have experienced all the pain you are experiencing right now. Without that pain, you might be able to feel sorry for him, but you won’t be able to really help him. It’s the pain that will make it possible for you to really help others in pain.”
Eric looked at me in silence, then, he lowered his head into his hands and sat like that for a long while. Finally, he sat back up, rubbed his eyes, and leaning back in his chair said,
“Yeah. Ok. Fair enough. I’ll take that. I’ll take that for an answer.”
Lean into the sharp points and fully experience them. The essence of bravery is being without self-deception. Wisdom is inherent in (understanding) emotions.
— Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.
I have been captivated by death and dying for as long as I can remember. Long, long before I became a Grief Counselor.
From the time my beloved grandmother died when I was thirteen, the dying and bereaved have told me their stories and shared with me the even deeper wisdom of their silence. Their gifts have graced my life in untold ways, carrying me forward further and stronger with each passing year.
Then, three months ago, my mother died.
And all those years of experience and learning seem to have dissolved into a life that is barely recognizable as my own.
This is grief.
My mother’s death is, of course, not the first I have experienced since I became a “death professional” in 2004. Most notably my precious sister, Debbie, died in 2007, and she has been followed by other family members and friends. But there is something about the loss of a mother.
Just as so many have told me so often.
I have spent the three months since her death in a haze, wandering from one task, one responsibility to the next, in a state I would call somnambulistic were it not so painful.
But, then, who says the sleeping feel no pain?
I do a lot of public speaking about death and dying, grief and loss. No matter the topic, I find that I return over and over again to one key theme: bringing mindfulness into both the experience and aftermath of death.
There’s quite a bit of talk about mindfulness these days. I am both grateful for and a bit skeptical about that. Grateful, because I believe so strongly in the power of true mindfulness, skeptical because even the most well-intentioned practice can be so easily skewed in the fun-house mirrors of media attention. One of the greatest misconceptions I’ve found is the tendency to use the terms “mindfulness” and “awareness” interchangeably.
Mindfulness and Awareness are not the same thing. They are especially not the same thing when it comes to grief.
I may be aware, all day, every day, that I am grieving, but that doesn’t mean I am mindful of my grief. I can be aware of my grief and yet still be un-mindful of it, because what I am basically aware of is my sadness. Each time I drive down a certain street, open a certain door, hear a certain song, I am deeply, wretchedly aware of my sadness. So much so that I avoid certain streets, keep certain doors closed, skip certain songs. This is habitual, albeit painful, awareness, not mindfulness. Mindfulness is purposeful awareness.
That’s where “leaning into the sharp points” comes in.
True mindfulness involves disengaging from other thoughts and other actions — including actions of avoidance (certain streets, doors, songs, etc.). What’s more, true mindfulness means not creating additional thoughts, positive or negative about the experience. It encourages the non-judgmental observation of whatever we are thinking and feeling. In this non-judgmental state, we become aware of self-talk that can be and usually is very debilitating.
So, how do we turn habitual awareness of our grief into being mindful of it?
First, we must realize that we have a choice at all.
Grief can be a very chaotic experience. It is often described as a “storm”, a “whirlwind”; people speak of their lives being “turned upside down”, their worlds being “swallowed by an earthquake”. It is hard to find any choice in a whirlwind or an earthquake.
But, the choice is there — and it is a simple one: to either embrace what is happening to us or ignore it, to experience it fully or push it away.
Of course, embracing grief is very much like trying to wrap arms around a cactus — there is no way to do it that won’t hurt, no way that won’t end in tears and bloodshed and pain, with the possibility of major damage and lots of scars. Just like grief. However, there is one major difference: Why? Why do it at all?
There is very little point in hugging a cactus; very little purpose beyond whatever might be learned from the experience itself. The same is not true of embracing grief.
Embracing our grief is a transformational experience. Not motivational, not inspiring, but transformational.
Choosing to mindfully experience our grief, in all its chaos, all its ugliness, with all its pain, not only changes us, it transforms us.
Therein lies the power.
Ignoring the pain, the ugliness, the chaos, robs us of all personal power and adds to the overall helplessness we feel in the midst of grief. Until we look at it, our grief is like an internal bleed whose source is unknown – if the source isn’t located and addressed, we will die.
And many do.
So, I ask you to join me here in the often painful, incredibly uncomfortable exercise of sitting mindfully with our grief. Stop avoiding the streets, the songs, the rooms. Instead, try sitting down and introducing your grief to me. Show me its photographs, tell me its name, what it smells like, what colour it is, how it tastes at 2:00 in the morning.
Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.
I promise it will help.
I can promise that because I have been a blessed witness to many brave souls as they courageously use mindfulness to transform the pain of their grief into the purpose of their lives.
I will if you will.