Grief

The post is late today because I’m having a little trouble getting myself into coherent shape. On Sunday morning, I had to put down the second of my two cats, four months to the day after losing the first. Prou, my bonded companion and favourite furry nuisance, passed in late September when she surprised us all by hiding renal failure until she was too sick for me to do anything but make an abrupt, unexpected, and wholly unwelcome decision right there in our vet’s office. I went home to console myself with her sister (literally her litter-mate) Mia, who while very much loved had always been the more aloof of the two ladies, content to rule her portions of the house with disdain and occasional neurotic feline antics, allowing her sister to seduce and entrance the humans who fed and cared for them. Mia had been dealing for the past few years with age-related arthritis, and had recently been dealing with some new respiratory issues; the vet and I had only just been talking about the option for an invasive scoping procedure to identify the issues when Prou’s unexpected death eclipsed everything.

Many of my clients in the home practice had grown accustomed to Prou’s presence in the office; she often curled up on my lap while we worked. Many commented over the years that her presence helped keep them calm even if she didn’t interact with them directly, and her purr was loud enough to gentle many an anxious soul. Mia was rarely ever interested in visitors. Prou’s death hit the practice hard, but for me, there was still a lovely black floof to care for, who seemed suddenly interested in accepting my increased availability and attention even when it came with a strong side order of sadness or abrupt tears.

Two weeks or so after Prou died, however, Mia had what the emergency vet at our clinic could only describe as a “neurological incident” (I just call it a “stroke”) that left Mia almost completely blind, and further incapacitated in her mobility. Over the next few weeks, she seemed to make a great recovery. She never regained her sight, but she was content to explore slowly and unsteadily around the familiar household environs, and call to me for company when she wanted me. We developed entirely new routines around our time together. I discovered entirely new things about Mia, including just how much she adored face rubs and skritches along her cheeks and having the insides of her ears rubbed. I learned to move NOTHING unless I had to, though she seemed delighted when the Christmas tree went up; she and her sister had always had a great love for hanging out under the lowest branches of the artificial tree. They never climbed it, but the stiff branches made for great fur rubbing and back scratching rigs. I spent almost as much time every year cleaning off clumps of cat fur as I did taking down and packing away the ornaments and lights. It delighted me that Mia was happy to make it as far as the living room several times over the holidays.

In early January, though, the rate of oscillation between her good days and bad days began to increase. Her mobility deteriorated to the point where she finally gave up her kingdom seat on the master bed, and came out to the front of the house less often, though she would still call for me when she wanted company wherever she was. But even those calls decreased in the last few days, and there were other signs. The last three nights of her life, I was sleeping on a camp bed on the floor so she could find me, because this is just what we do. We rearrange our lives for these creatures; they are so dependent on us for everything, when all we need from them is companionship. It’s a grossly unfair system and one that devastates us badly when the inevitable ends find us. Even when we see the inexorable, inescapable end points, we’re never actually ready for them when they hit.

I suspect Mia had another stroke sometime in the wee small hours of Sunday morning. By the time I got up, she couldn’t pull herself up, couldn’t walk even with help. Her distress levels were through the roof and she couldn’t or wouldn’t focus to accept her meds. I sat on the floor in the hallway and just held her against my chest for a while, something this cat almost NEVER permitted ANYONE, not even me, to get away with; it was her lack of struggling but her obvious discomfort that made it unarguably clear that she wasn’t going to make it much further.

This wasn’t what I had wanted for her, not what I had planned. After losing Prou in the vet’s office without much warning, I had wanted beyond all else to have Mia be able to pass at home in some comfort and familiarity. But we didn’t get that luxury. My vet’s office isn’t open on Sundays, and even if it was, it wouldn’t be guaranteed that we could get a same-day house call. So I had to bundle my dying companion into a carrier, out into the cold and across town to the emergency vet hospital, where they are lovely and compassionate, gentle people… but they didn’t know us. They hadn’t already gone through one grief process with our household only four months prior. They had no history with Mia, they were just willing to accept my information, request, and payment, and do what was by then a necessity, a foregone conclusion. Once again, in spite of having months to prepare, I found myself crouched over a struggling companion in an impersonal clinical room, holding them and sobbing and apologizing for somehow failing them.

Because that’s what we do when we love these furry beasts. We absorb an exorbitant degree of responsibility for their dependent state. We build palatial spaces for them in our hearts, even when they’re being furry jerks who chew things they shouldn’t, throw up in unexpected places, shed hair on everything we own hide our socks, and find endlessly interesting and unique ways to tell us exactly how they feel about life, the universe, and everything. And yet for those of us who let them into our hearts, even knowing how heavy the grief will be somewhere down the road… we wouldn’t have it any other way. Even if it means coming home from a vet’s office twice in four months with an empty cat carrier that wasn’t empty when I left the house… we know. We do it anyway.

This time around is abysmally more difficult, though. When Prou died in September, I still had Mia. And even knowing post-stroke I might not have her for long (or more accurately, entirely BECAUSE I knew I wouldn’t have her much longer), any part of my life that wasn’t about work became about her. So with her sudden (albeit not really unexpected) absence, the past few days have been a harsh lesson in the weight of silence. It’s almost unbearable when there is nothing and no-one else in our space with us any more. The silence is deafening. I realized almost immediately how much of my attention is still focused on awaiting the call for company, or waiting for the movement of a small shadow at the edge of my peripheral vision. Every little creak or household sound triggers a kind of breathless anticipation, awaiting The Companions who… are simply gone. Wherever their next lives have taken them, they are no longer here. The letdown from every one of those moments of anticipation is crushing. I thought it was hard after Prou, and it was, for the loss of my bonded companion. But the silence left now by the absence of Mia as well is so much harder. For all that Mia and I didn’t have the same bond Prou and I had, making much of my life about the process of caring for Mia in her final months made what connection we had the stronger for both her need, and my willingness to move pretty much everything be there for her.

There is a general sense among the humans who have been companions to these marvellous creatures that there is no right or wrong way to grieve them when they go. Some say it’s proper to give time to respect and appreciate them; some prefer to find new bonds immediately. I might be better able to tolerate that absence were it not in the silence of a life and world without another living, interactive presence in my space. I don’t know what to do in this level of aloneness. It’s not a question of whether or not I am “ready” to take on another companion animal, or the process of getting to know potential companions; it’s a question of how long I can handle being alone in the silence. Moreover, I don’t *WANT* to spend any more time in this silence than I have to. It’s not the kind of silence that simply being social with other humans will fix; I know the shape of that particular feeling, and this is not that.

I don’t know what the next step will look like. There’s no negating the grief; that’s not the concern here, nor the point of taking any next steps any more than cleaning away the evidence of Mia and Prou’s existence is about negating the grief. I will never erase their presence and impact on my life, I will never fill the feline-shaped holes they leave in my heart. The grief simply is. The pain simply is. The silence simply is. None of this is welcome, and none of it is escapable. All of this grief is evidence of having *HAD* these wonderful creatures in my life, and I wouldn’t trade this pain for the world if it would mean not having had almost 17 years of their company.

We’ll see what the future holds, but ultimately, I doubt it will be long before there are new residents in the house; it’s largely just a question of finding the right matches. They will never be replacements, only additions. They cannot deflect the grief, but they might help mute it a little. Only time will perhaps dull the bulk of it.

Emotional Intelligence, Life Transitions, Self-care

“I know nothing stays the same, but if you’re willing to play the game, it will be coming around again.”

So, January… I see you have come around again.

New year, new month, resolute new beginnings for many. And resolute restarts for many more. But this post isn’t about resolutions, New Year’s or otherwise; the internet is full of advisory posts about resolutions at this time of year, and frankly I’m already exhausted by the idea. Instead, today’s post is about the mentality of “starting over”, specifically from the perspective of a post-relationship breakup.

The holidays can be brutal on the recently-single, but perhaps more so is the aftermath of the holidays, when it seems like *everyone* is staring down the long, dark, cold and dreary months of Winter Proper. Remove the artificial and inflated moods of the holidays, and what’s left? (Those of you who are winter enthusiasts, shush 🙂 )

Depression in the winter months is a well-documented phenomenon, at least in North America, in part because of the darkness and cold. Add in elements of 21st century social insularity, and then consider how that withdrawing almost becomes a norm when someone is grieving a breakup, or grieving the loneliness of ongoing singleness. Grief and pain are a drain on energy and motivation, and the cold snowy outdoors is, for many, already a more than sufficient reason to avoid leaving the house. This is a damnably difficult time of year to face the refrain of “new resolutions!”, or “starting over”; it all just sounds like too much effort and what’s the point?

Starting over at any age is a tough challenge, but I think the older we get, the more we believe we stand to lose when a job or a relationship goes away, for whatever reasons. The more we stand to lose, the more we fear the loss and attach to the idea of hanging onto what we can, and the more strength it seems to take every time one has to pick themselves back up again. There’s very little to say to someone in the depths of that experience that will help them visualize what “starting over” even looks like, or when they will be ready to take a step… in ANY direction other than pain-paralyzed stasis. During rough times in the past ten years, I’ve leaned hard on a mantra that taught me a wisdom in keeping efforts small and simple until I’ve been ready to do more: “One day at a time, one breath at a time; one foot in front of the other.”

I keep this article bookmarked now, because it offers some very practical perspectives on how to start over in general after losses:

  1. learn from failures
  2. leave the old attitudes behind (sometimes this is where a good therapist can be a useful ally)
  3. don’t make grandiose announcements, just do it
  4. leverage what you know DID work previously
  5. take baby steps, and celebrate the small victories as well as the big ones
  6. do things differently
  7. keep moving
  8. spin criticisms, however harsh, into constructive perspective

“I have lived in the shadow of loss—the kind of loss that can paralyze you forever. I have grieved like a professional mourner—in every waking moment, draining every ounce of my life force. I died—without leaving my body. But I came back, and now it’s your turn. I have learned to remember my past—without living in it. I am strong, electric, and alive, because I chose to dance, to laugh, to love, and to live again. I have learned that you can’t re-create the life you once had—you have to reinvent a life for yourself. And that reinvention is a gift, not a curse.” — Christina Rasmussen, Second Firsts: Live Laugh and Love Again

Learning how to remember the past without becoming persistently stuck in it is difficult work, especially when one is still mired in pain. Avoiding entrenching ourselves in our victimhood is also a challenge; it’s more comforting to believe we are the wronged parties, especially when the loss comes about unexpectedly. Too many questions (mostly in the “Why/how did this happen to me?” category) overwhelm us without answers; without answers, we believe we cannot understand, and without understanding of what went wrong, we’re afraid to move forward in case we make the same missteps and mistakes in future… and risk feeling the same pain again. Best to stay put until we KNOW things, right?

Except… some things can’t be known. And even when presented with answers, if we don’t like or don’t believe the information as presented, we engage it in a struggle to prove, disprove, pick apart, analyse, investigate. We stay stuck with the need to COMPREHEND. And if we can’t, there is no way to resolve the struggle, to free ourselves, to choose to act differently.

Starting over after romantic breakups adds some things to the list above, like choosing whether to maintain a hard or soft heart — does grief make us cynical, gun-shy, pragmatic, open-hearted, willing, eager? Starting over involves challenge and opportunity, but especially in romantic contexts also involves emotional risk; like the clichĂ© says, “Love like you’ll never be hurt”, but how hard is that to hear when you’re still in recovery, post-breakup, even months or years later?

Recovery often becomes about the stories we tell ourselves in the aftermath, whether we stay stuck in the stories of grief and pain and loss and allow that stuckness to creep in and also infect our “forward vision”. Do we shape those narratives in negative language, or positive language? For example, consider the difference between, “I don’t ever want to feel (that kind of) pain and grief again,” and “I want to love and be loved again,” in the sense of reinforcing a negative versus positive space. “I don’t want X” only defines a specific or narrow set of experiences, even when the scope of that experience seems (however temporarily) all-encompassing. It works less effectively for crafting a useful, self-directing course TOWARD something. Saying, “I want [Y]”, on the other hand, opens a conversation about what [Y] can look like, what paths might move one from current state towards receptivity and onward toward open reception and acceptance.

Relationship therapists generally hold that intimacy is rooted in vulnerability, and vulnerability is, itself, rooted in risk-taking. Starting over after breakup involves some soul-searching questions about willingness, or potential readiness, to engage in what undoubtedly feel like emotionally-risky behaviours. The last thing most of us want to do when we’ve burned our fingers is too stick them back someplace we’re afraid will result in further burns. This is where my two core tenets, mindfulness and choice, become critical components of any “starting over” mentality. What have I learned, and what do I need to carry forward? What changes to my metrics for satisfaction and happiness do I want to make, and to my communications when things aren’t measuring up to those metrics? How do I want to ask for what I want, even if the entity I’m asking is “the universe at large”?

But the process of “starting over” must also, by necessity, make space for processing grief and the pain of whatever’s been lost. Starting over, like “moving on”, doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting about what has happened or magically stopping the feelings. Nor does it function on any kind of a set schedule. More accurately, it needs to be a process of learning how to redistribute the weight of those experiences, so that we can move without tripping over the unresolved baggage. Resolution, to me, means a maybe-sometimes-never process by which we gradually shift or improve our relationship to those prior experiences, so some lingering effects may be with us for a long time. But we can either be pinned in place under the weight of those effects, or we find a way to move in spite of them. Grief processing is its own thing, and again, this might be a place in which good therapy is useful. Working through our fears and anxieties around future “what ifs”… well, that’s the work of starting over, right there, in a nutshell.

If it were all as easy as a song lyric, life would be so much simpler, wouldn’t it? We can’t always force a tidy resolution, but we can change our relationship to the weight we carry forward. We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start… not *quite* all over… again. And again. And again. As often as our hearts can stand it.