The call I never wanted to receive...
Our culture has a distorted relationship with pain, death, and grief. We’re taught to fear it, push it away, and put it in a box “over there” for someone else to deal with.
Refusal to accept that life includes discomfort, death, and grief is one of the primary roots of ageism (wrinkles remind us that one day we’ll die), racism/otherism (someone who’s different might kill us), anti-veganism (vegans acknowledge that animals have to die for people to consume their flesh, eggs, and milk), fear of pain (so we avoid it with drugs, emotional eating, drinking, smoking, etc.), and more.
For all of the "mistakes" my mother made as a parent, one of the things she did exceptionally well was to give me a healthy relationship with death.
Even though I’m not afraid of death or (most) emotions, I admit that I do sometimes feel afraid of intimacy. That’s a part of my psychology I’ve done a lot of work to heal. The animals who have lived with me throughout my life and the deep bond I have with our daughter, Olivia, have rewarded me with trust and a sense of safety that it's okay to get close. Even though I know there will be pain in that opening, I feel the rightness of it. These relationships are like a gym for my heart as they help me learn to strengthen, soften, and trust.
I vividly remember a time in 1999 when sadness came to visit. I was afraid that if I let myself feel it, I would never stop crying. For the rest of my life. I was so busy trying to push it away and get my work done that I actually said out loud, “Not now. You need to go away. I’ll make time for you later.” That night, after all my work was done, the kitchen was cleaned, and everything put away, I made good on my promise as I sat myself down on the couch and said, “Okay, now is your time. Come on, do whatever it is you need to do.” Sadness hid from me and stayed silent. My “scheduled appointment” to be sad and cry would not fly. I couldn’t feel anything. I was numb. And I took note.
Back in March, I shared that we discovered that our beloved rescued pup Zoe had a severe heart condition. The cardiologist thought she had days to live and that with medication, she’d have maybe a few weeks, maybe not. She defied the odds as she acted completely normally. When we got refills for medication and brought her to visit our wonderful vet, he’d say, “It’s a good thing Zoe doesn’t read cardiology reports! I’m impressed that she’s doing so well.” We were warned by the cardiologist that one day she was prone to collapse in sudden death. We monitored her heart rate, respiratory rate, activity level, appetite, and held her close giving gratitude for every day we had together. She continued to act as normally as she had before the diagnosis.
The time came for us to make our yearly trip to Summerfest and a vacation we'd planned in Nova Scotia to visit family. Summerfest was incredible, as always. I love getting to be with my vegan family, present my sessions, and learn from other speakers and attendees. Summerfest fills me up for the entire year so that I can exist in the non-vegan world as I continue to do my work to help raise awareness and help the shift.
I was comforted knowing that Zoe was with her second favorite family who she stayed with whenever we went out of town. She loved and was loved by them so much that she greeted them as heartily as she did us (even when we’d just been away to the store). We knew she was in good hands and hearts.
The night we got to Nova Scotia, the call I never wanted to receive came. I listened silently to all the details as Carole (her sitter) recounted the events through sobs. Our sweet Zoe had collapsed, Carole gave her mouth to nose resuscitation (she’s brought back other dogs with this!) all the way to the emergency vet, but Zoe had left her body within 30 seconds. I was stunned and numb. After we hung up and I talked with David, I worried that I wasn’t feeling anything. All I could think of was how and when to tell Olivia (our 10-year-old daughter), whether or not to cremate, and all the practical things as I worked to wrap my head around this impossible inevitability.
I called my best friend Julie for advice. As I spoke the words to her, I was finally able to let go and sob as my body shook uncontrollably with shock, and shivering with chill. This is what the body does when we let it—it helps us metabolize our emotions. Think of a child, who when allowed will flow from one emotion to the next. It’s stopping the flow that causes the problems.
We need to feel our feelings and let them wash over and through us. I have waves of grief and moments of calm.
I could have made my pain so much worse by compartmentalizing it, stopping the flow, or beating myself up for leaving Zoe and getting my needs met by going to Summerfest and to visit family (a vacation in fact!). But I have learned enough to trust the process, let go (sometimes) of the thought that I can actually control things, and to rest in the physical and emotional exhaustion of allowing grief to wash over me, come through, and cleanse my soul.
There’s something so raw and authentic about grief, and I’m in awe of the practice of acceptance and that I've healed enough that I no longer attempt to save my sadness and grief for “scheduled appointments.” These feelings are fundamental and choosing to live holistically creates room for it all. Even the stuff that we’re afraid of. And just like that child with big emotions, if we let ourselves feel them as they move through us, they really do move through. They don’t stay forever. They can’t; they’re dynamic. Just like life.