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Monday, January 3, 2022

The Practice of Grief

Humans and Dogs


The very next morning after we said goodbye to our beloved little Peasy, a much-beloved human friend of ours took leave of this earthly life. We knew it was going to happen and had spent as much time as possible with her during the beautiful Michigan autumn of 2021, laughing, reminiscing, and also seriously plumbing life’s deepest mysteries – in short, having the kind of conversations one has with a close friend of many years. She had been through a decade of cancer treatments and had outlived her physicians’ expectations for her threefold, but now she was ready to go, and we had to continue to be understanding and supportive and strong for her. She had been through enough. It was a cruel twist of fate that had taken her own little dog from her only two months earlier.


Melanie called our weekly meetings in the fall “our special Sundays,” and we had five of them altogether. The Artist was with us for two of them, as he and Melanie had a special friendship dating back to the year her mother was dying (and died) of cancer, and David helped listen and talk her through that hard time. Melanie and I, on the other hand, when by ourselves, talked of family and friendship matters but also spent a lot of our time together talking about dogs.


“I think it’s harder when a dog dies than when a human does,” Melanie said to me one Sunday, “but you can get over losing a dog faster.” It broke her heart to lose Lulu, but even with Stage IV cancer and two broken legs, our dear Mel was seriously considering bringing another little dog into her life. And that was pure Melanie – always looking past present pain to future joy.

The only thing that got me over losing Sarah was adopting Peasy, so I think I know what Melanie was saying. Over time, the dogs we love tend to blend together in memory to a large extent, and taking a new dog into your heart crowds out the pain of having lost the one before, whereas one never really 100% “gets over” losing a family member or close friend, and the personalities of those individuals do not blur together over time. When I think of Annie or Linda or my grandmother, it is that person I want here at my kitchen table, sitting across from me, smiling and laughing and sharing stories. Melanie!


But there she was, only weeks away from the end, telling me that she thought it was “harder when a dog dies”! If she were here with me now, Melanie would not chide me for the grief I feel over Peasy but would understand it completely. A dog, after all, is an around-the-clock, constant companion. When you share your world with a dog, you are the sun and the moon to that animal. You never have to worry that the dog might have other plans for the day. He or she is there, rain or shine, whatever your mood.



Grief Practice


It is a new year.

The year 2021 brought countless deep losses for many people, not only us, and, as the Artist notes, at our time of life it is in the nature of things that friends will die. Another friend, blessedly (!) still alive in her 90s, made the suggestion the other day that perhaps grief is a practice. The way I heard her suggestion was understanding grief as a kind of meditation, with its own rituals, something we go to daily, like prayer.

Julia made her suggestion about grief as a practice after I had posted on Facebook a pencil sketch I’d done of Peasy. He was a beautiful, extremely photogenic dog, and I have a lot of photographs of him to use as models for sketches. Another friend (maybe the same day) shared the idea that grief is love that has nowhere to go, and that made sense to me, too. When the ones we love are alive, our love has their physical presence as its object. Now, with my little guy’s absence confronting me everywhere I look in the physical space around me, it is some comfort not only to look at photos of him but also to try to capture as many details as possible on paper with my pencils. The visual and tactile aspects of drawing give my love “somewhere to go” so that it doesn’t paralyze me. It is grief work. Soul work. 


Talk is a big part of the practice of grief, too. The Artist and I spend countless hours remembering friends no longer with us and also recalling the dear and beautiful and humorous aspects of our departed dogs. (“What do you miss about him most?” “The snuggling.” “Yeah, that was the best part.” “And his little ears, too.” The way his little rear end would wiggle with joy, since he had no tail to wag. The way he would run so proudly from one end of the house to the other with his squeaky lion.) We tell and retell stories of times spent with friends, as a way of keeping them with us. I also go back mentally, over and over, the meal menus of the “special Sundays” with Melanie: homemade muffins from my farmhouse kitchen; Polish sausage and sauerkraut from Bunting’s Market in Cedar, Indian food from NJ’s in Lake Leelanau, that fabulous “Figgy Piggy” sandwich from the New Bohemian Café; and Indian food again. Planning each Sunday meal helped to make those afternoons celebratory. And the Artist and I go over the conversations….


Talking often leads to crying, and crying is part of the value of the talk. There is no shortcut through grief, only the painful way through it, and the talk and the tears allow the feelings to be consciously and fully felt. Does that sound paradoxical? That a person could have “feelings” without feeling them? Think denying, repressing. Not a solution.


Talking and drawing invite grief to sit down next to me. I need to let myself feel the losses fully. On the social side, however, I am also forcing myself out to spend time in the world of other people rather than immersing myself in grief fulltime. Dropping out is no solution, tempting though it can be. -- In fact, quite honestly, it tempts me again and again, and I have to overcome it over and over….



Ambiguity and Dilemmas


I’m going to try to telescope and condense as much as possible other topics I wanted to cover in this post -- ambiguous loss, moral dilemmas, and negativity bias – so as not to exhaust readers’ patience or my own mental and emotional energy. 


Moral dilemmas,” the idea of them, is a large area of exploration and thought in the academic study of ethics in departments of philosophy. Some philosophers think moral dilemmas do not exist: there are only right and wrong choices, and if you don’t know what to do, you’re either not thinking clearly or trying to put one over on yourself. What world do these people live in? In my world, whether there are only two choices or half a dozen, sometimes there is no choice that comes without something to regret. 


“You had no choice,” people like to say, and yes, sometimes life decides for us, but other times we do indeed have to choose. “You did the right thing. You have nothing to regret.” Oh, yeah?


“Choosing under uncertainty” is also an area of study, not only in philosophy but also in economics. Well, aren’t we always? We repeatedly ask “What if?” questions. What if this or that consequence were to come about? Horrible! Need to avoid it! But what if it never would have? We cannot know.


A friend sent me an article on negativity bias (here is one article on negativity bias, though not the one my friend had copied and pasted into an e-mail to me) after I’d sent her one on ambiguous loss, and I’ll be reflecting on these ideas for quite a while. But putting them together, I wonder: can there also be ambiguous gains? I understand the idea that some losses are obvious and clear-cut, others hard to point to or recognize, but I’m wondering now if the same might not be true of gains and if it is negativity bias that gets in the way of our seeing ambiguous gains.


Deciding to end our young, happy, loving dog’s life out of concern for the safety of our human friends and family was a hard, hard call, and I would be lying if I were to say I am completely comfortable in thinking that I did “the right thing,” i.e., made the only ethical choice possible. It isn’t only that I miss Peasy dreadfully. It’s knowing how much he loved his life with us! His future was uncertain! Well, we “played it safe,” and he won’t injure anyone else in future (now that he has no future), but I can’t help the agony of second thoughts, the bleak, dark hours of wishing I had tried longer and harder and more wisely to rehabilitate him fully. Is that negativity? For me, I see it as trying to understand and to learn. 


Losing him was not an ambiguous loss. Damned obvious! What, though, about gains?

Pointing to the obvious gains of his presence in our life is easy (something about this, at least, is easy-Peasy!): the love we gave him and the love he gave us, all of it growing stronger and deeper all the time; the joy he took in being alive and in having a family and the joy we took in seeing him happy; satisfaction in being able to give shelter and security and a good life to the dear little creature. More ambiguous gains, perhaps, were the lessons we two human beings learned in being calm and patient and nonjudgmental. There were incidents of unacceptable behavior, but we never blamed our dog for what he couldn’t help. Can we carry this learning back into the world of other human beings? Should we try?


Now that he’s gone (and there is no getting him back again!), I don’t want to hear about all the horrible things that could have happened with him. None of those horrible things will happen now. It’s over. He’s gone. All I want to think about (if only I could control what comes into my mind! Because what keeps coming in are the second thoughts, the regrets!) is everything about my little dog-boy that was lovely, beautiful, cute, funny, sweet, joyful. His wonderful qualities were unambiguous.


So where am I now? Still alive, awash in ambiguity and uncertainty, gratitude and regret.



Books Read Since Last Listed


Here are the books I read in the last days of 2021:


174. Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl (nonfiction)

175. Benítez, Sandra. Bitter Grounds (fiction)

176. Charging Eagle, Tom & Ron Zeilinger. Black Hills, Sacred Hills (nonfiction)

177. Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (nonfiction)

178. Diffenbaugh, Vanessa. The Language of Flowers (fiction)


(In case you’re wondering, 174, 177, and 178 were all re-reads for me.)


The first things I’ve read in this new year have been:


1. Into the Savage Country, by Shannon Burke (fiction); and

2. Le Coeur Simple, by Gustave Flaubert (fiction)

3. Fidelity, by Grace Paley (poetry)


I had read none of these three books before. New year, new (to me) books. Onward and upward --

P.S. I hope at least some of this makes sense. I am not at the top of my game these days.


Dawn said...

It all makes sense. I think we all want to support you and make you feel better, though we know there's no feeling better that can come from decisions like the one you had to make.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you, dear Dawn. It's not that I want to wallow in misery, but I do want to be honest -- and maybe help someone else struggling with similar pain. Last night when I would wake in the dark, instead of having over and over in my head -- "I want him back!: -- and feeling acutely the horrible absence, I told myself, "Happy boy, happy boy," and feeling gratitude that he is feeling no pain of any kind. It helped. One day, one night at a time....

Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

I have found comfort in this Mary Oliver poem...


That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had his hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel,
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it –
books, bricks, grief –
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled –
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

Sending you many hugs from the Mitten....

Laurie said...

Pamela, your musings on the practice of grief are precious to me. Thank you. Sharing your grief is supposed to lessen it for you, and I think also that it is a gift to others -- those who haven't experienced it yet, those who are in the thick and ooze of it, those for whom it's receded a little or a lot. I cherish you, friend.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you, Barbara and Laurie. Love you both!

Angie said...

Oh my dear Pamela I just want to wrap you in a long quilted hug. I have walked this road of grief over my pets---the what ifs and wishes--and now I'm swamped in grief over the sudden, unexpected freakish death of my closest sister, the one I knew I could never live without on this earth. These are the darkest of days I've gone through yet. Peasy was a very lucky, beautiful boy to have you and the Artist as his forever humans. And you both were so fortunate to have had his beautiful soul and love in your lives as well. Sending quilted hugs to wrap you in, my friend.

P. J. Grath said...

Angie, my dog grief pales beside your loss of a beloved sister! I am so, so sorry! And no one can ever take the place of a sister, so please accept my deep though ineffectual condolences. You need those warm quilt hugs, too, so imagine that I am sending them to you!!! xxxooo