Day 15: Honouring Our Losses

I’ve stopped trying to measure what grief anyone is entitled to. A loss is a loss. Only you will ever plumb the depths of your own losses. Grief is by its very nature a lonely journey.Yet, this is a common experience. One that 1 in 4 experience.

Source: Day 15: Honouring Our Losses

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A Prescription for Purring

It’s been almost a year since I shared my tribute to Hope. After writing that piece, I found that I struggled to attach any significance to anything I began to work on afterwards; as a result, nothing has been posted since. While working on an unrelated project, I found a fragment of this post and decided to finish it and share it. I hope those of you who shared with me in “Keeping Hope Close to My Heart” will see this too.

 

Years ago, I read that a study conducted on grieving discovered that individuals in mourning found their pets to be a greater source of comfort than their spouse. Although I was only 15 at the time I read this, I remember thinking to myself, “How lonely are these people?” While I adored my miniature pinscher, my friends and family were emotionally available, communicative, and close. I had known nothing but comfort and support in the face of any misfortunes up until that point, so I wondered at the state of the participants’ lives. It was only when I had a chance to see grieving through adult eyes that I came to understand how this study could have reached such a conclusion.

I was fortunate enough not to experience tragic loss on a personal level for almost three decades. My grandparents were allotted a comparatively generous time on earth which they spent well, investing heavily in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives and leaving behind a legacy of love that touched many generations. Our family and extended family have been healthy and lucky. Even close family friends seemed to be protected under an invisible mantle of physical well-being; cancer, accidents, and disease were terrors that lurked only on the other side of the glass, just outside the reaches of my immediate social circle. It makes sense then, that when I experienced an abrupt, tragic, heart-wrenching loss in my family for the first time at 29, I was completely… devastated? Emotionally wrecked? Existentially demolished? The right word continues to escape me and I am becoming convinced that the right language to illustrate my emotional condition has not yet been written. So, I can only state that I found my grief to be beyond description.

The one facet of my grief that did not defy description, however, was that of condolence. “Condolence” is defined as “an expression of sympathy, sorrow or grief”, with many sources specifying death as an appropriate reason to express said condolences. What dictionaries are unable to define, however, is how completely inadequate condolences are.

When extending condolences, there is a list of culturally appropriate phrases for people to choose from. They include, but are not limited to the following:

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“My heart goes out to you.”

“We’ll keep you in our prayers.”

“Let us know if there’s anything we can do.”

These phrases are paltry, hollow weapons with which to arm an individual against the terrible dragon that is their grief. I was being consumed, the sharp teeth of this horrendous, ghastly Leviathan tearing my flesh and gnawing greedily at my bones. And people were sorry. For my loss. My tears were made hotter by the anger and resentment I felt towards well-wishers, my indignation rising at their inability to fully grasp the depth my my mourning. This was unfair of me because, to them at least, I was on the other side of the glass. It was our loss, and they could never experience it as we did. Still at a time when I resented my peonies for daring to bloom, reason did nothing to lessen my pained fury.

Marvin

 

While condolences bounced weakly off the scales of my personal anguish, I found relief, comfort and even joy in the unlikeliest of sources; when I had cried in the arms of my husband, when I had held my sons for warmth and still felt the demons of sorrow scrabbling at my chest, I’d inevitably find myself watching our kitten. When I held Marvin on my lap on the way home from the adoption centre, I had no inkling of how much I would need him just a short time later. On days where my feet felt so heavy that I could barely lift them to trudge from one room to another, he’d go careening down the hall at top speed, weaving around my ankles and forcing me to put a spring in my step to keep from face planting. When I was sure that I would never smile again, that grief had permanently inoculated me against all joy, I’d find myself laughing just moments later at his kittenish antics. And, most importantly, when I found myself seized in a moment of anguish, my chest leaden with sobs, he’d find his way on to my lap and begin purring. Slowly, my tears would give way to the rhythmic cadence of his velveteen voice, his little white paws kneading away my pain. He was exactly what I needed him to be when I needed him to be it, with no thought for decorum or propriety getting in the way of him showing his love.

We tend to fear grief. Life goes by in a flash of sitcoms, books, funny pictures on the internet, and when the unthinkable happens and we are forced to take notice of it, our natural reaction is to treat it as an eclipse of the routine, refusing to look right at it and waiting for it to pass. Those in mourning are often given the same social handling as a leper. We want to make the situation better. We want to do something. But we are paralyzed by the idea that, while there is nothing we can do to make it better, there is always the possibility that we could make it worse. We don’t want to say the wrong thing, to do the wrong thing, terrified that we might exacerbate their pain, bring on a fresh onslaught of tears or put another crack in a broken heart. So we do nothing. We get a lily or an orchid with the pot wrapped in sedately-coloured foil. We pick out a card and drop it in the basket at the memorial. We shake their hands in the receiving line or maybe even give them an awkward, leaning-in upper-body hug. And we rattle off one of the socially acceptable phrases from the liturgy of mourning.

As I emerged from the deepest point of my own journey through mourning, I started to look at my own response to friends’ grief. I realized that I, too, have been guilty of assuring myself that a lack of awkward tears meant that I had condoled well and that my friends were okay. Now that I have mourned with Marvin, I understand how I can be a better friend when tragedy visits my side of the glass again. I know to bring a magazine so that they can enjoy a brief respite from sadness, whenever they see an ebb in their tears. I will be comfortable with them crying and feel free to cry with them, even if it is their grief that affects me more than the event they are grieving over. I know to be angry with them when they need to be angry, to help them burn through their rage instead of trying to bury it. I will swear. Scream. Be entirely unreasonable. Whatever they need. I will remember to reach out to them long after the event, because time does not erase the past and they need to know that someone cares about their present. Most importantly, I will acknowledge that they are in mourning, that something terrible has happened and that someone they love is gone. Just as the desert-weary Israelites looked on the statue of a bronze serpent to be healed from a venomous bite, recovery from grief requires us to look tragedy in the face. Knowing that those who care about you are facing the beast down with you weakens its clawed grip on you that much more.

To those of you who condoled, to those of you who asked, to those of you that recognized, to those of you who took the giant step of doing something simple, thank you.

To those of you still hurting, know that people mean even more than what they’re able to say, but it does take time to sink in. Until then, a kitten will be a furry balm for your soul.

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Keeping Hope close to my heart

Keeping Hope close to my heart

On June 14th, I lost my infant niece. As our family faced this hardship together, I found comfort in sentiments put to paper by other people who have also experienced this particularly difficult type of loss, comfort that always seemed to arrive when I needed those words most. I’m sharing this in hopes that it will reach someone who needs to read it today.

On Thursday the 13th of June, my sister, my mother, my aunt and I took the first step on a journey that we had prayed never to take. As we prepared to load into the car, a glint of blue drew my gaze to the side of the driveway. Nestled among some fallen leaves below the magnolia lay a fragment of a robin’s egg. There are no birds’ nests in that magnolia, so I could only speculate as to how that shell came to be there. In the face of an event so profoundly tragic and so unfathomably somber, it puzzled me that this small speck stood out so boldly, and I could not explain why I felt myself compelled to bend to retrieve it and turn it over in my hand.

Twenty four hours later, we faced the unfaceable. A tiny girl, so desired and so loved, was dressed in a crocheted nightgown, wrapped in a warm flannel quilt, and presented with a miniature stuffed elephant, before being christened “Hope” and wept over by her parents. As she was passed from the arms of her grandparents to her great aunt and then her aunts, she was baptized in the tears of all those who adored her. Having said our hello-less goodbyes, we left the hospital and stepped into our Hope-less existence.

Later, I found my mind wandering through a dismal landscape, one mapped by tea parties we would not have, birthdays we would not celebrate, and the gaps we would see in our everyday life, spaces lovingly prepared by her family, all meant to be furnished with this precious little girl. As my mind wandered, heart throbbing with grief, her name kept beating a tattoo in my head: Hope. Hope. Hope… What would Hope have been? What is Hope now?

Hope would have been a daughter. Hope would have been a little sister. Hope would have been a granddaughter. Hope would have been a niece. Hope would have been a cousin. But when Hope’s heart stopped beating, she became more than just these things. Her life had stopped short, but the thread of her existence continued to weave its way through the tapestry of our lives, in colours even more brilliant and in ways more complex than when she was living. I have since started to understand what Hope is.

Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune – without the words – and never stops at all.” Like Dickinson’s mysterious creature, Hope’s presence in our lives is intangible. She left her family before she even arrived, leaving behind only her miniature shell. Yet this small fragment of time, this tiny presence in our lives is absolute and indelible, demanding our attention with its vivid hues of love and loss. She sings to us from within, sweet notes composing the love that we feel for her. In the gale of our tears, in the chill of our grief, our feathered thing, our Hope, still sings sweetly, indescribably, and without reason, the wordless hymn of love.

Pick your poison.

My thrice-daily bread...

My thrice-daily bread…

It was worth it. She was certainly doing penance now, but in Roxy’s mind a single forbidden mouthful was well worth the chorus of angry exclamations, the bouquet of fingers shaking themselves in her direction, the abdomen groaning and distended well beyond the dimensions normal for a miniature pinscher. Despite weighing in at a delicate five kilograms, Roxy had managed to shift the larger part of a two kilo package of generic chocolate chips from their proper home in a bag in the cupboard to her now-bloated stomach, packing them in like passengers during rush hour on the Tokyo subway. Roxy had committed her culinary crime under the cover of the darkness, pawing open a cupboard and then dragging her prize under the dining room table, so her thievery had not been discovered right away. It was only when my white-socked foot landed precisely in the middle of a puddle of frothy, cocoa-colored barf, and then another, and then another, each one laid like a land mine and perfectly camouflaged against the brown shag carpet, that the enormity of her disgrace was brought to light.

Most dog owners would react with horror to the scene we discovered upon arriving home that night, and many would have bundled the hedonistic hound into a towel and headed straight for the all-hours emergency vet to have her tiny stomach pumped. We are not those owners. We’d been down this road many times, and not just with Roxy. Most of our dogs have shown a penchant for the deadly at one time or another. Roxy’s love affair with pilfered chocolate had begun with an acrobatic feat involving a swiveling chair and a rolling table, culminating in the evisceration of a barely-touched $60 box of Bernard Callebaut chocolates. Our Pomeranian, Heidi, would sort through a bin of Legos like it was a box of bonbons, savouring each bite of jagged plastic as if it were a fine Parisian confection crafted purely for her enjoyment. Her weakness for sharp polymers also led her to sample my grandfather’s heart medication, encased in delightfully crackly blister packaging. And Ruby, the dog whose puppyhood brought me to the brink of insanity, gleefully presented me with the handles of disposable razors at the finish of many a morning shower, having deftly chewed the top portion encasing the blades right off to create a fine toy. She never ingested the blades and escaped oral self-mutilation by a matter of millimetres, but the satisfaction garnered from the destruction and subsequent consumption of non-toys continues to bring her great joy to this day.

My poison is not so noxious, but it still doesn’t do me any favours. It makes its presence known in the stubborn zipper, the straining seams, and the muffin top that continues to escape the confines of my pre-pregnancy jeans, pulling itself up to peek over my belt loops each time I lean over to pick up the offspring for whom I have sacrificed my butt on the altar of motherhood. It is a temporary sacrifice, because your body does come back. Eventually. In some form. It may be shaped slightly differently, but once maternity leave ends and you resume your usual diet and level of activity, you can typically regain some semblance of physical normalcy. If you learn to identify and avoid your particular brand of poison, that is.

My poison hibernates under the glass dome of my cake platter, materializing on my plate with alarming regularity and disappearing in a matter of minutes, dusting my lips with a floured goodbye kiss before imprinting its memory on my thighs. I could repeat this performance three times daily, and when life is running at the speed of sound – that sound being a hungry baby, barking dogs, and an active toddler – I lay myself at the crusty, delicious and convenient mercy of… bread. Toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and dinner rolls as the cherry on top of my frequently carbohydrate-laden dinner, bread makes up a sizeable portion of my diet when I’m too busy or, more truthfully, not in the mood for something healthier. Like Roxy, I crave food that isn’t the best for me in proportions that are even worse, and my body is telling me that it’s time to stop. Unlike Roxy, however, I’m trying to listen to what my body (and my pant size) is telling me.

It’s not about complete abstinence for me. I know that if I don’t make room for a delectable meal shared with friends, the odd summer treat with my toddler, and the luxurious glass of Shiraz sipped while basking in the pleasure of those precious hours between the kids’ bedtime and ours that I will begin to resent the dark greens, the roasted fish, and the fibre-rich but ultimately disappointing Ryvita rye crisps that have replaced bread in my cleaner, more efficient dietary habits. This resentment will push me straight into the warm, yeasty arms of my illicit love in an orgy that will end with me turning one kind of roll into another. So I’ll dole out a nip of the choicest leftovers to my dogs and allow myself a half-sandwich here and there as a reward for taming my baser appetites. I know my body will appreciate the effort I’m putting into keeping it healthy and that we’ll both be happy in the end.

You can’t shame the shameless.

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I am wordy. A staunch grammar nazi from the tender age of seven, I fell in love with the complex beauty of the English language when I came across a spelling book illustration of a blonde girl dropping “TWO eggs” because she was carrying “TOO many bags” after going “TO the store”. Twenty-three years, two kids and a partially completed English degree later, the spelling books have been replaced by novels, and this love now borders on obsession.

Social media has brought out the scarier side of this passion. When I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed and read that Monique finds a particular movie clip “to funny”, or see Jake has discovered that “you never know what your made of until you do the Tough Mudder” I begin to unravel. The same can be said for posts about “the great sale on maternity cloths”, people who “wish they could have Thanksgiving turkey everyday”, and when I find that one girl who “would of ordered desert but had had to many martini’s”, I’m forced to swipe the foam from my lips and turn away from my monitor. I won’t elaborate on exactly what goes through my head, but I’m sure that there are many well-meaning men and women in khakis and conservative sweater vests who think that a $130 hour on their couch and a date with their prescription pad would do me a lot of good.

Now, the past few years have seen the dawn of the age of the grammar nazi, and I have discovered that many people out there share my feelings regarding humanity’s increasing tendency to replace letters with numbers, leave out or add additional consonants, and to sprinkle apostrophes through the written word like DUI’s on Lindsay Lohan’s rap sheet. We are everywhere now, and we are only getting stronger. Like all totalitarians, however, the rush of empowerment is always accompanied by a faint but unrelenting fear that the crack in our facade will be discovered. We all have a secret. Clothed in rank inconsistency, mine lurks behind me in daylight, retreating to gnaw on the pages of the anthologies on the shelf when I sleep. What is even funnier is that my secret shame was pointed out to me by someone whose complete and utter lack of concern for the laws of language and spelling is shielded from the hyper-critical force of my spell-checking gaze only by the mantle of our close friendship.

I say “you guys’s”. That’s right. Rather than the more concise, multifunctional, plural possessive “your”, I take colloquialism to the max with “you guys’s”, pronounced like “guises”, as in “I really like you guys’s couch”. For someone with such strong opinions regarding the preservation of our rapidly degenerating communication skills, this is a glaring inconsistency. The mere mention of the word “orientate”, perfectly acceptable on the other side of the pond, has me setting my teeth, but “you guys’s” regularly springs forth from my lips with the grace and elegance of a frightened, three-legged cat on a freshly waxed floor. I should feel guilty, perhaps even embarrassed, but I don’t. I don’t need to. I have Lucy.

Lucy’s tastes in kibble could be described as particular. Her bowl is approached with resignation every morning and every evening because she knows that there are tastier, more varied options available to the dog willing to search for (read: steal) them. Although endlessly patient with the ministrations and affectionate mauling received at the hands of the under-three set, I have seen Lucy tug a cookie from the clenched fist of a crying toddler so many times, I’ve stopped turning my head when I hear my son shrieking her name. She likes kiwis, not strawberries, carrots but not lettuce, and I have even seen her turn her nose up at a section of mandarin at that time of year when they possess the perfect balance of sweetness and tartness.

But even Lucy’s palate cannot be described as wholly discriminative. Despite her finicky tastes in actual food, the dish that reigns supreme in the culinary hierarchy of the domesticated schnorkie is… horse poo. I remember reading somewhere that dogs actually prefer the taste of horse to beef or even chicken, but I believe they were referring to the meat in question, and not the meat’s leavings. As soon as the door opens to let her out first thing in the morning, that wiry black creature is hurtling, all twenty pounds of her, across the field to squeeze under the bottom rung of the fences around the horses’ corral. At first I was horrified. Now, I just wonder why I’m putting out seventy bucks a bag for lamb and rice dog food, because she’s so happy when she comes back. Exhilarated is probably a better word for it. Although we still holler at her to “get out of there” whenever we see her ambling along like a trained pig looking for truffles, we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that we’ll never be able to keep her on the right side of that fence, that she’ll always have her “guilty pleasure”, and that she’ll still look askance at the bowl placed before her that evening. We have, however declined to let her kiss us since discovering the bent of her appetites.

We all have our shameful secret, our dalliance with the irrational. So while I may be full of figurative crap, I’m still going to judge every misplaced apostrophe, every unnecessary “e”, every compound that shouldn’t have been compounded. It’s my guilty pleasure. And if you don’t like it, rest easy in the assurance that you don’t have to kiss me.

Barking…

For the Steller’s jay building its nest in the evergreen above the kids’ sandbox, it was a ridiculous prospect: the stout-legged dog glaring unblinkingly up the trunk of the tree, hackles up, ears pointed, tail unmoving.  At 49% fur, 50% muscle, and just 1% brain, Ruby is 100% bossy, and as far as she was concerned, this bird had NO BUSINESS taking up residence anywhere within the confines of our four acre property.  When the offending fowl had the nerve to hop to another branch of HER tree, Ruby had decided that she’d had quite enough and hurled herself at the trunk, unleashing the full force of her big-dog roar as she scrabbled at the bark of the tree.  The jay blinked unconcernedly from the safety of its perch before flitting gracefully off to the forest in search of the perfect twig to complete the southern perimeter of its country abode.  Not yet finished with her auditory assault on the feathered hoodlum, Ruby took off after it, all the while raining down insults and threats at the top of her voice. Only when the bird’s flight path took it over the steep drop of the ravine did she halt her pursuit and return to the sandbox, tail up, ears perked and mouth open in a happy, panting grin.

Now, despite Ruby’s efforts, the jay will eventually be back, encroaching on her space one twig at a time.  Ruby can’t climb that tree, and the bird isn’t likely to be dumb enough to come down to her level in order to discuss the terms of its tenancy on this farm with its furry, angry landlord.  Still, Ruby came back from the chase not just thrilled, but contented.  Why? It’s simple: she, like all dogs, understands that what’s important isn’t necessarily that you’re heard, it’s that you’re saying it in the first place. At full volume. And with all your heart. Yes, you may be barking up the wrong tree, and people may not see things the same way you do, but if you don’t say it, you’ll never be heard.