Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Wisdom in the Vet's Bathroom  

A lot of crazy stuff is happening out there right now. While I contemplated this post, a critical voice erupted in my head that sounded something like, "Are you really going to write about your dead cat when the world has so much unaddressed injustice and violence?" Thankfully I snapped to my senses. That is precisely what I am going to do because, at the end of the day, what matters most in this life is making and sustaining connections to this living and dying world. Chopper (aka Choppy and Chopperpants) taught me how to do that and so much more. So this post is a tribute to him--one of my greatest teachers--with photos to boot.

Acceptance

Chopper came to me with no whiskers in the summer of 2004. He and his litter mates had been abandoned by a stream soon after birth and most of his siblings drowned. His living sister chewed off his whiskers during this time so he only had short stubbles on his face when I adopted him from a local rescue organization. Unsurprisingly, this early trauma made Chopper pretty needy. I rarely could sit down without him wanting to be on my lap. Initially I would get frustrated by his insatiable desire for affection and frequent talking, which I interpreted as, "I'm here! Love me!! I'm here!!! Love me!!!!" I found it difficult to accomplish things, like typing papers for graduate school, with him standing on the keyboard.

 

On My Lap and All Zipped Up

 

Over time, however, I came to see him and myself more clearly. When I stopped doing and gave him my full attention, he did not need so much. With a little maneuvering, he could get the touch he craved, and I could still complete the tasks at hand. Perhaps more importantly, he helped me to pause more and observe myself. Frequently, I was caught up in worried thoughts. His furry self (my partner said he was the softest cat in the world) brought me back to the present moment. He reminded me to rest and receive the comfort of his noisy, unremitting purr. When I stopped trying to be somewhere else with someone else, grace came in the form of Chopper, as well as acceptance of and gratitude for what I have in this life, right now.

The Ability to Receive Love

With my former, incessant craving to be and do better, I focused much of my attention on the external world. I should be working harder, loving better, giving more, all to get some desperately sought-after approval and recognition from others. Chopper was not having any of this self-defeating performance. I could be in the foulest mood, and he still gave me the look in the above photo. I often half-joked with my partner that he could never gaze at me the way Chopper did. Try as I might to push him away, like I did with everyone else who got close to me, he just kept coming back with those big green eyes and pawed at my face until I rubbed his chin. He wouldn't even bite my hand unless it was disguised by a blanket. That fierce and gentle love again instigated a pause. Maybe I could lower the fortress I had built to protect myself from rejection and heartache and at least let Chopperpants in. He wouldn't hurt me. And he didn't. With his patient determination (and, admittedly, significant therapy), I learned I was worthy of love and that vulnerability opens the door to intimacy, understanding, and so many other good things.

 

A Typical Pose

 

The Capacity to Stay

Almost three years ago, I found a lump near Chopper's jaw. A biopsy revealed he had Hodgkin's-like lymphoma. The third time a tumor appeared, my vet said he should go to an oncologist. The oncologist tried one kind of chemotherapy. When that stopped working after a couple of months, he tried another, more aggressive (and expensive!) form that required 16 treatments. Chopper hated the car rides across town to the clinic, but he was his perky, kind self once there. Apparently he was the only cat who didn't hiss at and try to bite the veterinary staff during the blood draws.

He lost his whiskers for the second time in his life. When I grabbed my car keys, he would hide. But he endured the treatment to its completion, and we all hoped he would have at least a year of remission. No such luck. Three months later, I was back in the oncologist's office after finding another tumor. The doc said he didn't want to give up yet. We tried a third kind of chemotherapy that I could give him at home. I arranged for him to get the necessary blood work done at a nearby veterinary office, as he began to howl and throw up when we arrived at the oncologist's office. Propelling such anxiety for short spells of remission stopped making sense.

 

Chopper Not Loving Being in the Car for a Cross-Country Move (June 2011)

 

When another tumor reappeared this past May, I called off the chemo and weaned him off the steroids he had been taking. He stopped being afraid of my car keys and resumed being his playful, cheerful, talkative self. He would serenely sit on my lap while the lovely Carrie Donahue put acupuncture needles in his back, and he did not balk at me shoving supplements down his throat twice a day.

Then he began having trouble breathing. We started the steroids again. Another tumor appeared and quickly enveloped his throat and chest. The tumor eventually became infected and made his breathing extremely labored. On January 7, 2015, Carrie came over to our house and euthanized my beloved cat who was, at that point, gasping for air. He died peacefully in my arms, and I am forever grateful to Carrie and thankful I had the resources to let him go in this way, before he could no longer breathe.

 

Brothers, Since Foster Care

 

Why am I recounting the details of this sad tale? Because I had no idea I could witness such suffering without fleeing the scene (which is my favorite definition of compassion) until I experienced Chopper's prolonged struggle with cancer. I frequently wanted to bury my head in the sand and avoid the painful parts of his illness, but I didn't. I sat with him. I loved the shit out of him. I let him go. I never want to go through this process again with a pet or human being, but now I know that I can. And that makes all the difference. May you rest in peace, sweet Chopper.

to live in this world

you must be able to do three things to love what is mortal; to hold it

against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go

--Mary Oliver

Mr. Green Eyes and Pink Nose

That Brutal and Wondrous Teacher Called Loss

People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That's not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn't understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you're given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.

--Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty

Right on time, life has delivered another one of those lessons that rips the shield right off.

Credit to I Can Has Cheezburger?

This past summer, on the cusp of turning 39, I was honest with myself and my partner: if I didn't at least try to have a baby while I still could, I would feel deep regret. Being the loving, supportive person he is, he jumped on board, and we began what some would call a fertility journey. I would call it another fucking growth opportunity (AFGO for short).

For anyone out there with ovaries who has struggled through this process of trying to generate a living being in your body, I first want to say, "I'm sorry." I'm sorry we live in a society that still treats women's bodies like objects for sale or hire and happily assigns blame and shame when the baby-making process goes awry. So many U.S. blogs, books, and medical sources focus solely on what individual women need to do to make their bodies a cozy sanctuary for a new life. You have stress? Lower it! Never mind if you work in a soul-sucking institution or have a boss breathing down your throat. Just put on that cape and make it go away. And if you choose not to lower your stress and experience a miscarriage or complications? Well, that's your own doing.

For those of us who struggle not to blame ourselves when life takes an unexpected, difficult turn (and most women I know fit this bill), these messages of individual responsibility are at best not helpful. At worst, they enter our psyche and wreak havoc on our ability to protect and nurture the one life that is truly our own. Of course we need to take responsibility for our actions and choices. But we do not live in a vacuum. We shape and are shaped by our environment and the people in it. Interdependence and imperfection are the rule, not the exception, for our fumbling human selves.

I recently had my second early miscarriage. The day before it happened, I had an exceedingly stressful day at work. The self-criticism alarms started blaring and quickly rose in volume and intensity. Not only should I have handled the previous day differently, but I also should have treated my body better all the years leading up to this moment.

Thankfully, I have some really good feedback systems in place, which gave me some much needed perspective. First and foremost, I have a partner who witnessed my sadness without trying to fix it. Instead, he gently stroked my hair, listened, and was present. His only suggestion was that I not be so mean to myself. I am very lucky. I also have a wonderful doctor who immediately told me this kind of thing happens frequently and was not my fault. I reached out to some friends who have been through this process, too, and they offered loving words of support.

In addition to drawing on these and other external resources, I have gone inward and used the self-compassion and mindfulness skills I recommend to my clients. When I've asked the inner critic to step back, I've discovered several important things. For example, I see that the chronic stress and fatigue associated with years of climbing an unending achievement ladder were not consciously and freely chosen. I was doing the best I could with what I had in some pretty unforgiving environments. While I continue to acknowledge and seek to transform the numerous privileges I've received in this lifetime for no good reason (e.g. my skin color), I have stopped denying that I also suffer. So I can say and actually mean that this most recent loss was real, as is my grief about the years I spent trying to be somebody other than who I am. I thus have begun to believe for real that my ways of coping with that inauthenticity--such as working too hard and drinking too often for too long--were attempts to get through this life in one piece. Even if I did irreparable damage to my body, I can forgive my younger self for not being able to find a way to take better care of myself then and feel grateful that I am able do that for myself now.

Regardless of how this AFGO turns out, it has already opened me. And that is a gift, despite the heartache included in the wrapping. For all you wannabe parents out there, I wish you ease and enough space for all parts of this experience. To borrow again from Pema Chodron, “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy."

 

 

 

Connecting busy-ness to laziness

Yesterday I did what I usually do when my mind is humming and an undercurrent of dis-ease is clouding the landscape. I went for a walk and listened to a Tara Brach talk. Her newest one had not yet been posted so I chose an oldie, "Vulnerability, Intimacy, and Spiritual Awakening," that I intuitively sensed might calm the storm within. I'm so glad that I did, as the alarm bell for which I longed sounded during this talk. It came in the form of a Tibetan belief: busy-ness is the most extreme form of laziness. Those words stopped me in my tracks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz_Yz0EAG78

In three days I will begin, in earnest, a full-time psychotherapy practice after a year of juggling my practice with a part-time job. My conditioned response is to keep riding the high-speed train of the past 12 months. What I know how to do best is attack my task list with gusto and hit the ground running with as much manic energy as I can assemble.

Thankfully I have some supports in place that regularly ask me to pause and reflect on my intentions and actions. Two of my fellow pilgrimage-goers, Marcelle and Grey, reminded me just this morning that my busy-ness is covering over significant fear and grief. Those emotions, in turn, are hovering over that which underlies everything in this living and dying world--our vulnerability.

This morning's gathering brought to life Brene Brown's wisdom that shame thrives in a petri dish of silence, judgment, and secrecy whereas it dissipates in the presence of empathy, or "me too." In the midst of two other souls working hard to realize their creative visions, I found the courage to touch the brakes and remember the questions that matter most: What is happening? Can I be with it?

Upon making this inquiry, I understood that my current journey involves creating anew not from a blank canvas but from ruins. I am drawn to the model of transition that highlights how major transformation begins with loss. The loss within me that has been wanting to be named and given loving (not critical!) attention is that this career is not my first one. I spent much blood, sweat, and tears--not to mention nine years--becoming an academic who had just begun to feel confident in her work. I also chose to walk away from that carefully sculpted career. On this new path of becoming a healer, I am once again unsteady and full of the self-doubt that new beginnings engender.

Earlier today I was able to reconnect with that tender point in time when I was a graduate student who did not speak during her first semester of classes and constantly second-guessed her ability to be a contributing, welcomed member of an academic community. I also remembered that I did not stay in that place but grew, and even flourished, until that particular season of life ended, as they all do, with my conscious and encouraging assent. By slowing down, I came back to this wish: May we grant ourselves the space and time needed to let go of dying dreams so that new beginnings can unfold at their own pace.

With recognition of that vocational loss, enough space opened for another one to emerge. This more vulnerable wreckage wants air, too, so that it does not bloom on the petri dish of shame. Yet this particular loss is terrifying to share publicly, especially for those of us engaged in healing work, as it has the power to tear apart our sense of efficacy and value and, for me anyway, can instantly assume the spectre of the ultimate failure. Even as I write now, my chest is constricted in fear, and my stomach is wildly generating knots. That, after all, is why it's so important to name these remains and work with them--their power wilts in the face of "me too." Can I be with this? I think so.

A short time after beginning my private practice one of my clients committed suicide. I had no idea this highly pre-meditated end was on the horizon, and it brought me to my knees. To borrow from poet Danna Faulds, the suicide ripped off the doors of my heart and veiled my vision with despair. And what do you know? In the face of this violent finale, I got very busy.

Today, with the passing of time and the invaluable support of colleagues and friends, I have great compassion for the busyness-laziness that was born of trauma. I went into survival mode, largely functioning from the fight, flight, freeze part of my reptilian brain until I sensed enough space to remember that I could remain safe when staying with my experience. In other words, I arrived at a place of not needing to engage in a high-speed chase away from what initially felt like an oxygen-free zone of pain.

All of this is to say that sometimes the grief and fear are too much. We need time to be lazy and regather our shattered selves. My own aspiration is not to stay in a zone of busy-ness until I find myself gasping for air in a stagnant pool of exhaustion and misery. As a professor and survivor of suicide, I came close to inhabiting that place.

So I will close with gratitude for the beings and natural spaces that brought me back to the land of the living where the wind once again touches my skin and reminds me that this too shall pass, whatever this is. I also am thankful for writers and teachers like Ram Dass who shared in a letter to the grieving parents of a deceased child, "Our rational minds can never understand what has happened, but our hearts--if we can keep them open to God [or the interconnectedness of all things]--will find their own intuitive way." May we therefore allow our hearts to open and believe in our capacity to let pain "burn its purifying way to completion," when  we can once again rest in stillness and love.

 

Unfinished Conversations

As of late, unfinished conversations abound in my life. I have had clients seeking peace and forgiveness via dialogues with departed family members as well as those who are alive but inaccessible for any number of reasons. I also have been reckoning with my own unfinished conversations, particularly with someone who died at their own hand. With gratitude, then, I came upon Robert Lesoine and Marilynne Chophel's Unfinished Conversation: Healing from Suicide and Loss. For those of us feeling adrift from an unexpected loss or any relationship that raises a storm of emotions once we give it attention, this book provides amazing resources. In it, Lesoine allows us to witness his grieving process following the suicide of his best friend. He illustrates the panoply of emotions that spiral in and out of his immediate experience--sadness, outrage, fear, regret, guilt, loneliness, and abandonment to name a few--as well as his gradual move toward curiosity, acceptance, and letting go. Lesoine's written dialogues with Larry facilitate this journey and, as he notes, rekindle a connection with his deceased friend.

His co-author Chophel, a trauma specialist and longtime therapist, contributes additional tools for healing throughout the book. For example, the following "Getting Real Journal Exercises" focuses on working with remorse:

Getting real with yourself means noticing--with courageous honesty--your actions and feelings, even difficult feelings such as guilt and genuine remorse. Write a dialoge in which you express your regrets and see what the response of your loved one might be. Write a scenario in your journal in which you and your loved one both take responsibility, make amends, and experience deeper understanding and reconnection with each other.

I was moved by the authors' creation of space for whatever arose for Lesoine and their insistence that grief does not come in right and wrong forms. I also appreciated that the book followed Lesoine for over a year, giving me a window into how my own grief might shapeshift across time, if I allow it to do so. I found his continuous opening toward Larry and himself particularly beautiful. Toward the end of the book, for example, Lesoine desires to let go of his suffering by forgiving Larry and himself. As he writes,

Eventually, I come to recognize that to truly heal, I also need to directly ask for Larry's forgiveness. Larry, my friend, for all the ways I may have caused you pain through my judgment, outrage, hurt, and confusion, for all the ways I acted or failed to act, I ask for your forgiveness. For all the ways I pushed you out of my heart and made you wrong and bad, for all the ways I judged and was critical of you, I ask you now to forgive me. Please my brother, forgive me.

 

And I need to forgive myself as well, for all of the shame, self-judgment, and reactive anger; for the ways I have abandoned and not cared for myself; and for the relentless critical self-talk and guilt that have plagued me since Larry's death. In order to truly heal, I have to be willing to let all that go and welcome myself back into my own heart, as if welcoming home a guest who has been away for too long. I need to say, 'I forgive you,' to myself.

Upon reading this book, I found my own heart releasing its grip on the pain of the last few months and embracing the words of poet Rabindranath Tagore, which Lesoine includes in the epilogue:

Peace, my heart, let the time for

the parting be sweet.

Let it not be a death but completeness.

Let love melt into memory and pain

into songs.

Let the flight through the sky end

in the folding of the wings over the

nest.

Let the last touch of your hands be

gentle like the flower of the night.

Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a

moment, and say your last words in

silence.

I bow to you and hold up my lamp

to light you on your way.