Willoughwaves

Waddling’s the word for the way Willoughby walked. Willoughwaddles.

He was an old man when we adopted him. But as slowly and arthritically as he moved 95% of the time, he was still ready for an occasional mad dash when we played hide and seek, or to stand his ground like the Rock of Gibraltar when he wasn’t done sniffing a tree trunk.

The first time I remember seeing Willoughby run was at a rest stop in Wisconsin. Lyssi was gone for a couple minutes, which was a couple minutes too long. When he saw her coming, he started walking, and as she got closer, and he became more sure, he took off bounding toward her and gave her a giant Willoughby hug.

There was something about that moment. You know how in the movies when two people love each other to death and see each other from a distance, there’s this Valentinesy moment where they pick up speed and run into each other’s arms? And you feel like “Ugh, I want that to happen to me.” Well that’s what dogs give us. That moment never went away.

Willoughby hugs

If you read what I write, you may have gotten your fill of grief lately. Welcome to grief. This is, apparently, how it works. At some point, I’ll also write about other things. But not today. Grief has been on my mind, and I want to share with you some things I’ve learned in the last few months. I know you’re going to lose something or someone, too. Maybe already have. You’ll probably grieve many losses. And it’s just the worst. And there are a couple things that have been surprisingly helpful, so maybe they’ll help you.

~

For weeks and weeks after Willoughby died, I couldn’t stop playing this scene in my head: Somehow, somewhere, sometime I’d see Willoughby from across a distance. He’d see me, and he’d get that look in his eyes, and he’d start moving, and the waddles would turn into a run, and he’d land in my arms again, tail wagging, sneezes sneezing.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

And then a few different friends gave me cards with the story of the Rainbow Bridge. The beloved pets we have lost “all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted . . .”

It’s not real.

But it’s a story worth imagining.

And I’ve imagined it again and again and again. And I keep feeling “If only . . .”

Willoughby greetings

When I think about seeing Willoughby again, hearing his old man bark, seeing him running and playing, it hurts a lot. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I really cry. Each time feels a little different as grief winds its weird path and I feel the Willoughwaves come and go.

But it never doesn’t hurt to think about. So why keep thinking about it?

Like most of us, I always assumed that it would feel better not to think about the wonderful things we’ve lost. The things we were so attached to that the memory physically hurts. I remember my psychologist friend sharing that a lot of his clients who have lost loved ones say that they can’t let themselves start thinking about it, because if they start crying they’ll never stop. We believe grief will overwhelm and break us. That if we let it in, it will be too much. Permanent.

But it actually doesn’t work that way.

The first surprising grief lesson I’ll share was this weird thing that worked.

Pizza tasted good, but it didn’t really carry us through our feelings. Distractions delayed some tears, which honestly was really helpful, but then the distractions ended. The one activity that seemed to “work” in any healing way was watching videos of Willoughby.

Willoughby holidays

I didn’t think I’d be able to handle pictures of Willoughby, let alone videos, but it turned out they were the exact medicine. Especially the videos. The videos gave me his sound. I got to watch him and listen to him and relive the memories and fully feel how badly I love him.

And then, strangely, it would feel . . . better . . . ?

Which is the opposite, I think, of what we expect. Grief knocks us down, so we think the best defense is to not let it knock us down, and we find ourselves worn out bracing against its power, “not listening, not listening.”

But when we finally do listen, look, feel . . . it sort of moves through us. It does its thing.

Emotions are made to be felt, not fought. Well before Willoughby died, I gave a blog post the title Letting the waves do their thing. I described how surfing is used as an analogy for life–when the waves come, we learn to ride the waves. But not just that. We often forget that surfers don’t just ride the waves, they also wipe out, because from time to time a wave comes that is too big, and it pulls them under into a current that is too strong, and surfers have to learn a life-saving lesson: You can’t fight the water. When it pulls you under, you have to swim with it, or at least not against it. If you try to fight it, you will drown. And I think life is the same way. The waves are surfable, but at some point they’re going to knock you down and pull you under, and those giant emotions are too strong to fight. Too strong to deny. Too strong to say things like “well at least” or “it’s okay because.” Too strong to look the other way and distract ourselves. So when we try to fight them, we lose. They just get bigger and bigger and become more and more deeply entrenched. And one day our dams will break.

The strange thing that my psychologist friend gets to share with his clients who are afraid to let the tears start is that when we actually get open and honest and familiar and accepting with the tears, the emotions move through us. Emotions, when allowed, do their thing and then . . . let up. The current is strong, but if you go with it, it will let you back up for air.

Emotions, when blocked, exhaust us and grow bigger. Emotions, when accepted, fulfill their purpose and then recede.

And sure enough, when I put on that SYML song that brings me back to the drive to say one last goodbye, or when I tell a friend who is brave and thoughtful enough to ask all about him, or when I watch the videos of Willoughby being Willoughby–the tears come. And then they go. And it . . . helps.

So that’s thing one: Watch the videos, let the memories in, feel the feels. Deep. It hurts deep, but it heals deep.

And it keeps working that way, 4 months later. The longer I try to just put those thoughts and memories away when they creep up, the more ominous and yucky it feels. And when I finally just go, “Okay, time to hear the Willoughby playlist again,” it heals. It’s better.

At least for me. So maybe for you?

Why is it better for me to feel it all the way and let the grief grieve? I think maybe because Willoughby’s not actually gone from my heart. So trying to deny his visits to my heart hurts worse than just remembering the love and feeling him again.

Nora McInerny has a lot to say about this, and the day we let Willoughby go I listened again to her Ted Talk on grief, because I needed to remember that it is okay not to move on from Willoughby. I’m attaching her Ted Talk at the bottom of this post, because I hope, hope, hope you’ll watch it. It has been the perfect guide for me.

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Thing two that seems to have really helped is this weird, masochistic-sounding experiment I did through the whole process.

Loss can change people. There’s something I’ve heard about the likelihood of couples who lose children breaking up. It’s just hard to survive deep losses. It’s hard to be healthy about them. It’s hard not to just throw shit at the walls and scream. It’s hard not to blame. It’s hard not to clam up. It’s hard. It’s all hard.

In his life-changing book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explores the origins of trauma. It’s fascinating. I promise this is way over-simplified, but: One of the reasons trauma is so traumatic is that it is too much to show up for, too much to process in our brains. Too terrifying to look closely. Like the shadow in the closet. We hide under our blanket instead of investigating, so we spend the rest of our lives under our blanket instead of seeing that the shadow has come and gone.

In Off Camera with Sam Jones, Matt Damon describes the true-to-life flavor they gave a scene in the movie Contagion. Near the beginning of the movie, a doctor tells Damon’s character that his wife has died. “Right. . . . can I go talk to her?” In researching how this would play, they learned from doctors that they’re trained to use very specific language. They don’t say soft things like “didn’t make it,” they get real brutally direct: “Their heart stopped and they did die.” Apparently the word “did” gives it some extra force. They do this because that truth is so hard for people to hear that we literally won’t hear it. Won’t understand it. Won’t accept it.

It’s easier to not look at the worst stuff. To block it out. To stuff it down. To turn our feelings off. To lie to ourselves and say “I’m fine.” To pretend the trauma’s not really there. To not look at it. To not touch it.

Because some things are too scary. Too awful.

But then, when we deny it, when we stay in the denial stage or the bargaining stage, it roots deeply in our core as trauma. Something we couldn’t bear to show up for, something that’s too big a monster hiding in the closet. So we live the rest of our lives in its shadow. Avoiding triggers. Emotionally shut down. Carefully blocking the experience.

So what would happen with that experience if instead of shutting down during it we opened all the way up to it?

One last Willoughby adventure

My experiment was to stay outrageously present for Willoughby’s death. No denying. No pretending. No blocking. No looking away. No trying to get away. No shutting out or shutting down. Just all the way present.

What did I feel? What did I hear? What did I smell? What did I see? And what–exactly what–was happening in my heart? And could I sit with it? Sit in it?

My heart was saying “I’m not ready for this! I can’t let you go, Willoughby.” I’ve never cried that hard and may never again. I felt the cold rain sprinkling on my skin. I heard the cars drive by as we stood in the alley behind the vet clinic. I heard Willoughby’s silence. Too tired. I smelled Willoughby as I leaned down to kiss his forehead. Again. And again. I felt Lyssi’s shoulders as we held onto each other. I heard my calming voice telling, promising Willoughby we weren’t going anywhere and telling him he’d been such a good boy. I saw Willoughby’s head peeking out from under the covers. I watched his eyes move. I noticed how completely normal but still tender this moment felt to the nurse who came out when we said we were ready. I listened to her explain what happens. And then I watched Willoughby’s eyes get really big all of a sudden. Like something was happening. And then he got sleepy and peaceful. We said silly things like “Thank you” to the nurse and walked back to the car. We sat in it and held each other and cried. Together. For a long time.

Lyssi and I agreed to be really present with each other for the grief. To accept it, to let each other show all the yucky pain, to be all the way emotionally available and emotionally together about it, no matter how awful.

It would have been easier to be a trooper. To keep my chin up. To “be strong.” It would have been easier to “can’t think about it right now,” or to get back to work, or to take care of things and do stuff. It was definitely harder to be consciously, carefully present. In the moment.

And I don’t think I can describe how much it has helped. It was a moment full of love that I will never ever get back. And if I hadn’t said the things and given him the kisses, I wouldn’t have that memory. If I hadn’t soaked it all in, it would be gone, and I wouldn’t be able to get it back.

And it would be big. A big shadow. That trauma thing.

Have you ever had an anxiety attack? Most of the time, we humans make it through pretty dreadful things. But anxiety is about feeling there’s a too-big thing looming around the corner. One you won’t make it through. And an anxiety attack happens when your body gets too overwhelmed with that undefinable, vague shadow, and begins to panic. So how do you calm an anxiety attack? By returning to the senses. What do you see? What can you touch? What do you hear? What do you smell? What can you taste? Because no matter how awful, usually, when we can return to our senses, we’re able to be there.

I think that happens with grief, too. With loss. It’s pretty gut-wrenchingly awful. And we can run away from the shadow, let the trauma hunt us in a game of hide-and-seek that will never end. Or we can show all the way up for it.

This pain, this loss, has stayed with me in a different way than others have in the past. And I do think it has some to do with how present we stayed for it. No denial. No soldiering on. No turning off feelings.

He was really dying. And we were really there for it. And we will always have that moment. We understood it. No matter how painful, we understood it and got to show up with agency and love in that moment while he crossed that bridge.

I’ve just seen so many people shut down to survive loss, but it always turns out they didn’t survive it. They just hit pause. The loss is still waiting. So maybe they’ll just stay paused. Forever. While the shadow grows bigger, and their heart grows emptier.

Being intentionally present with Willoughby’s death was so hard and so sad. But I think it helped. A lot. I think it saved some trauma. I think it saved some regret. I think it saved some dysfunction. Some struggle. I think it meant I get to look back with tears and love at our goodbye, instead of panicking and running away from the thought for the rest of my life.

~

Willoughby memories

I don’t know if either of these will help you.

Deciding to show up in love and presence for the saddest times;

And letting the waves of grief do their thing, healing you as they go.

But they’ve helped me immensely.

So when the waves knock you down and pull you under–and they will–maybe try showing all the way up and feeling the feels.

The Willoughwaves keep coming, for me, but as long as I don’t fight them, they seem to be serving a purpose.

Do you show up for your grief?

Willoughby love

~

P.S. Thanks to Nora McInerny for maybe the most helpful 15 minutes I’ve ever found:

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It seems we’re both figuring this whole life thing out as we go. Can I send you updates when I figure more of it out? Wishing you the best!

Cut yourself some slack, it’s just how brains work

Sights, sounds, smells, and all those senses enter the brain through something called the thalamus.

The thalamus passes this mix of sensations in two directions: The amygdala and the frontal cortex.

The amygdala keeps you alive by freaking out about stuff. It quickly checks with the hippocampus to see if the new information might remind us of any yucky stuff that’s happened to us in the past. And if it feels any threat, it goes “Okay, it’s time to stay alive!” And it bombards you with stress chemicals and makes you do things like fight or fly or freeze.

The frontal cortex, on the other hand, thinks a bit more critically. Like “Um that’s just a shadow” or “Not all bosses are as evil as your old boss” or “No stress, zombies aren’t real” or “Actually not everybody who calls your name from another room is about to beat you.” And so it helps you not try to hit everybody or run screaming from the room.

And here’s the fun thing.

The information travels from the thalamus to the amygdala more quickly than to the frontal cortex.

In other words: “Not responding emotionally” is literally impossible.

Your brain is wired to save you from lions and to feel suddenly hurt by your partner when they didn’t mean anything. You literally can’t help freaking out sometimes about things you don’t need to freak out about, especially when it looks or feels or sounds a little bit like something that has hurt you before.

This doesn’t mean you can’t practice and get sort of good at slowing your reactivity so that your frontal cortex has a chance to be like “Um you don’t need to punch them in the face.”

But it does mean that you’re not a bad or defective person just because you get emotional or scared or react sometimes in ways you wish you wouldn’t.

Especially when it’s stuff that brings up your deepest scars.

Your amygdala is just trying to save your life.

Deep breaths, count to 3, trust the process, your frontal cortex can help you sort it out.

That being said, for some of us these pathways have been screwed up by especially rough experiences. If you feel like you’re always, always being hijacked by overreacty feelings, don’t blame yourself–maybe you’ve just had to work too hard to keep yourself safe in life. It’s not fair, but don’t give up hope. There are some PTSD therapies that can really help to rewire this.

But in general, I think it can really help to understand about ourselves: None of us are “calm, cool, and collected” the instant something happens. Your amygdala will always show up before your frontal cortex. Which means working on nurturing a baseline of safety and taking deep breaths and counting to 3 are all a much better and fairer use of your energy than calling yourself stupid or sensitive or irrational.

You’re just good at staying alive, and sometimes it makes life weird.

That’s just human.

~

For a so-much-deeper-life-changingly-eye-opening exploration of this and other humany topics, read The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.

Good luck with your amygdala. <3

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