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.

~

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:

~

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!

Your disappearing place

Where is your disappearing place?

What place makes you remember your freedom, your self, your own breath?

Where can you truly feel “away from it all” for a soul-filling minute?

Letting the waves do their thing

Think back. Remember vulnerable-you. At your weakest, your most drained, your most crushed.

What did it?

“Trauma” is a universal experience. Your life may not have been dominated by it, but you’ve had your days.

Younger me found refuge in my bedroom closet. I’d spend hours in there. It felt a little safer.

Have you ever heard yourself say “I just want to hide under a rock” or “I just want to crawl under my blanket and never come out”?

What drove those big yucky feelings way back when you felt them and learned to fear them?

And–and here’s the fun part–do you ever still relive them now?

What brings you suddenly and helplessly back?

It’s human to have triggers.

Reliving trauma can turn the strongest person to mush. Sometimes with little warning.

And here’s the difficult part, but maybe the hopeful part . . .

What do you do when that happens?

When it hits you like a ton of bricks.

When you’re thrown right back into the saddest and most helpless feelings.

When you’re 12-years-old again getting screamed at or hit again.

When you’re suddenly friendless and unwantable again.

When someone’s looking at you that yucky way again.

When you hear that voice again that you really, really needed to never hear again.

When you have that old nightmare again.

When everything feels dangerous again.

When you need to go hide in your closet again.

What then?

I think sometimes we try to say, “I beat this then, I can beat this now.” And we get tough. Flex our I-don’t-cry muscles. Manufacture positivity.

And yes, there is some hope in a soft and encouraging reminder, “I made it through this before.”

But I don’t think the tough way through works in those darkest times.

Surfing is used frequently as an analogy for the ups and downs of life. When the waves come, you ride them, right?

But surfers also have to learn a life-saving lesson: When the water is too strong, trying to pull you under and away–which, absolutely, 100% it will be sometimes–you cannot fight it.

When the current is too strong, fighting against it will kill you.

You have to acknowledge and allow the power of water.

It is too strong to beat.

And when you stop fighting, embrace the overwhelming power of the water, let it do its massive thing with you, and even swim with it (or at least sort-of-with-it–like not against it) . . . it eventually spits you out into safety.

And I think life is the same way.

Like a sunny day on the beach, life is beautiful.

And like the surfing analogy goes, we can learn to ride its waves.

But when you wipe out (and you will), and find that the waves are just too damn big today (and you will), and that they’re pulling you down into the darkest darkness (and they will)–the only way out is through.

So what would happen if, when the trauma suddenly shows back up with a vengeance, and you’re suddenly a powerless, paralyzed kid again . . . what would happen if you just let the waves crash over you, let the overwhelming power of grief or fear or anger do its thing?

What if you stopped struggling, stopped denying, stopped “at-least”-ing, stopped numbing . . . and just fully accepted the overwhelming, crushing force of deep trauma?

Maybe you’d stop living in a cycle of exhaustion, fighting to keep your head above an angry ocean surface.

Maybe all the feelings would wash over you, envelop you, and fill you up.

And then, like a current in the sea, they could carry you through the darkness back to safety.

Emotions are designed to be felt.

Not fought.

Grief.

Fear.

Anger.

When fought, they will win. They’ll hold you down.

When acknowledged as overwhelmingly powerful . . . they’re “designed” to spit you out on the other side.

A psychologist friend of mine shares that a lot of his clients try desperately to run the other way when deep sadness shows up, distracting themselves, denying their feelings, and even avoiding big, beautiful life things so that reminders won’t trigger sadness again. They explain to him that they’re afraid if they let themselves feel the sadness all the way, it will never stop. It will be too powerful. It will crush them and hold them under for the rest of their lives. And he gets to give them a shot of hope that he’s learned as a professional who studies the human mind: No. It won’t. It will feel AWFUL. And then, once it’s done its thing, it will recede.

When old trauma and grief show up, do you get stuck in a cycle of “not listening, not listening” with your fingers plugging your ears, as if somehow, as long as you don’t cry, it will get better?

It doesn’t, does it?

What if you just let the feelings do what they’re designed to do?

Maybe you even go hide in your closet again and sob for a while, like when you were 15.

Then maybe, once its done its thing, it will let you back up for air, and you’ll see that the sun is shining.

And yes, the same wave will pull you under again sometime. But it doesn’t own you. You will come back up for air and surf the beautiful ocean of life again.

Emotional on purpose

Non-rational corners of the brain get little respect. We are supposed to be “smart” creatures, do what “makes sense,” “think carefully.” And yes to all that. And also yes to purposefully manufacturing feelings and emotions that access the more primitive corners of the brain and have nothing to do with logic and sensibility.

Here’s what I mean.

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last,” Zig Ziglar points out. “Well, neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily.”

When we plan and think about how to do life day-to-day, we want to grow, stretch, learn, accomplish–and so we tend to put a lot of emphasis on the rationality-stuff, and forget to plan for our emotions.

We are emotional creatures. We do big, brave, beautiful things because we’re having deep feelings.

What gives you those deep feelings? What triggers them? Fuels them? Replenishes them when you’re running on empty?

Reading a good book? Singing along to the Les Mis√©rables score? Discovering a new poet? Getting the biggest, tightest hug? Asking your heart how it’s doing and writing the answer in a journal? Volunteering to help people in need? Laying quietly for an hour by the lake? A phone call to your best friend? Reading a story that deals with death or loss or grief and purpose? Finding a good quote to live by? Gazing at photos of Mount Ida, visualizing yourself, hiking boots, backpack, all geared up, trekking the wilderness? Joining a crowd to dance, sing, cheer, laugh, or some years just seeing a bunch of smiling faces on Zoom? Holding the little hand of your sweet kiddo as they drift to sleep?

We call them “mountain top” experiences, and they change our lives, and then, when the feels wear off, and we’ve been feelingless for a good while, and we got all rational again, and we barely recognize our once-emotional-selves, we remember those episodes and call them “mountain top” experiences again but with a sort of disapproval this time, like we had fallen for something, like how silly to get so high on feelings. Or maybe like we’re just feeling insecure and a little lost deep down now, because we can’t find our way back up the mountain.

So get emotional on purpose.

What gives you those deep feelings?

Do it,

plan it,

schedule it,

repeat it,

commit to it,

obsess over it,

enjoy it,

cry about it,

share it,

keep it sacred,

ritualize it,

commemorate it,

do it again,

do it again,

do it again.

Let’s not undervalue the truly life-changing impact of finding our feelings.

What emotions do you need today? And where could you get them? Go look, find, take them.

There is nothing silly or senseless or worthless about manufacturing vitality-giving emotions on purpose.

We’re creatures with feelings.

Feel on purpose.

Sometimes you’ve gotta feel

Sometimes you’ve gotta feel, gotta get emotional.

At a seminar I attended last week, the speaker reminded us of a very real, very important fact of life, one that I know at least I forget a lot: You have to find inspiration. Like, inspiration with a capital I. Like deep emotional connection and feeling.

He explained that’s why we listen to music, among other things. Or read and share sweet stories. Watch inspiring movies. That’s why people in spiritual gatherings sing together and make moving music.

Every single day, I know that it would be healthy to get some exercise, to eat healthy, to slow down and take some time to recharge. But KNOWING this every single day doesn’t mean I DO it every single day. If we all did the things that we “knew” we “should” do, the world would be a very different place. Sometimes being aware of what’s good and positive to do, or being aware of what we want–having that knowledge isn’t enough.

I’ve learned a lot this year about the weirdness and randomness and arbitrariness and unstableness and just doesn’t-quite-make-sense-ness of feelings. They come and go, they feel massive and then they don’t feel at all, they motivate and then they disappear.

The “head” and the “heart,” as we speak of them, are two very different things. I grew up thinking that they weren’t. That what you need is to “get it.” To “understand.” But I’ve discovered, as I’m sure you have, that knowing your want/should doesn’t mean you follow through. Motivation to actually follow what we know, what we know we want–motivation doesn’t happen in the same way that understanding happens. Motivation is when you feel about it.

I’m one of those people that cries like a baby at movies and at music and at songs and at poetry and at beautiful landscapes and at an adorable thing that someone said or at like seeing a couple walk down the sidewalk holding hands. In other words I get feelings a lot. And I sometimes have seen that as a weird thing, a weakness, or something to be a little embarrassed about. Or at least something others will think is weak or weird.

But I also have noticed that the more of those feelings I have, the more I be who I want to be.

I can “think”/”understand”/”make sense of” myself and the world all the way down to a quiet, bland acceptance of the status quo with no drive to change, to act, to search. Or instead. I can let inspiration take hold.

Sometimes you’ve gotta feel. You’ve gotta get emotional. Gotta remember the butterflies you felt when you met her. Feel the giddy that you felt when you got that comic book as a kid. Feel the heart-wrenching pain of watching helpless, hopeless people, sick and suffering, needing the world to remember them. Hug yourself and the people around you and feel the word “support.” Sometimes you’ve gotta FEEL love, FEEL friendship, FEEL sadness, FEEL needs, FEEL purpose.

I don’t know if all this makes a lot of sense to you or helps you. Maybe it will resonate with a few people like me. If it does, go get inspired. Go find stuff that will FEEL you into ACTION.

All the good you want to do in the world, find the emotional stuff that will actually make you DO it. Put that stuff in front of your eyes every day. Stop scrolling Facebook for a minute, and go find the stuff that touches you deep down. Cry, laugh, hurt, dream, burn with desire.

I made a Spotify playlist called “All the feels,” because as silly as this is, I’m a better person when I listen to those tracks.

What makes you come alive? What connects you to the people you love? What connects you to your purpose? What makes you feel not-quite-there-yet, and sets you back on the road to your dreams? What forces you into the reality of the people around you who need your help? What INSPIRES you?

Look at that stuff. Get emotional. Be epic. People need you, you need you. We’re all in this together.

Happy adventuring! <3

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