Willoughby

I don’t have many words these days.

Life goes on, when someone you love dies, and that’s so frustrating. I want the world to stop for a minute. Or at least I want to take a step away from it all for a minute, but unfortunately I still have to get groceries and go to work and say hello back to people. And all those people expect me to be normal or at least decent, but all I want is to not talk to anyone, to not look at anyone, to not care about things like money or drama or events.

Everyone is so sympathetic at first, so many big feelings sent. And then, like the rest of life, those people also go on, because they’re those people, not me, and because they should go on, they have to go on, they just obviously would go on, because why would they stop life to just watch me grieve for days and weeks and months? It only makes sense. Just because my world comes to a screeching halt, doesn’t mean the world comes to a screeching halt. Which is a little whiplashy. So after the first few days, most people have forgotten it, and after the first couple weeks, most who remembered it won’t dare to bring it up.

Why do people think it will hurt too much if they keep bringing up someone you’ve lost? Letting them disappear hurts so much worse. I daydream of moments when a friend would say “How are you doing with all this?” or “Are you okay?” or “I’m so sorry you lost him” or “Do you want to talk about it?” or “What was he like?”

Because I don’t want to be done with him. Ever.

What was he like? He was perfect. And by perfect I mean in a particular way.

He cost a lot of money to take care of in his old age. And when we left for too long in the evenings he would tear up a toilet paper roll or dump the contents of a backpack at the front door, which seemed to be his way of saying “I need to be with you.” His snoring and licking and midnight hijinks made it hard to sleep until I finally bought ear plugs. To record anything for my blog anymore, I had to close myself behind two doors and hope that no footsteps in the hall would make him bark and then deal with his looks of betrayal for a while when I finally opened the doors. And some nights I really didn’t want to take him back outside before bed.

So then what does perfect mean?

Perfect means that I never had to wonder, for even a second. Willoughby loved me. And he just wanted to be with me. And he would always, always be there, wagging his tail, ready to give all the licks and hugs. I napped more when Willoughby was around, because when you’re in the presence of so much love, resting makes sense. It was just love. Acceptance. Friendship. Perfect.

Oh, and he was absolutely hilarious.

I scheduled myself a Monday off work just so that I could bring Willoughby out into the world for one more good adventure day. His tumor was growing and I knew he didn’t have much time. The week before, I had taken him on a walk in the strong wind. He had run and run with the blowing wind accentuating the massive grin plastered on his face. Couldn’t get enough. When we had gotten to the front door, it was abundantly clear he wasn’t ready to leave the great outdoors. So we stood in the wind until the wind became snow and his old man legs started shaking and then finally he sat straight down on the sidewalk and I realized that this was the most important stuff of life so I sat down next to him and we just watched the world and felt the beating snow. And it was our best day. So I scheduled the next Monday to take him to go see all of the world that he could possibly want to see. But he didn’t make it to Monday.

I still feel this need to explain, somehow justify, why Willoughby’s death left me as torn up as it did. I think I’ve said “I know we only had him for about a year” twenty times, and I hate every single time that I have said that. When Willoughby died he was my best friend and he was my wife’s best friend. It doesn’t take long to fall in love with unconditional love. To become attached to it. Wrapped up in it. The last few years haven’t been easy. Honestly, life hasn’t. I had a lucky few light-hearted years in my early 20’s, but I didn’t realize then how much childhood trauma was simmering under the surface. Add a couple concussions that brought so much to the surface and then a pandemic and loss of community and chronic pain and too many more little things that added up so much. For a lot of it, Willoughby kept me going. Life drained me, but then I’d get home and Willoughby’s entire rear half would be violently wagging at the door because he was so damn excited that WE WERE TOGETHER AGAIN! So life was okay. And then he wasn’t there. And life wasn’t okay anymore.

I never really understood the anger part of grief so much. Like, sure anger about mean or abusive people that hurt you or the ones you love. But anger over the loss of such a good, pure, perfect thing? Why would you be angry?

Maybe because it was my lifeline. It was the good thing. It was the only uncontaminated thing. Everything else was up in the air. Now I understand the anger.

We gave Willoughby a home to retire in, but I honestly think in a more real way he gave us a home. He gave me a home. He gave my heart a safe place. And he gave me the gift of love. A kind of love that, even when he’s gone, is still just as strong. The kind of love that doesn’t depend on stuff and doesn’t go back and forth. Just complete, unconditional, untiring love.

“There’s nothing you could have done, ” said a soft voice, “Calm down, you will survive.”
~ SYML, DIM

Thursday morning I took Willoughby for a walk. All he wanted was to eat grass. He wasn’t interested in anything else. Sometimes dogs do that when they’re not feeling good in their tummies. I think it was the tumor taking over. That morning, Lyssi and I finally listened to SYML’s new EP, DIM. That night, Willoughby couldn’t stand up. The next morning, after a lonely drive crying in a way I didn’t know I could cry, we said goodbye.

I want some more time, I can’t give you up.
One lifetime is never enough, so stay with me.
More than a body, you’re more than my heart,
you’re my blood, stay with me, stay with me
!”
~ SYML, STAY CLOSE

Whenever I park my car and hop out, I instinctively glance up at the window and watch Willoughby let out an over-excited howl because we get to be together again. Now I keep looking up at the window before remembering that he won’t be there. It’s rough. And I keep imagining some way that we could actually see him again.

“Lay down with me tonight, breathing slow . . . rest now, kiss me goodbye in the morning. I’m with you always.”
~ SYML, DIM

Nora McInerny was right. In her Ted Talk on grief, which is everything I have to say about grief at this point, she shares the very curious fact that when people lose someone who matters so deeply to them, they keep using the present tense to talk about them. Because they’re not really gone. I used to not get that. But after Willoughby died, I kept catching myself talking about him like he was still here. “He’s the best.” “He’s so full of love.” “He’s a senior dog.” “He’s such a good boy!” “He’s our best friend.” “I love Willoughby so much!” “He’s so sweet!” Because he is all of those things. Willoughby’s Willoughby-ness will always be real, and always be beautiful, and always be happy, and always be perfect.

“Though you had to go, I won’t forget your light. . . .
I will protect your light.”
~ SYML, DIM

And I don’t ever want to be done talking about him. Or even talking to him. I still do that. Because he’s the best.

I miss you Willoughby. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write down just how much you mean to me, to us. And maybe I’ll be able to speak about some of the deep truths I learned about life and loss and love and grief and beauty and strength and friendship and hope from you. And just how rough it is to not see you anymore. For now, I don’t have many words.

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.

The cost of fixating

What is something you really want that you CAN’T have right now?

I’m not running right now, and it’s driving me crazy. In any given year, if you asked me to list my top 5 favorite things in life, “Running” would be somewhere on that list. I never want to not run. Unfortunately, these last couple years have been sort of on-again-off-again for me as a runner. And some pain in my glute, leg, and feet, these last couple weeks are keeping me sidelined for a spell. And it is making me really sad Every Single Day.

I think about people who find out they can never run again, dance again, sing again, hike again, play sports again–at least not in the same way they always have. People who have a big thing permanently taken away from them. I can’t think of a much yuckier feeling.

So my little thought for you today–little reminder, since I know it’s something you already know:

Can we stop fixating on the one thing we don’t or can’t have, and missing all the amazing things we could have instead?

Before we charge ahead with our new-found positivity, let’s hold up and acknowledge something together. Because if we don’t, we’re going to run out of steam. There IS time for SADNESS. If you love love love running and you can’t run, that is sad and you should feel it. Denying your feelings doesn’t go well. For example, positivity can feel tough for me around the specialest holidays. Holidays are supposed to feel happy and cozy with family to excitedly see and catch up with and love on. And that’s not something I have in my family. And each holiday will have a little bit of that sting. Respecting and exploring that sting for a while helps me feel better. Sadness is supposed to be felt through. The sadness also teaches me good things, it reminds me to be a good person, of the good things to nurture and the bad things to avoid. Sadness teaches people to break sad cycles. And it makes happy-things, loving-things, good-things more special.

But then . . . once we’ve felt the sad through . . . do we stay there?

Denying sadness costs things. But so does staying there. Fixating on the things we can’t have paralyzes us. It sucks the life out of us. Sometimes “You only live once” is the best reminder. How much of this unique, once-in-a-lifetime year are you going to spend regretting–wishing hopelessly?

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us. Defeat is nothing but education; it is the first step towards something better.” ~ Alexander Graham Bell

Fixating on what we can’t have leads to bitterness, purposelessness, anger, burnout, lifelessness, addiction, heartbreak and broken relationships. Yes, there are some beautiful things that, had life gone differently, you could have, but that just aren’t for you now. So we can brood. We can chase. We can try to find illicit ways to take those things. We can complain and complain. We can find ways to numb the pain, sometimes replacing the thing we’re sad we can’t have with another thing we probably shouldn’t. We can become so obsessed with the idea that we can get our thing back that we neglect and run over the good things and the good people in our lives to try to get the one missing thing back. Sometimes we get it back, only to realize it cost too much.

This pandemicky year holds lots of great illustrations of what happens when people fixate on what they can’t have, instead of processing the sadness and then moving forward toward things they still can. Anger, bitterness, and tantrums every day from those who really just want to go to the theater, a concert, to eat out at a restaurant, who can’t have the state fair now, who don’t get to see their grandchild for a while. If you’re feeling like that’s not fair, let me say again–these are really sad things, you should feel grief and anger. But feel it through, feel it big, express it, explore it, and then remember to turn and look at the good things a lot, too. To chase the things still here. This year, we have seen each other get so fixated on things we’re losing that, in our grief, we offer to sacrifice other really important things–like vulnerable people–to get back the stuff we want. The cost of losing our things is so high, that we feel it would be better to just let the sickness and death happen to more people, because my life without XYZ is worthless. . . . . . Is it? What other good things are you forgetting? Things you still have? Things that, even just temporarily, you can transfer your energy to?

I’ve had lots of times to learn and relearn this lesson in my life. Running is a big one. Concussions are big, too. Sometimes people don’t realize the long list of things a simple concussion can take away from you. I’ve spent days and weeks in recovery from concussions fixated on the fact that I can’t go for a run or even a walk, on the fact that it hurts to watch movies, the fact that I don’t even enjoy music or laughter or friendship for a while, because everything got scary and all the noises and sounds are massively overwhelming. I had forgotten that I have spent weeks in my everyday life craving the freedom to just sit or lay quietly, to just sit under a tree and feel the breeze on my skin, to try meditating for hours. Fixating on what was lost . . . cost me so much precious time that I could have cultivated beautiful things that were still there waiting for me. Sometimes this happens with little one-person vacations. I love, love, love having time totally alone. Time to check in, to reset, to sink deep into who I am, how I feel, what I want. Time to read, to write, to plan, to dream, to feel, to rest. If you ever ask me, “How would you like a weekend all to yourself?” I ‘d say ohmywordYES howaboutTOMORROW! But then when those weekends come around, I feel this pull to fixate on the temporarily lost things. Human connection. Missing my best friend and life person. Conversation. The security of being seen and heard. It takes a lot to refocus, to let those things go for a few days, and to embrace all these wonderful things I’ve been wanting. Isn’t it strange how good we are at latching onto the losses and the hurts and the disappointments? This year, I’ve found some presence to try on some mindful focus during a pandemic. There are a lot of favorite-things I can’t have this year, but I’ve gotten to practice shifting my focus to the good things I can have. To see that as some doors shut, others are opening. To ask what possibilities this unique year holds. It has helped.

Of course, it’s not natural or easy to let go of the heartbreak and redirect toward the good things we still have. Here’s a little hint for moving forward: Sometimes the thing keeping us from looking at all the good things we have is the fact that we’re squeezing our eyes shut tight so we don’t have to look at the hurt of the things we’ve lost. The best way to get to the other side of sadness is to feel it all the way for a minute. Feel all the sad. And then open your eyes to all the beautiful possibilities.

So I’ll ask again:

Can we stop fixating on the one thing we don’t or can’t have, and missing all the amazing things we could have instead?

Sadness Doesn’t Always Need a Solution

I crossed paths with a coyote a couple nights back. It was awesome! Bear with me while I take you through a weird train of thought I had. It trotted across a dark road and down the hill into a neighborhood. As I kept walking, I heard nearby dogs start barking loudly. I could see one of the dogs chained in its yard in the glow of a porch light. How sad would it be if the coyote attacked one of the barking dogs! It’s not unheard of in our area. What if I had a puppy that were killed by a coyote? What would I do about it? I’m sure I’d be sad and angry. I’d blame myself for leaving my dog unattended. I’d blame the city for not fixing its coyote problem. We live right next to a couple big nature and wildlife preserves and there are no fences keeping the coyotes in the preserve. Maybe I’d start a petition to put up some kind of protective fence along the preserve’s border. But–and here’s where it gets tricky–I probably have a neighbor who loves living here¬†because of the closeness to nature and loves to see deer scamper through their yard. Lots of people would hate to have the preserve fenced off. And lots of people would not like the idea of forcing the wildlife to stay inside the preserve, thinking that’s cruel, unnecessary, unfair…

That was all hypothetical (though if someone were taking a vote I’d say no fence). What’s not hypothetical is that we tend to react to tragedies and sad events by looking for someone or something to blame and by trying to change something so that the event couldn’t happen again.

And what I wondered the other night is: Why do we do that?

And does it even help?

Is every sad thing a bad thing that should not have happened and that we should retaliate against and prevent ever happening again at all costs?

If someone you love falls from a cliff, should you stop hiking up beautiful mountains?

 

I think some of the things we do to try to stop any sad things from happening have their own sad effects in ways we don’t realize. Life isn’t all meant to be totally safe and free of bumps and bruises. Fearfully cowering in our homes means we miss out on a lot of happiness. Trying to get everyone to join us isn’t fair. Trying to organize the planet into safe boxes isn’t happy or beautiful. We can’t make life “perfect” and I think our striving to do so robs us of peace and love.

So when something very sad happens, before you “do something about it,” stop and think: Would it actually help? Or am I just making life more complicated and the world more bland for others? Think of all the frustrating and paralyzing rules and regulations that get made because one time something sad happened to someone.

 

And I think when we have to find someone to blame sad things on, we end up lonely and scared of the very people that could be there to hold our hands through our sadness. Sometimes a tragedy turns us angry and bitter against people who are close to us, or people that we wish could have somehow stopped the tragedy happening. So we call people evil and ugly and we become lonely and scared–and so we spread our loneliness and fear.

 

Sometimes we tell ourselves stories to lay blame elsewhere so that we can feel like the sad things happening is wrong, like it’s not a fair part of life, so it’s right for us to be angry: Like that all sad things are punishment for the world’s “sinfulness” and if only all those people weren’t the way they were… or that there’s an evil force who’s specifically targeting us for being so good–trying to trip us up. That can give us a boost of self-righteousness and courage to “overcome.” But it can also turn us against the rest of the world and it can catch us in a vicious cycle of obsessing over whether we’re good enough–when what we really needed was just a good cry.

 

And maybe when someone tells us they’re sad, they don’t need us to fix it.

 

Maybe sometimes we just need to feel the sad without having to blame anyone or do anything about it. The more time we spend in the initial stages of grief, lashing out in anger, trying to explain it away, insisting it shouldn’t and couldn’t have happened–the more we are hurt and broken and the more we hurt and break the world around us.

Maybe the fact that you’re sad doesn’t mean someone’s wronged you, or you’re living the wrong life, or you have the wrong people by your side, or the world is out to get you.

Maybe sad is a part of life we shouldn’t fight against.

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” – Carl Jung

Don’t bring about more sadness by your reaction to your own sadness. Just shed some tears and let life be beautiful.

 

sadness - carl jung