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!

“Will I ever get better?” can be a dangerous question

Will I be ever be able to get over my anxiety?

Will the back pain ever go away?

Will I beat this addiction once and for all?

Will not having a family ever stop hurting?

Will I ever get past this struggle?

Will I ever recover?

Will I ever be healed?

I think when we identify a problem–a struggle, an injury, a trauma–that moment we realize that a little thing has turned into a big thing, and it is taking its toll on us, and we just really want it to go away–all the way away–we immediately pose a question:

Will it ever get better?

Is there a cure?

Or am I stuck with this forever?

And I’m wondering now if that is a helpful question to answer, or even to ask.

Realistically, we won’t know the answer until we’re looking back on it.

Wondering, hoping, demanding, pleading for our lives or bodies or minds or hearts to “go back” to pre-struggle/pre-trauma . . . I actually think this gets us pretty stuck.

“[The Buddha’s teaching, ‘Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine,’] is saying that it is our attachment to the thoughts we have of who we are that may be the impediment to living life fully, and a stubborn obstacle to any realization of who and what we actually are, and of what is important, and possible. It may be that in clinging to our self-referential ways of seeing and being, to the parts of speech we call the personal pronouns, I, me, and mine, we sustain the unexamined habit of grasping and clinging to what is not fundamental, all the while missing or forgetting what is.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses

I’ve heard that anxiety is what happens when you can’t live in the present moment–can’t just be where you are–obsessing, instead, over the daunting future.

Will I ever feel better?

The problem is, we can’t really answer the “will-I-ever” questions. The future has a tendency to do its own thing.

When we subconsciously tie our happiness and identity to “getting over” a thing, “healing,” “getting past,” we map ourselves a depressing journey.

Life before healing, fixing, getting-back . . . the now life doesn’t really count. We’re not living for now. This now sucks. I’m not supposed to feel like this. This isn’t the real me.

The days fly by as we wish them away, insisting on a “better” future to restart our living.

And as that future doesn’t come, we sink deeper into the “why”s and “if”s.

Why isn’t it getting better?

Why am I stuck here?

If I were more committed, maybe I could heal this pain.

If I weren’t so sensitive, maybe I could get over that loss.

If I had more faith . . .

If I weren’t so negative . . .

Maybe it’s you.

Yeah, maybe this is on you.

Maybe you should be better by now.

Maybe a stronger person, a better person, a cooler person, one of “those” people would’ve healed. Probably.

It’s you.

After all these years, you’re still the you that you hate.

You clearly suck at healing.

You can’t.

You blame yourself.

You feel angry with yourself.

Or if not quite anger, something along the lines of “No, Self, I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.”

I think the question “will this ever go all the way away?”–a question that only life itself as it plays out can answer, not all the guessing or hoping in the world–I think it’s a question that isn’t fair to put on ourselves. It can get us stuck in self-hurt, self-rejection, self-blame–as we push pause on our self-love and aliveness, because we can’t accept this struggling or hurting version of ourselves.

I think dwelling on that big question tends to dizzily swing us back and forth between determination and depression. “I MUST beat this” means that as long as I haven’t, I’m not good enough. And who wants to show up for a not-good-enough life?

If you look up a definition for “depression,” only half of it talks about feeling sad. That’s the half everyone knows about. The other half has nothing to do with feeling sad. The other half is about losing interest. Losing interest in activities, your life, the things you love. It all sort of stops mattering. None of it works anymore. None of it helps. None of it feels. None of it is good anymore. Nothing. Just nothing.

Depression is a complicated world, one that can’t be summed up in a 1465-word blog post. But if this “Will I ever get better?” cycle sounds familiar, I’d encourage you to consider what it does to your interest in your own life. Like your now life, not the life you think you are supposed to get to someday. Now. The you with back pain. The you that relapses. The you that suffers panic attacks. Not your “will-I-ever” you, the today you.

If your core objective in life is to become so fixed and healed and rescued that you don’t struggle anymore with the stuff you’re struggling with now . . . then each today becomes very uninteresting as you live for next-year-(if-I’m-better-by-then).

You may start passing up on activities and opportunities you used to do, because they sort of hurt and that makes you think about your struggle and that is no fun, so you’ll get back to them once you’ve beaten this.

You may find yourself opting for bed instead, more and more frequently, because that thing doesn’t feel as good while you’re in pain.

And the emotional toll from repeatedly giving it a shot, hoping that this time it will be like it used to, and then realizing no, it’s not, and maybe never will be . . . it’s exhausting.

Exhausting.

Desperately needing to be a different person is exhausting.

Disappointing.

Depressing.

Paraphrasing Jon Kabat-Zinn’s explanation of the Buddha’s teaching: Clinging to our vision of who we’re supposed to be can frustrate and numb us–keep us from appreciating who we are today.

The good news is that it’s surprisingly helpful to finally admit: “Maybe this struggle is here to stay.” “Maybe I’ll always experience some pain.” “Maybe I’ll never fully be over this.” “Maybe there’s nothing I could do to fix it.”

First of all, when we stop fearfully trying to predict the permanence of something, we may find it’s grip will loosen a little. Like, not that it’s all in your head–but there’s nothing quite like “Maybe this will kill me!” to keep you hopelessly stuck in it, even when it could have improved.

But perhaps more importantly, if it really isn’t going to get better–and it really might not–admitting that this may be the rest of your life is quite freeing, in a strange way. Self-compassion starts making sense. It really is heart-breaking that you’re feeling this pain or struggling with this thing. Goodness knows you’ve tried to fix it, but it still hurts, and maybe it always will. Maybe it’s not all your fault. You don’t need blame here, you deserve support. Love. Self-care. Understanding. Acceptance. Maybe a little hug from yourself.

And as you accept today’s real you, you get to redirect your “I-can’t-do-this-life” energy into “how-can-I-do-this-life?” energy. Stop rejecting, start learning to live with, live through, live fully as the real you. Being present with yourself. Showing up for and as yourself.

What regular treatment would it take to keep doing things that I love?

Who do I need to have on my team so I can live a good life despite these impulses?

What do I want to experience in life while I carry this struggle by my side?

How often would I like to show up now even though I’m sad?

What could a beautiful, fulfilling life look like now?

Most things aren’t a death sentence–but if we decide that we absolutely can’t live with them, they sort of are.

I’m not saying that it won’t ever get better, get healed, get fixed, get corrected, that you’ll never move on, that the struggle will never be a thing of the past. Again–maybe step one in the possibility of healing is letting go of the fear and rejection. Maybe it will get better. Maybe. Maybe.

But real-big-maybe, it won’t.

So what if you gave yourself permission to be the you-with-the-thing? The you that feels that pain, that struggle?

What if you could just accept your today self, for today?

What if you stopped fighting who you are?

What if instead you loved and supported who you are?

Would that be better?

Could you give it a try?

Who knows what will happen tomorrow or next year . . .

So can you stop waiting for your life to count again?

Can you accept yourself and vibrantly be who you are now?

~

Thanks for reading! Wishing you all the self-acceptance and self-love in the world on your journey! If I can share the journey with you, throw your email below. :)

What about your own oxygen mask?

I write. That is what I do. All the time.

Sometimes I hear from a friend, or someone I don’t know at all, that my words made a difference for them–made them feel understood, not alone, inspired them. And that is why I write.

When I write, life makes more sense to me, and I feel the big feelings like thankfulness or courage or determination, and I begin to understand complicated subjects as I wade through them sentence by sentence. And that is why I write, too.

So . . . I write.

Except, not a whole lot these last few months.

The dry spells feel like “failure” and “fraud” to me. But the calmer, more thoughtful part of my brain reminds me of a big lesson I’ve been learning this year.

“Please put your own oxygen mask on first, before assisting others.”

Why?

Because if you run out of oxygen while trying to help others breathe, you can’t help anymore.

Only by ensuring your own health first, can you continue showing up to help others.

Do you realize, once in a while, that you’ve been running around trying to help others with their oxygen masks, neglecting the fact that yours has slipped off?

And what do you do when you realize that you’re showing up for others so much that you are no longer showing up for yourself?

Have you tried just keeping that pace up? Ignoring the burning in your lungs, insistent on showing up for others, even if it means you’re suffocating? What happens then? Do you finally hit a wall? (Or do you know you will?) And does your depleted energy even help the people you’re so determined to help?

So my challenge for you today is this:

Can you remember that your own oxygen mask has to come first?

And in an exhausting year like this year, full of sad and angry and lonely people, can you still remember that your own oxygen mask has to come first?

Are you allowed to disappear for a minute?

Sit with the bad, then chase the good

Okay, I’m not going to pretend like this pandemic is a fun time, or “good.” It is awful.

I have learned something about fear and sadness–not a new thing, psychologists have said it for years and years and years: Sit with it. Accept that shitty stuff is real. Acknowledge how hard it is. Feel the feelings.

That’s not something we’re the best at, most of us. Distraction and escape are easier when bad stuff happens. But what will happen if you just . . . let it be bad?

And then ALSO . . .

Chase the good! Find the positives. Embrace the opportunity.

While the world largely closes down for a while, everyone hunkered down at home, what small gift is wrapped up in this weirdness for you? Is there actually a very BIG gift?

You’ve recently said something like “I feel stuck” or “I don’t have time” or “I wish I could” or “I’m too busy”–haven’t you?

For most of us, our stuck/busy lives just got turned upside down. There is a lot of fear and loss to sit with. But ALSO . . . you got your opportunity: . . .

. . . Your opportunity to reset. To reflect. To reevaluate. To slow down. To speak up. To calm down. To reconnect with your life person. To check in on your friends. To meet new people. To HELP in big ways. To break habits you don’t want anymore. To meditate. To journal. To exercise. To write. To read. To plan. To dream. To grow. To heal. . . .

. . . to change!

Sit with the bad, then chase the good.

What GOOD thing could this crisis hold for you?

P. S. I’ll start. For me, this has been an opportunity to slow down from what was quickly becoming a mentally breakneck pace in my daily life. And as I’ve slowed down, I’ve found energy and peace. And as I’ve watched a bunch of real people suddenly get very vulnerable while dealing with a scary and chaotic time, I’ve found a little more courage to live and love a little more openly . . . as big as finally sharing some piano and song with the world–a dream of mine–because people can use a little happy and I could do with a little showing off . . . or as simple as checking in a little more with friends. Slowing down, loving more.

What about you? What’s your “good?”

20190701_134928