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!

I hope that you will be gentle with yourself

Imagine you’re holding the hand of a little child, seeing tears brim in their eyes. Frustrated. Embarrassed. Not good enough.

How delicately will you hold that child’s heart in your hands? What will you say? How gentle will you be with their sensitive little heart?

This child needs love and support. You would be gentle and kind with them, wouldn’t you?

With them.

With yourself, on the other hand? . . .

You do a good job hiding your secret. You’re big now. Strong, seasoned, tough, even a touch jaded. You choke the tears back these days. Nobody can know. You can’t be needy.

But you are that child. You’re just a little taller than you used to be. Still, the sensitive heart is there as it always has been.

So my wish for you today is that you’ll be gentle with yourself.

Today, when your mind floods with reasons to feel small, ashamed, not good enough . . . see in yourself the sensitive little child–trying your best, just needing love–and reach out to yourself. Hold yourself in love and respect and appreciation and compassion.

It’s easy to forget that we are every bit as human and precious as “other” people–it’s easier to love those other people, looking vulnerable, with the tears in their eyes. It’s harder to be kind to ourselves. To accept our own vulnerability and need for love. To know our inner child. To say, “I am good enough. I am loved. Everything is going to be okay.”

How do those words feel when you say them to yourself? What if you stopped blaming and shaming yourself, and spoke to yourself as you would to the little child?

Do you ever comfort yourself? Can you try?

I hope that you will be gentle with yourself.

<3

This WEIRD Weekend

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There is still that soft breeze you can feel touching your skin and blowing gently through your hair when you go outside.

There is still that song that moves you deep inside every time you hear it.

There is still that cup of coffee you make in the morning, the exact way you like to make it.

There is still that friend you used to phone with before life got so busy.

There is still the taste of pizza–to taste again, or even just to think about for a while.

There is still that pair of running shoes, and you were so excited when you bought them, and maybe you’ve forgotten how exciting they are to you, and maybe if you scrub them off and shine them up a little, you can feel the same excitement.

There is still that one scene of Michael Scott’s, after Oscar accepts his little homemade scarecrow goodbye gift, that has made you laugh from deep in your belly time and time and time again.

There is still the sound of geese, honking you awake in the morning, on their way back to their summer home somewhere up north, honoring this strange and strong force called life.

There is still a dusty comic book sitting somewhere in a box, waiting to be rediscovered.

There is still a stranger’s real smile as you walk by each other keeping an awkward little distance because you’re pretty sure you’re supposed to right now, but my word, that smile felt close and comforting.

There is still your little kiddo’s uncontrollable laughter when the whole box of cereal spills on the floor.

There is still your hand that can feel and touch and hold your other hand, clasping, intertwining your fingers, squeezing, massaging your palms, proving for your own sake that you are still here, grounding you in the reality of life in its most beautifully basic form.

There is still your favorite game to play.

There is still your blanket you’ve been missing.

There is still a quiet trail in the woods.

There is still that YouTube video of yoga for beginners that you saved to your watchlist a while ago when you were in too much of a hurry to give the new thing a try.

There is still kombucha.

There is still that journal you’ve been meaning to start writing.

There is still the old album on your computer full of happy photos of adventures that, though “past,” are still just as real a part of your life as this present moment.

There is still the nap that you’ve wished, on every other day, that you had the time to take.

There is still the magical painting on your wall that you could just stare at.

There is still the tail-wagging, hyperventilating, zoomies-inducing excitement of your doggo that OMG YOU ARE HERE WITH ME TODAY!

There is still your comfy couch.

There is still your piano with eighty-eight wonderful keys that have always, always, always been there for you to come back to when you need to find your heart again.

There is still your best friend.

There is still a bubbly creek you could sit down and listen to.

There is still that book you’ve been looking for time to read.

There is still a warm bath to take, and I bet that eucalyptus scented Epsom salts aren’t out of stock today (I could be wrong).

There is still pen and paper, and you’ve meant to start drafting your big dream project for years now.

There is still a floor, and there are still hands and knees you can crawl on, as silly as that seems, and if you try you may find again this weird feeling, now foreign, that you used to call “play” when you were so little, so silly, and maybe actually so wise and so in touch with life.

There is still a closet you’ve been meaning to clean.

There is still that book you want to write.

There is still Winnie-the-Pooh.

There is still the old jigsaw puzzle you never opened, and maybe you don’t know just how fun those can be.

There is still your favorite shirt.

There is still intimacy–loving, comforting, caring, silly, needed, amazing intimacy.

There is still a massive, loud, rushing waterfall for you to sit and watch.

There is still that movie you’ve been meaning to watch ever since it won an Oscar four years ago.

There is still the new hairdo you’ve been wanting to try.

There is still conversation.

There is still that other career you’ve been waiting for time to research and explore.

There is still the documentary you saved to your list for some free afternoon.

There is still a letter you can write to someone who means more to you than maybe they realize.

There is still the blog you’ve been nervously waiting to start.

There is still your phone’s internet browser with, I bet, a bunch of tabs you opened to read on some hopeful but imaginary future date when you’d “have time” again.

There is still the recipe you’ve been waiting to try.

There is still a colorful and imaginative storybook or twenty-two that your little girl or little boy would love to hear you read, if you’ll let them turn the pages.

There is still a field or a pot full of flowers that have been waiting for you to see them.

There is still the friend you’ve wanted to reconnect with.

There is still a walk you can take.

There is still a meditation practice waiting to be tried.

There is still the friend who told you they’d always be there for you if you needed to talk.

There is still a mountain (big or little, it really doesn’t matter) that you’ve been waiting to climb.

There is still the language you’ve been wanting to learn.

There is still that weirdly and powerfully magical little moment where you glance outside and, look, the sun is coming out!

There is still your body, ready to wrap itself in a safe and comforting hug.

There is still life.

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