Sunday, March 15, 2009

Anniversary Reactions

The holiest of all holidays are those kept by ourselves in silence and apart; the secret anniversaries of the heart.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Beware the Ides of March!” is a well-known phrase from Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. The Ides were on the 15th of the month, several times in the Roman year. On March 15, 44 B.C., Caesar was assassinated. Many years later, March 15, 1964, my mother collapsed in a church service, and died two days later. This year is one when all the days line up the same way as they did 45 years ago. Friday the 13th was first, then Sunday the 15th, then Tuesday the 17th, St. Patrick's Day. That serves as a stronger reminder of life events I can never forget.

My birthday is two days before my mother's. On this date in 1991, I realized that I was exactly the same age my mother had been when she died. I could see in the mirror's reflection how very young age 36 was. My mother and Marilyn Monroe died at the same age, forever young. From that day on, I moved beyond my mother's lifespan, into years she never experienced. I no longer fear that I will die young, as she did. Today I am exactly 18 years older than my mother was on the day she died. I'm glad to be 54, and am determined to live the rest of my life fully, as long as I am here. It's a blessing to be growing older.

March 17, St. Patrick's Day, is the anniversary of my mother's death. In my small private ritual of remembrance each year, I wear something green, since I married into an Irish family, and something black, in honor of my mother. If her grave were closer to my home in Texas, her death date and her birthday would be days I might visit. I don't feel much grief any more, but I always remember her on this day.

When I talk to people who are grieving, I've seen a pattern, borne out in the literature, of an upswing of grief just before the one-year anniversary of the death. We have enough volunteers with our hospice that we are able to make calls to many family members near the one year anniversary. People tell me that they start reflecting as it approaches about all the things that happed a year ago. They review events that led up to the death, and often dread that anniversary date. Some have flashbacks or an increase in vivid dreams. Many people are surprised when I tell them that grief can increase right before the first anniversary. Sometimes just finding out that it's normal to relive those memories helps with the emotions of the time. It's not unusual to experience some grief or a time of remembering each year as the anniversary approaches.

There are many significant dates that we remember, unique to each of us. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of seeing singer Judy Collins in concert. She told us that night was exactly 50 years since the first day she got paid for being a singer. That date held special significance to her. Some of my significant dates include the date I found my faith again, the date I got engaged, my wedding anniversary, and the birthdays of each of my children. When I talk to people who are grieving, they mention their significant dates, birthdays, anniversaries, the day their loved one was diagnosed with a terminal illness. One mentioned the first day of baseball season, which she had always enjoyed with her mother. Another mentioned her AA anniversary, the date marking her sobriety. She had always celebrated it with her special someone. Sometimes we don't even realize a date is significant until our emotions rise, and we begin to wonder why.

I deal with heightened feelings this time of year for another reason besides the anniversary of my mother's death. My wedding anniversary is on Thursday, but the date brings up a lot of mixed feelings. For the past two years, my husband and I have been living apart from each other, with an uncertain future. To my husband's credit, he's brought me flowers on our anniversary for the last two years, even with his indecision about remaining married to me. We still see each other fairly often, or call, or e-mail. It's not easy to live each day wondering what the future will hold. Although being left was devastating, I have adusted to living alone, have grown from the experience, and have even found some things I like about being on my own. Someday, there may be a definite ending and another date to remember, or we may be able to put our marriage back together. The best I can do is to decide how I will live fully while coping with my circumstances. I used to think that my experience was unique, but I find in this kind of loss, too, there are many who have gone through similar situations.

Life can be a series of endings, with many leading to new beginnings. Sometimes life improves, sometimes it gets harder. We embrace the struggle, and grow deeper. And along the way, our heart remembers those we have loved, and significant days we shared with them.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Traveling Through the Darkness

Yesterday morning, I was listening to the local classical music station on the way to church. On Sunday mornings, the station broadcasts programs from various faiths. I happened to tune in at the beginning of a broadcast about depression. In only a few minutes of listening, I'm not sure I got all the subtleties of the discussion, but it seemed to me that this faith tradition was saying that depression is a kind of darkness. Since God is light, and we are like God, we should not accept darkness in our lives. Their advice for getting out of the darkness was to claim the light was real, and the darkness was not. I've read or heard other religious doctrines that have said that we are to claim the good things in life as gifts of God, and not accept the difficult things. By doing so, all the hard things will be overcome. I disagree.

I have lived through some difficult times, and have experienced times of darkness. Many others who have lost loved ones have traveled through the darkness. This is a reality we deal with.

Some years ago, Psalm 23:4 took on new meaning to me. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. I'd always assumed that verse was primarily talking about the time when death approaches. This verse is a great comfort to dying people, and I agree with the validity of that interpretation. As time goes on, though, I have come to understand that the valley of the shadow of death is also the place where people who are mourning have to travel. Losing someone we love can cast us into a time of darkness. We don't stand still in the valley, we walk through it. The valley may be difficult and dark, but we are not alone. And each loss brings a valley of a different shape and size.

I've been reading two books in the last few weeks, both of which talk about grief. One is a book of fiction, called The Shack, by William Paul Young. In it, the main character enters into a time he calls The Great Sadness. He has gone through a terrible loss that was a result of another person's evil choice, and it has shaken him to the core. Along the way to the beginning of healing, he builds a new relationship with God, while having some unique conversations about many aspects of life, including evil, suffering, and forgiveness.

The other book I've been reading is A Grace Disguised, How the Soul Grows Through Loss, by Jerry Sittser. He tells of the struggles he experienced after a drunken driver hit the minivan he was driving, killing his wife, his daughter, and his mother. He was left alone to raise his three surviving children. One of the images he used was so powerful, I'm going to quote it here. It's on page 33 of the book:

I had a kind of waking dream shortly after that, caused, I am sure, by that initial experience of darkness. I dreamed of a setting sun. I was frantically running west, trying desperately to catch it and remain in its fiery warmth and light. But I was losing the race. The sun was beating me to the horizon and was soon gone. I suddenly found myself in the twilight. Exhausted, I stopped running and glanced with foreboding over my shoulder to the east. I saw a vast darkness closing in on me. I was terrified by that darkness. I wanted to keep running after the sun, though I knew that it was futile, for it had already proven itself faster than I was. So I lost all hope, collapsed to the ground, and fell into despair. I thought at that moment that I would live in darkness forever....

Later, my sister, Diane, told me that the quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.

I discovered in that moment that I had the power to choose the direction my life would head, even if the only choice open to me, at least initially, was either to run from the loss or to face it as best I could. Since I knew that darkness was inevitable and unavoidable, I decided from that point on to walk into the darkness rather than outrun it, to let my experience of loss take me on a journey, wherever it would lead, and to be transformed by my suffering rather than to think I could somehow avoid it.

The writer went on to talk about how allowed himself a time of solitude every day to deal with the darkness and give himself to grief. In these times, he both suffered and grew deeper. When he wrote the book, three years after the accident, he still was experiencing times of darkness. On page 36 the author wrote:

The decision to face the darkness, even if it led to overwhelming pain, showed me that the experience of loss itself does not have to be the defining moment of our lives. Instead, the defining moment can be our response to the loss. It's not what happens to us that matters as much as what happens in us. Darkness, it is true, had invaded my soul. But then again, so did light. Both contributed to my personal transformation...

In other words, though I experienced death, I also experienced life in ways I never thought possible before, not after the darkness, as we might suppose, but in the darkness. I did not go through pain and come out the other side; instead, I lived in it and found within the pain the grace to survive and eventually grow.

The author of the book is very candid about his struggles, with faith, with fear, and with the meaning of forgiveness. He managed to write a deep, uplifting book after a terrible loss. The focus was more on the struggles we all experience in the hard places, not just on his own journey. I recommend it.

It's often said there is no way out of grief but through. Allowing ourselves to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, trusting that we are not alone in the darkness, will help us reach the other side.

These pictures were taken at Northwest Park in Irving.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Loss of a Pet

My dog Kirby - the flash setting makes his brown eyes blue.

A few days ago, my dog Kirby got deathly ill. He couldn't hold down food or water, and vomited most of the night. When I gave him water in the morning, it all came back up. I took him to the veterinarian, and he treated Kirby for pancreatitis. If I hadn't taken him, Kirby would have died within days. I am glad to say he is getting better each day. He's been going to the vet during the day, where he gets medicines and IV fluids, and I bring him home at night. Kirby can now drink a little water and hold down some food, and has a lot more energy. The vet thinks he'll need one more day of treatment, and then he can stay home with oral medications.

My dog Kirby is a miniature schnauzer, about 8 years old. We got him 7 years ago from an animal shelter. For most of my time in the Dallas area, we lived in apartments or duplexes. When we finally moved into a house with a fenced backyard, I really wanted to get a dog. I like a lot of different furry animals, but member of my family, including me, have asthma and allergies, which limited the pets we could have. Some have had allergic reactions to cats, so I knew we could not have one of those. When we visited my brother's house, my family didn't react to his miniature schnauzers, so I wanted that breed of dog. Miniature schnauzers don't shed, which is really helpful for allergy sufferers. And they are very smart, sweet, loving dogs.

I've realized before how much my dog means to me. There have been times he's found a hole in the fence and disappeared. Fortunately, he's never gone far, and sometimes has found his way back to the front door, where he stands and barks. But in those times where I've had to look for him for a while, I realize how much I would miss him if he were gone. This week, when he was so sick, I started thinking about it again.

Much of my time at home, I'm by myself now, a big change from when my children were smaller. But I am not really by myself, because I have a small animal that keeps me company. He needs my care, and he rewards me with his unconditional love. He's always happy to see me, doesn't get angry or criticize, and is patient. He helps me feel protected, since he'll let me know if a stranger is at the door. I have become very attached to Kirby.

I've had a few dogs before. When I was growing up, we had a mixed breed dog name ZsaZsa. She was a great comfort to me after my mother died, and it seemed like she was the one who listened best to me when I needed to talk about my grief or wanted to cry. I was devastated when ZsaZsa was hit by a car almost two years after my mom died. I didn't see her after she died, but she left a great absence in my life. Years later, my parents got two springer spaniels, which I really liked, but I was almost in college when they became part of the family. They were not part of my everyday life for a number of years when they died of old age, and my grief was much less than with my first dog.

So many times, when I work with grieving people, they say something like “I thought was doing pretty well, and then my dog died, and I fell apart.” Companion animals can be great comfort when we lose family members, and they will often stay with us when we cry, and offer their sympathy in loving ways. Dogs or cats share our grief when the person who's died lived in the house with us. When the dog or cat that has been the pet of a loved one who died then needs to be put to sleep or dies, grief can be surprisingly deep. Animals loved by those we lost often link us to the ones who are gone, and when those animals die, our old grief is resurrected, along with the new grief. Dogs who have kept us company through the ups and downs of life leave a deeper void than we expect.

Loss of a pet is terribly difficult. It's not unusual for people to have more acute grief for the death of a pet than they have for a blood relative, especially if the person who died is someone they don't see all the time. I've known people who work in hospice that can face death every day, but when a dog or cat dies, they need to take some time off to get through the first days of grief. We grieve for those we love, and the more we are involved with them, the bigger void there is when they are gone. Most of us who live with dogs or cats are involved with those pets in many ways, taking walks with them, making sure they have food and drink, keeping them healthy, playing with them. A lot of us sit with small animals on our laps or bigger ones by our feet, and many of us sleep with our pets at night. There's a huge absence when pets die. Grief is a normal, natural response to that loss. People sometimes feel ashamed or awkward talking about their grief over the loss of a pet. The things that are helpful when we lose a loved one also help when we lose a pet: crying, journaling, talking about the loss, finding ways to remember the pet or honor its memory. It's not an easy loss, and it takes time to get through it.

I have a support group listing that I give out on a regular basis to grieving people in the community. The last group I have on the list is a pet loss support group, here in Dallas at the SPCA, Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They have a counselor available that people can call for grief support.  One of our hospice bereavement volunteers used to work at the Dallas Zoo, and he has found the SPCA group very helpful. Those who work with large zoo animals have long-term relationships with those animals, who sometimes live as long as a human. When a zoo animal dies, especially if that animal died suddenly in the prime of life, that can devastate staff members. My friend the bereavement volunteer has held some grief groups at the zoo for his co-workers.

I've also collected a list of some pet loss websites that I give out to people who are struggling with the loss of a pet. Some of those I've found to be helpful are

I know the day will come that my dog Kirby will reach the end of his life. When he does, I will grieve, and I will let myself mourn. He's been a great little dog, and I love him. I'm glad that he's going to recover from this illness. I hope he stays healthy for a long time before he's gone.