Flashing lights stopped the early Sunday morning traffic. I caught my breath. Could my timing really be that perfect?
It was. My childhood home was coming down the street.
I’d grown up next door to a private school, and they’d never hid their lust for our land. When my parents moved into a retirement home the sale was made.
At first they were going to demolish the house. The school had no use for a brick ranch in the middle of the new soccer practice fields. When I learned that someone was relocating it so that a new family could grow up in it, I burst into tears. Grateful tears.
I shed a lot of tears over losing that house and my mother’s beloved yard. I tend to attach myself deeply to places. Maybe you do too.
Losing a beloved place is a kind of grief, a very real grief. And yet, there are not community rituals to support us, to allow us to give voice to our loss. Sometimes we may feel shamed – or shame ourselves – for our feelings.
I’m going to talk about such losses in my upcoming webinar, If Nobody Died Why Am I Grieving? We’ll talk about losses like home and pets and relationships and dreams and how we can grieving them.
Come and join me. It’s free and you have a pick of three different times. (All webinars will be live.) You can register here.
I still miss having that home to drive by and revisit, although I go there often in my memories. Maybe you revisit the places and people and pets you’ve lost as well.
A client or friend tells me they’re concerned about someone whom they love, a family member, significant other or friend. “They’re not handling things well,” they tell me. Sometimes that person about whom they are concerned is their very selves. Because words mean different things to different people, I ask them to explain.
Usually it comes down to this. The person has had a significant loss. They are sad. They are grieving. They may even be a bit depressed. I point out that such reactions are perfectly normal given the situation.
We have a skewed idea of what handling things well means. We praise people saying, “She did so well. she never cried during the funeral.” Excuse me, but aren’t most funerals at least little sad? You miss the person and your going to be missing the person the rest of your life.
Having a feeling doesn’t mean you’re not handling things well. Now if you cannot get out of bed or your anger is peeling the wallpaper off the walls, then we need to talk. But simply being sad because you’ve had a loss comes with the territory.
Losses come in all shapes and sizes. Join me on my free webinar (late January/early February) as we talk about other kinds of losses and why they matter.
Monday was like that for my niece and her family. It was the day they had to say good-bye to their nine-year old Sheltie, Gus. Gus has been fighting bladder cancer for a while. I’d seen him Friday night. After not being able to get up without help that afternoon, that evening he showed off for a family dinner, pushing a door open on his own, spinning around in his “tornado” trick. I could see how the short display of playfulness exhausted him, and his family could see it too. He was suffering. They made the heart wrenching decision to euthanize him.
Gus was the “practice child” for my niece and her new husband. He was selected with an eye towards being a playmate for the two-legged children to come. “We chose a Sheltie,” my niece said, “because they are such good family dogs and so good with children.”
And indeed he was. He accepted the transition from only child to big brother not only without complaint but with a sense of responsibility. He was a working dog and he had to take care of his “herd.” His greatest frustration was when his people wouldn’t stay herded in one room. People coming and going out the door drove him to distraction.
He patiently suffered all the indignities that three small children can visit upon a dog. But he also learned that these little creatures weren’t without their rewards. He quickly learned to station himself beneath high chairs in order to catch falling food.
My niece asked me about whether or not her oldest, now six, should go along on Monday. He wanted to be there. I told her yes – he could pet Gus and say his good-byes. I reminded her that it’s part of the gifts that our pets give to us. For many of us, the loss of a pet was a our first experience of grief. Her son lost his great-grandfather last year when my father died, but he hadn’t lived with “Grandaddy Joe Haymes” (as he called him) day in and day out like he had with Gus.
When I was an Associate Minister of a church I had someone come from hospice to do a grief seminar for our grade schoolers. Some of the adults didn’t know why we were doing it for children but the kids knew more about loss than adults realized. Some of them had lost grandparents. One was moving away, so they were losing the closeness of friends. Several had lost pets. (Nearly all of them had lost goldfish, which led one little boy to comment, “I think goldfish are pretty much a waste of time and money.”) They knew about grief.
Our animals give us a chance to practice our grieving, to begin to make that foreign country a little less foreign. We learn how much it hurts to lose someone we love, even a four-legged someone. We learn how much space an absence can occupy. We learn that rituals and remembrances do not keep our hearts from breaking but make the breaking a little more bearable. And hopefully we learn that, for all of the pain, we can keep loving and opening those hearts.
Some of us who are animal lovers have been greatly saddened by the death of Lennox, who was euthanized by order of the Belfast City Council. The short version of the story is that Belfast has Breed Specific Legislation outlawing pit bulls. Although Lennox did not have any pit in his background, authorities decided he did and that he was dangerous. Many things didn’t add up in the story. Well-known dog trainers in the US offered to take Lennox and provide him a new home. The City Council refused, saying that he was too dangerous to place in another community. Lennox’s family included a child, and they had never had a single incident of biting, attacking or other aggressiveness.
Every professional who evaluated him found him to be loving, except for the one police officer who deemed Lennox to be the most dangerous dog he’d ever met – and whose report was the only one accepted by the council. (Here’s a picture of Lennox dangerously licking that warden.) Lennox’s family, who’d fought a two-year legal battle to save his life, was denied the chance even to say good-bye to their beloved pet. (You can read more about this story here.)
As I followed the story I felt sadness for the family and the dog and outrage at the City Council. The more I thought about it last night I realized that I was also sad for the men who were making this terrible decision.
How hard does your heart have to be to deny a chance to save a life or to let a family say good-bye? How fearful do you have to be to look at what was by all accounts a loving dog and see only danger?
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross used to say that one of the ways that we combat evil in the world is by doing our own work. When we have not healed our wounds and faced our own fears we project them onto other people – and animals. When we have not dealt with the dark places and hurt places in our own hearts we have to close off our hearts, making them small and hard and fearful. When we are fearful we resist change, for if we stop holding on so tightly for a even little bit it may be the end of us. We cannot listen to another’s point of view – we can only defend our own point of view. We see the world in black and white because it feels safer that way.
I know that as a therapist one of the most important things I can do for my clients is to do my own work. I have to keep checking in with myself (or perhaps better said, with my Self.) Am I carrying hurts around? Am I letting fear have too much of a say? Are there things I need to let go of in order to grow or are there changes I need to allow into my life? Only if I keep my self clear can I be clear for my clients.
Where are the places in your life that need attention? Tending to them isn’t self-indulgent. In fact, the world pretty much needs you to face them and deal with them. We battle darkness in this world by first allowing our own light to shine.
One of the questions that’s never far from the back of my mind is this: Are there other ways of reaching out and meeting people at the place of their need? One of the great joys of my work as a counselor is getting to see people make positive changes in their lives. Although I joke around that it’s quite the faulty business model (they come in, get better and leave) I love the bittersweet conversation with a client as they are finishing up their work. Sometimes a new client will ask, “Do you really think that people can change?” My answer always is that I wouldn’t be in this profession if I didn’t.
At the same time, I know that not everyone makes it into a counselor’s office. Maybe they live in a remote area or their schedule is crazy. Maybe they don’t have insurance or they have a high deductible. Otr maybe they’re just not to the point of allowing themselves to take that next step to get help.
That’s why I’m proud to announce a new web site, Living Well (www.livingwellstuff.com) This is a place where I’ve gathered a lot of different articles and books that can be of help to people. The articles, which can be downloaded to Kindle (all of them) and Nook (some of them) range from brief guide available for free and slightly longer articles for no more than $2.99. Right now the articles include:
5 Ways to Stop Saying Yes When You Really Want to Say No
How to Heal From the Loss of Your Dog
Seven Ways to Help a Friend Who’s Lost a Pet
How to Find a Counselor
I’ve also included a link for downloading a free kindle app so you can read them even if you don’t own a kindle. Keep checking back because new articles are added regularly.
So how to make use of this web site? First of all, use it for your own benefit if any of the resources speak to you. Secondly, if you have friends who are facing these issues, send them here as a starting point. The articles are not long but there’s a lot of help packed in them. They are accessible in terms of the time it takes to read them and they are accessible in terms of what it takes to purchase them (if anything). Thirdly, if you are in a helping profesison (or simply a person upon whom people lean for help), I strongly encourage you to make use of the How to find a Counselor guide. It provides clarity about the differnces between psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, social workers and pastoral counselors. Starting therapy can be a scary thing, and it helps people know what to expect.
Finally, let me know if you see a need that’s not being addressed. Maybe you and your friends find yourselves struggling with the same issue. Maybe it’s something you see in a lot of other people but don’t know how to help. Whatever it is, let me know. Because I am not all-knowing, I cannot promise an article will follow but I’ll do my best.
The first time I met her, I hated her. I was waiting at the veterinarian’s office with my very sick cat, Sam, who was about to be euthanized. Rosie and her sister were tiny kittens playing in a cage in the corner, up for adoption. They’d been abandoned outside of a KMart. Only a few days old, some kind soul rescued them and nurtured them up to adoption age. They were tiny. And cute. And so abundantly alive. I resented it their liveliness on the day Sam’s life would end. Especially since Rosie was a brown tabby, just like Sam.
That was on a Friday. By Monday I was calling the vet to see if the kittens were still available. That’s how Maxie and Rosie came to live with me.
Rosie was destined to be a perpetual second banana. With Maxie, there was no doubt who the alpha cat was. Maxie was sweet and loving but in a curmudgeonly sort of way. She had the mouth of a sailor and little patience. Rosie just stayed back and let everything roll off of her. Several years later when I rescued a stray kitten who’d wandered into my yard, Maxie was all bluster. Rosie let the kitten play around her and play at her until her long-suffering soul had enough and she gave the kitten one swipe of the paw. That was all and that was enough.
In her old age she had to suffer the indignity of dogs, particularly Oakley who liked to check on her by sticking her entire long nose up under Rosie’s body. Rosie gave an irritated meow, but otherwise took it in stride. When Maxie developed a fast growing malignant tumor, I took Rosie with me to the vet. Her carrier on the table, she watched carefully and solemnly as her sister slipped away. She seemed to take it in and never looked for Max or asked about her again.
For over three years Rosie was a diabetic. She quickly adapted to this new routine of twice daily insulin injections, only complaining when I got sloppy and careless with her shot. One day I came home from a trip and found her in a coma. The emergency vets performed a miracle in getting her back from the threshold of death’s door but she lost a good portion of her eyesight. She never complained and it never seemed to bother her. She just kept on keeping on.
The one place in which she took a backseat to no one was her hunting. One summer in our old house I kept count of how many voles she’d killed (voles look like moles but are about the size of mice.) At least sixteen voles bit the dust that summer. Each time she’d proudly leave her gift at the front door. Occasionally I’d catch Max picking up the dead vole and proudly bringing it around again, as if she’d killed it.
I came home last night and prepared for bed. When I was ready to give Rosie her nightly shot, she wasn’t in her bed. I finally found her in another room, peaceful and still. She lived to be seventeen.
My pastor tells me that the one question he gets asked more than any other is if our pets will be with us in heaven. I do not have the definitive answer, but I cannot imagine anywhere being all that heavenly if our four-legged (and two-winged!) family members are not allowed to join us.
If we are open, we may learn many lessons from our pets. Oakley teaches me that you can be fierce and protective and loving at the same time. Ralphie teaches me about all out joy. Maxie taught me about asking for what you need (okay, demanding.) And Rosie taught me that it is indeed possible to have a Buddha cat – not holding on to anything, being in the moment, finding contentment.