Blog Introduction

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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Grief - up close and personal

Some people won't get this. Four days ago we had our 14 year old dog euthanased and we've been grieving ever since. Some people get love of animals and some don't. I used to think the inability to love a dog was a character flaw but I've since known a few lovely humans who've been a bit shy about dogs so that theory's fallen by the wayside. Even if you don't get dog-love this post is about the grief process so it's relevant. All meetings end in separation so it's an experience we all share. Many times.

Buddy Brown (front), me and Tassie Tiger in 2004

The past 4 days have been extremely painful. I don't think it's possible to love dogs more than I love/d mine. We could have let him live a few more days or a week but he had stomach cancer and he was on his way out. We decided to keep him alive with drugs until he stopped having fun or was in significant pain. Last Friday he stopped eating. He'd already lost a third of his body weight. It was time to let him go. Letting him go is one of the hardest things I've ever done.

One of the beautiful things about practicing the dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) is that every single experience you have is grist to the mill - an opportunity to practice. For some time I've been curious about grief because my Dad died a couple of years ago and I wasn't all that affected by it. I felt empathy for him because his death was a slow one in which he became increasingly unable to deal with anxiety or excitement - a difficult state to be in when facing death. I really felt for him. But I wasn't very sad because he wasn't very involved in my life. Plus I'd already done my grieving when I accepted him as he was rather than as I wanted him to be. So the only time I cried was when the hearse drove him away from the church. My loneliness demon rode in on the coat-tails of that experience - he was leaving the party to go and be on his own forever. But that wasn't about Dad. That was my loneliness demon.

So here I am two and a half years later sobbing for days about my beautiful Buddy Brown. At least I know I haven't had what Barry Magid calls a 'spiritual lobotomy'. I want to share some of my observations of this experience and relate it to a key question in the dharma - one which I think needs to be up front and centre when people are exploring it. That question is whether the dharma, and awakening in particular, are about detaching from life or whether they are about engaging with it. The answer is that they are very much about engaging with it. Not indulging the ups and downs or being engulfed by them, but definitely the dharma is about embracing the life experience and getting to know it intimately.


My top 10 observations of the grief process:

1. There is a certain amount of grief that comes un-invited. When we got home from the vet and many times since, I've been hit by great sadness. I cried and cried because that's just what my body/mind wanted to do. It had to do it. To hold it in was more painful. This wasn't brought on by any particular experience or conscious thought, it just happened to me. A part of this is simply the tectonic plates of my life shifting. I've had a family of four for nine years. I now have a family of three. Losing a loved one is a force majeur in our own psychological world. The movement of our psychological tectonic plates is an upheaval. A certain amount of sadness flows with the upheaval without any conscious act.
2. When my mind is in the present I feel at ease. If I pay attention to where I am, whom I'm with, what's going on now, even if part of what's going on is seeing my environment without Buddy in it, I feel at peace. However if I let it play mental movies of the past or the imagined future without Buddy, sadness hits me. If I flick between these two modes (present/mental movies) the experience is like a roller-coaster: peaceful/sad/ peaceful/sad.
3. When I accept that Buddy is in my past I feel at ease. This is related to no.2. When I play mental movies of the past I'm also doing something else....I'm comparing it to now and feeling the difference which is the presence or absence of my beautiful boy. When I play mental movies of the future I am also shining the spotlight on the absence of something I love. When I think of him as a feature of my past rather than my present or future, I feel happy remembering him.
4. I can't predict the process. The morning after he died I was dreading walking out the front door. His favourite spot was on the front deck and I figured that seeing the deck empty would set off sadness. I walked out, looked at the empty deck and..... I was fine. However later that night I had set up the lounge room ready for a movie night. Typically this involves Matt, me and our other dog Taz lying on the mattress on the floor and Buddy reclining on the ottoman next to us. After setting it up I walked off and then turned around to see if anything was missing....and burst into tears. ("He's supposed to be here!" I sobbed as a defiance to letting him be in my past.)
5. Letting the process roll its own way has shown it to be dynamic and multi-dimensional. Because I am curious about grief I really wanted to observe the process, and to let it happen the way it was going to happen without interfering too much. In addition to it being unpredictable there have been surprising periods of calm and even-ness. If I had started identifying with 'grieving' or thinking I knew how it would go, or feeling like it 'should' go a certain way I wouldn't have seen how dynamic a process it is. There can be calmness, happiness, humour and many other experiences mixed in amongst it. It's been really helpful to just let it be however it is - a great lesson in the unpredictability/ unreliability/ instability of all things.
6. Allowing myself to feel fully has helped the feelings pass. I've known this for a long time but it's still amazing to experience it. When you really turn and face your pain, let yourself feel it in whatever strength, colour, shape, texture, temperature and vibrancy it has, give it its full time in the sun, it leaves of its own accord. What you resist persists.
7. Sharing the feelings with a friend who doesn't try and fix them, helps the grief process stay un-stuck. Matt and I have both commented on how helpful it's been to simply tell each other of anything that we feel compelled to share. Sometimes we've enquired as to how the other is doing. Mostly we've just spontaneously shared our observations and experiences as we've wanted to. This has helpfully included things like identifying mental movies of the future and past - generally it's been what we're feeling (physically and emotionally) and what the trigger for that was. In addition to no. 6, this has helped keep the process moving without getting bogged down.
8. It helps remembering that his life with us was good. There's nothing to be sad about for Buddy. Apart from some discomfort towards the end, his time with us was fabulous from beginning to end. While his first 5 years weren't great (prior to us he'd been confiscated from his previous owners for neglect) from the moment I took him home 9 years ago it was all good. He was very loved, went on camping trips, was well fed and looked after, had runs in leash-free parks most days and a safe, attentive home. He died by falling gently to sleep in his favourite place (the back of the van) being cuddled and kissed by the people he loved. Most humans on the planet don't get it that good!
9. It helps to articulate the needs he filled and remind myself they can still be filled. One of the things that most reliably sets off the tears for me is pictures or memories of cuddling him. Cuddling was his strong suit and during the first few years of working in our business with my husband I didn't get too many cuddles from him as he was feeling stressed and unhappy most of the time. Buddles really got me through that time. And I've come to believe that cuddles are just plain good for you (no Rhesus monkeys needed). There are times, especially when you're feeling a bit confronted by the world, where you just need a good hug. Buddles was the best of cuddlers and the cuddles were on tap. Being honest about the fact that he filled my need for affection, and that I can still fill that in other ways (including with Matt and Taz) lessens some of the pain.

Cuddly right to the end - on our camping trip
the week before he died.

10. Connecting with others helps. Matt observed with curiosity that one of my natural responses was to text a number of friends and family about Buddy's death a few hours after it happened. He asked why I did that. It was interesting to reflect on it. I said I thought it was probably a way of letting people who care about me know that I needed their love and support. It was also because several of the people I texted knew Buddy, had cared for him at different times, and loved him. Since then I've sent out a tribute email to our wider group of friends and family with a link to some photos. This email showed how much he meant to us. Replies, calls, empathy and warm wishes have flowed in ever since. It's felt quite nurturing. Matt commented just tonight what a positive difference it's made.


The question: is dharma practice about detachment?
This is an idea that can turn people off the dharma - people who relish the beauty and joys of life. It's also an idea that can attract people to it - people who are looking for the spiritual lobotomy I spoke of...a way to avoid feeling life's pain. In Barry Magid's fabulous book Ending the Pursuit of Happiness, he relays his experience of many Zen students dropping their practice when they realise that it's a practice of engaging with your own patterns, your own demons, rather than running from them. As Stephen Batchelor says, unlike religions, the essence of dharma practice is confrontation rather than consolation - quite the opposite of detachment. What I've described above is dharma practice - being fully present to your experience.

The Pali canon is the earliest and most accurate version of the Buddha's teachings we have. Nowhere in the canon does it mention becoming detached from life. It speaks of non-attachment, but that's very different. Non-attachment is about accepting that good things come and go rather than desperately trying to make them a permanent and singular feature of your life's landscape. The times when I accept that Buddy is in my past, when I am present to my current experience rather than wishing it were different, I feel at ease. The times when I focus on the absence and wish that my dead dog were still with me, I suffer.

However being non-attached doesn't mean not feeling the love I felt for him or the joy at his being. These are beautiful things and the dharma doesn't suggest we should not engage with the beauty and joy in life. Dharma practice is about 'the whole catastrophe' and engaging with it fully requires great doses of courage, gentleness and love not least to ourselves. These qualities are needed both to face the pain but also to hold the beauty and joy lightly because the nature of everything is temporary.

The Buddha was once asked whether indeed the whole of life is suffering as one interpretation of his first noble truth (or his first important thing as I like to call it) would have us believe. He replied that if this were the case we wouldn't run about desperately clinging to our experiences as we do. In these past few weeks I've wondered whether we should re-write the first important thing to be 'there is joy and there is suffering'. That's our reality, experienced no more vividly than when we are face to face with temporariness.

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