Learning to Grieve

This year, I learned to grieve, or at least to grieve more fully. I learned to sit with my sadness in the red glow of sunrise. To touch the abyss that split me open again and again and again, to allow myself to be swallowed, and to come back to the world, eventually—changed certainly, but still me.

This year I learned that while grief is uncomfortable, painful, sometimes unbearable (and yet we bear it anyway), it is a sign that we have loved, that we have shared joy, that we have learned, that we have grown, that we are human, that we are still here, breathing, if just barely. That knowledge doesn’t make the grieving any easier, but it is the truth, just the same.

I have faced loss before this year, but I’ve always averted my gaze, retreated into a galaxy far, far away or Narnia or another of a thousand fantasy worlds where my heroes were always there, waiting.

In fiction, even when a character dies, you can turn back the pages or rewind the film and find her there, fighting evil or galactic injustice. Life doesn’t quite work like that. You can fall back on memories and photos, but memory is a tricky thing. The very act of bringing up a memory can alter it, shade it with your current mood and state of mind.

You can reminisce and remember, but you can’t laugh together at an inside joke or watch the same movie for the thousandth time, speaking all the lines in unison.

When I was fifteen, my friend Lacey died suddenly from a brain tumor. I didn’t understand the feeling of emptiness in my chest, so I wrote angsty poetry and re-read the Young Jedi Knight book series that we both loved. Lacey wasn’t my best friend or even among my closest friends, but with whom else could I discuss Jaina and Jacen Solo’s adventures, parental troubles, and awkward teen romances?

For a time, I had a friend to share my universe, and then I didn’t.

I could repeat that line a thousand times with endless variations.

For a time, I had a grandfather who called me Lucy and threatened to throw me in the picky bushes if I misbehaved, and then I didn’t.

For a time, I had a dog with curly black fur and the kindest eyes, and then I didn’t.

For a time, I had a mother figure who made me hot chocolate on snow days and taught me how to pet a horse, and then I didn’t.

You don’t have to have met a person for their death to grab hold of your throat and constrict your lungs. Artists release art into the world where we experience it and re-experience it. That too is a form of bonding, of shared experience, of memory.

But for all those moments, all these losses—many more than I’ve listed here—I never learned how to grieve. How to feel consumed by sadness and know that it is okay to feel that way. I learned that I will get up the next day and carry the torch. And if I’m too weak to walk or carry that torch, I have friends ready to hold me up. And that I will do the same the day after, and the day after that, until it is my turn to face infinity.

2016 has taken much from me, as it almost certainly has from you. Not just celebrity icons like Carrie Fisher and David Bowie (and on and on), but ex-lovers, family members, health, certainty of freedom, and for a time, words themselves.

Learning to grieve isn’t like learning an immutable fact. It’s a process, and it changes for each loss. Grief isn’t something that diminishes you, at least not permanently. It’s possible to lose yourself in grief, the same way it’s possible to lose yourself in depression. But it’s not inherently a process of loss. It’s a process of healing and exploration, of growth and love.

This year, instead of fighting the abyss, I walked headlong into its darkness, allowed myself to be split open, and come out the other side. Some people might want to call this depression, but it’s not—it’s a different type of surrender. It’s surrendering to the unique truth and beauty—and yes, pain, too—that marked your relationship with that person or with that person’s art.

Today I mourn. And tomorrow, also. But I will wake up, and I will carry the torch.

Being 30

Three is a lucky number. Thirty is ten threes. Ten threes may not be as lucky as nine threes or even six or three threes, but still. It’s lucky.

I used to dread turning 30, but then I turned 27. 28. 29. Time creeps forward, whether we’re paying attention or not. So I choose to embrace this year of being ten threes, and want to spend it with purpose.

No wrinkles appeared around my eyes when I woke up. No lightning bolt of wisdom struck me. My clothes did not transform into hooded cloaks in the night (though it’d be cool if they did).

Thirty happened the way every other birthday happens: Slowly, over the course of the year, the months, the weeks, the days. It happened over the course of deaths and loss, over the course of illness and setbacks, over the course of new friends and goals met, over the course of endings and beginnings.

And, thankfully, it happened with many of my dearest friends and family—some of whom drove great distances to see me–doing things I love: book shopping, spending a day at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, getting the breakfast buffet at Happy Days and having my annual allotment of creamed chipped beef.

I don’t know what this year will bring, though the cards suggest some interesting things. All I can do is write every day I’m able, send my work into the world, take care of myself as best I can, and continue loving the people (and dogs) I love.

Here’s to 30, and all the things it might bring.

 

 

My dogs are not my children

Lately I’ve been thinking about metaphors. Specifically metaphors like, “My pets are my children,” or “My writing is my baby.”

I can understand, almost, why people use these metaphors. Having children is a monumental step that reorders your entire life. Your world basically revolves around your children, because they need you to survive. Plus, they carry your genetic code and are, in a very real sense, a part of you.

Saying, “My pets are my children” is, I think, mostly an attempt to say, “My pets are as important to me as your children are to you.”

puppies

Lexi and Jaina. They leave fur everywhere, but I love them anyway.

But I don’t see my dogs (or my writing) as “children,” and several things about comparing them to children bothers me.

It’s an easy metaphor, one that most people can understand, but it implies that important things like pets, art, etc., are intrinsically not as important or worthy as children of time and attention, and that pets are simply replacements for human children.

Plenty of parents also have pets. You rarely hear them say “My pets are my babies!” And yet, I’d be willing to wager those pets play an equally important, albeit very different, role in family life.

Growing up, that was my experience. We had a dog, a German shepherd/border collie mix, who was my constant companion. We played together, went for walks together, even sat on the couch and watched TV together. We all loved him immensely, and he was, without a doubt, a part of our family.

But my parents never referred to Maverick as one of their “children.” My brother and I were the children, and Maverick was the dog.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling a dog a dog. That’s what they are. Their dog-ness is why we love them. If dogs were strictly replacement children for people unable or unwilling to have children, you’d probably see a lot fewer human children with doggy companions.

Dogs make excellent companions because of their emotional intelligence and their ability to read body language and smell pain and illness. Children are naturally intuitive, but I’ve never met a human who could read another person as well as a dog can.

Dogs often know what we’re feeling physically and emotionally before we have any idea ourselves—and this is partly why many dogs bond so easily with children, I think. There’s no need for the child to verbalize her emotions, because the dog just knows, and is there with a nuzzling wet nose or a long drippy tongue to the face.

Even now that my brother and I are grown and my parents have turned into crazy German shepherd people (they have four), they do not make comparisons between their actual human children and their dogs. My mother doesn’t ignore me because she has her furry children to keep her company.

It’s essentially the same with writing. My writing is not my baby, it’s my writing. It may be work in the same sense that raising children is work, but it is very, very different work. Yes, it’s hugely important to me, but if I ever got struck by lightning and suddenly decided I wanted children, I’m guessing the human babies would be an entirely different kind of important.

Ultimately, my point is that dogs play a large and important role in my life, and so does creating art. Neither my dogs nor my writing is a replacement for not having children. They are rewarding in their own rights, and fill very different emotional and mental needs than children do (I imagine, as I don’t actually feel any desire to have children).

My dogs are not my children. They are my dogs, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.