#amwriting, A Dog's Life, Animals, Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Dogs, Grief, Labra-doo-dad, The Inner Landscape

I am terrible at grieving, or an armored heart

I am terrible at grieving. I grew up in a family and an environment in which crying, generally, and grieving, specifically, were not only discouraged but practically anathema. When my Grandmother Spong died, my father, who was her only child and as close to her emotionally as he was to anyone, told me, “I’m all right if you’re all right,” which was his way of saying, “Don’t cry, or I might, too.”

As an adult, I faced three major losses in my thirties – first my mother, then a pregnancy at 21 weeks, then my father – and in each case, the circumstances made it difficult for me to grieve properly, at least as I came to understand proper grieving, ideas presented in classes at seminary, where I studied pastoral care through the life span and took a whole course on bereavement.

I’m not sure I got any better at grieving. Instead I learned to squeeze my eyes shut and keep the tears inside.

Crying, you see, frightens me. I associate it with a severe postpartum depression twenty years ago, a time when nothing seemed as if it would ever be right again, a time when everything seemed that mattered seemed poised to slip over the edge of an abyss. I said I had cried all my tears, but what I really meant was, I am not going to let things get that far out of my control again. If something threatens to hurt me, I will armor myself against it.

Molly was brilliant at eye contact.
Molly was brilliant at eye contact.

Just about the only exception to that armor was my first dog, Molly. She was charming, winsome, life-rearranging. I was 41 and had never lived with a dog before and had no idea how much it would feel like having a baby, another child to raise. A Bernese Mountain Dog, she had the terrible joints that some Berners do, and the crippling arthritis to go with them; that she lived to be almost 7 years old was a testimony to both my commitment to her and her incredible joie de vivre.

After her death, I did allow myself one good cry. (Emphasis on “allow,” which implies control, no?)

I always tell people who are afraid they will cry at a funeral that it’s exactly the right time for it, that their tears are a tribute to the person they loved and will miss, but I am confessing to you how poorly I do it. You may know what I mean. We hold ourselves together for the sake of others, because who doesn’t want to be a hero. And isn’t it a more secure feeling to be that hero than to let the feeling flow through and out of us? If we can only hold it all inside, we will never have to admit to vulnerability.

To mourn, to fully and consciously engage with the truth and pain of loss, is agonizing. It is something so difficult and frightening that incredibly successful people who are otherwise driven and aggressive risk-takers stereotypically shy away from grief.*

Grieve fully, feel Gratitude profoundly, and be humble enough to do the Grunt work!

Which is the hardest of the three g’s for you to practice to keep your faith simple? Grief, gratitude or grunt work?**

Books, darn it, sometimes make me think about things I would rather not, make me feel things I would just as soon compress into the components of more armor. Not long after reading both the quotes above and confessing to my journal that I am terrible at grieving, I opened Facebook on my iPhone and clicked on the daily memories they now provide whether I want them or not, and there I found this picture.

Hoagie, my last Berner
Hoagie, my last Berner

Now, he may not prove to be my final Berner, but Hoagie was the last of the Berners I had in Maine, a rescue who came to us at a time when my daughter and I really needed him even more than he needed us. He would have come with me to Pennsylvania, but he developed cancer and did not live long enough to embark on the new chapter of life with us.

“Oh, Hoagie,” I said to my iPhone, to Facebook, to no one in particular, as I sat in bed in the early morning half light. I blinked, because if you blink hard enough, or scrinch up your eyes just right, the tears will go away. Except that they don’t. Something calcifies. After kathrynzj’s Old Man Dog died last fall, we started talking about when and whether to look for a new dog, and where, and whether to get a puppy, and although my loss was further in the past, I could not say I was ready. I didn’t really grieve, I realized. I set my eyes toward the horizon, and I hardly stopped to let myself be sad, to grieve for the dog, the dogs, the life I thought I had, because of course the future looked favorable and many good things lay ahead.

I looked at the picture again, and I remembered the words I scrawled in my journal the early morning of the day before, and I looked at the picture again, and I cried.

Teddy at 3 months
Teddy at 3 months

At my house there is a new dog, this crazy puppy Teddy, a lab mix who loves my slippers, who is not a Berner, who is mouthy and likes hard pets and peeled carrots, and whose short coat feels different but good to the touch.

He likes to stand on his back legs to see what’s on the table or the counter, just like Molly.

He does this at the storm door when we leave the house, front paws up like a child, sending his heart with us in little cries of love and longing.

An armored heart cannot love that way. An armored heart cannot move into joy.


*Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson. Never Pray Again (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2014), p. 110. Check out their blog, Two Friars and a Fool.

**Becca Stevens. Letters from the Farm: A Simple Path for a Deeper Spiritual Life (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2015), p. 32. I received a copy from her publicist, and an advance copy, too. If you’ve read this far, and are interested in the book, leave a comment and I will send you the extra book.

Cats, Grief


Our Puss Puss In a stack of cages at the Animal Refuge League, on the second row from the bottom, which was just about eye level for a five-and-a-half-year-old boy, there was a little cat. She had white legs and a white face and undercarriage, but the top of her head and her back and her tail were brown tiger-colored. Little Snowman, on a hunt for the right cat, picked her out after serious deliberations. We brought her home the next day, along with an older grey cat chosen by Young #1 Son. 

And so we began our lives at the beginning of my single motherhood, a young mom, with three kids and two cats, the grey man cat Nicky and frail little PussPuss, who required several weeks of antibiotics and hand-feeding, deep care from Snowman and his mama. Very Little Light Princess, the same age as the little kitty, somehow got the idea that you made a cat meow by pulling on her tail. As soon as Puss felt better, VLLP learned otherwise.

We've been together for a long time. PussPuss was the pilot cat, the one following us up and down the block when we went for a walk, waiting for us at the corner if we went to the 7-11 or walked the children to elementary school, willing to sit on a neighbor's front steps while we sold Girl Scout cookies or wrapping paper or stopped in for a short visit. 

She loved to be outside, and for many years had a regular route around the neighborhood, one that made her well-known. She left enough collars under neighbors' shrubs that we gave up trying to make her wear one. It was only in the past few winters that she decided snow was too much for her and spent the winter almost entirely inside.

She found the dogs worrisome as a duo, but came to love Sam after Molly's death. 

Puss dirt bath She maintained a meticulous appearance, all that white fur shining, and a big part of that was rolling in the dirt, something we could never understand.

After we got her strong and healthy back in 1996, she was never sick a day in her life, though she clearly grieved for other animals who passed through our household. When she seemed low after Sam's death, I did not immediately suspect physical illness, but a couple of weeks ago at her check-up, the vet found a mass. A couple of days ago, she really sank, and yesterday we had to bid her farewell. 

15-and-a-half is young for a person and oldish for a cat, especially a cat who started life as a sickly stray. It's a hard loss for us because it's one more on top of others, and because Puss had a sort of independent character that gave way to being more affectionate in the last couple of years. She sat in laps and slept with LP. And on her last visit to the vet, even though we didn't realize it would be the last, she came out of the carrier and nuzzled me lovingly. 

My only consolation, after having our last old cat wander off never to be found, is in knowing we gave her a quiet end.

Farewell, PussPuss, faithful pilot cat. We love you.

Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Grief, My New Reality

Too soon

Berner wag Kind people are thinking of us when they learn of dogs who need a loving home. One was a Bernese, the other a Saint Bernard. (Seriously? As if a Bernese weren't a big enough dog for two little girls, no matter how mighty we are in spirit.) We would love another Bernese when the time is right, and I am grateful to be part of a breed club with an outstanding rescue program and to know the people who screen and foster those dogs. People who love a particular breed will understand how the one you know so well is particularly winsome and suits you better than any other ever could and leave a gap, in this case very large, that can only be filled with one silhouette.

There are a lot of ways it's too soon, and others in which it feels like too big a gap already. We ought to be fixing a dog's dinner at a certain time, or his breakfast, or refilling her water dish. 

It turns out that the walking schedule of an older dog who thought 20 minutes or so around Greyberry Woods in the morning and another 20 around the neighborhood in the afternoon was perfect was also perfect for the little joints in my feet affected by Rheumatoid Arthritis. 30 minutes at a time is just bearable. 35 minutes at once is a little too much. 

But it's too soon. We have other adjustments to make, LP and I, and I have things to figure out, like a new, one wage-earner budget. 

I really hope Molly and Sam aren't the only two dogs ever to be part of my life, but I can't say the way is clear. Not yet.  It's just too soon.

Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Cats, Grief

Time to Grieve

Cats 001 A friend shared this quote from Alban's magazine, Congregations:

"We must support those who are grieving and give them sufficient time to grieve. To shortchange grief is to rush people to a false sense of acceptance which diminishes their ability to accept the reality and finality of the loss and blocks their capacity to attach anew."

We have two cats, Puss Puss and Baby, both 15 years old, just like LP. (Yes, I am living with three 15-year-old girls now.)
Baby, once a mighty mouse huntress, is The Cat Who Lives Upstairs, and who resents anyone else's demands on my time and space. She had a lot to put up with when Sam started sleeping with us, even though I have a ridiculously large bed for one person. Sam took up as much space as he could, and I did not mind a bit. Every night I would lie there with my hand placed gently on the closest part of him, aware of his breathing and his restlessness and for some time each night, his peaceful rest. Baby would circle my head, warily, eventually finding a place to land, away from Sam. But on the last few nights of his life, she got as close to him as she could. Now she is downstairs far more than she has been in years, and I'm not sure she's pleased about it.

Cats 003 Puss Puss is our Cat Who Patrols the Neighborhood. She also has exhibited grief for other pets in our family who died. I remember after Pepper, the best big kitten ever, was hit by a car in 1998, Puss Puss went into a decline. When Molly left us, Puss Puss seemed to be physically sick, but the vet could find nothing wrong. And this week she is grieving again, seems depressed, and shows little interest in going outside. She's spending the day curled up in a corner of the couch, though this evening she's made a move to use my Kindle as a pillow.

We're all like this: unsettled, unhappy, uncertain. I turn down the street and sigh for Sam. At 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. I want to fix his dinner. Even in my office, new though it is, I'm wistful thinking of the days he was lying on the floor next to me. 

I'm taking my time with it.

Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Grief, Living in This World, Seen in Town

To cry

East End Beach  I took Sam to the beach Tuesday night. The tide was low, the sky heavy and grey, but there was no rain. The city felt like a woman who wants to cry but can't find the privacy to let go. 

We met a woman with a big, black dog, a Black Russian Terrier, bigger than Sam. She wanted to talk, not just because our dogs were both big — that happens a lot — but because she used to have two Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs, the even larger though short-haired Swiss dogs that resemble Bernese. She wanted to talk about those dogs, how it broke her heart when they were gone. They don't live any longer than Bernese, I guess. She marveled at Sam's age, his apparent good health, now mostly thanks to an expensive series of Adequan injections he's been getting for arthritis in his elbows and a wrist since early June. She wanted to drink in his tri-colored coat and the gentle expression in his big, brown eyes, so sweet they brought tears to hers. 

She loves her new dog, but it's not the same. She couldn't bear to have the same dogs again, she said, because it "would have killed" her to lose them. 

I told her about Molly, about the the heart-quaking experience of having her put to sleep because she was in so much pain. Then I told her Sam and I needed to walk down the beach, because my heart felt like the sky, close to bursting with things lost. 

I hate to cry. People who know me well know this. Maybe it's because there were times in my 30s that I thought I would never stop crying. Maybe it's because I hate the feeling of losing control. Maybe it's because my mother taught me to keep things inside. Maybe it's just the type of person I am. I don't want to cry at the beach on a Tuesday evening, talking to a stranger, even about dogs. I want to walk down the beach and clear my head. 

Sam trotted along behind me, faithfully. Molly would never have done this. You could never be out with Molly off the leash and not be keeping a sharp eye on her. If she could have figured a way to flag down a ship or climb aboard someone's sailboat for a trip around Casco Bay, I'm sure she would have, and the people she met would have found her an absolutely charming companion. 

But Sam trots along behind, keeps an eye on me, to be sure I don't founder.

I have the luxury of a place to go with my private woes. I can close the blinds. I can tuck up on my big bed, and I can even pull the curtains around it if I like. Because it's on the north side of the house, it's easy to make it dark, to hide and feel safe from the view of the world, from anyone who might judge me or rank my reasons for being weepy as less than valid.

Even still, I hate to cry.

She caught my eye as we drove home from the beach, headed down the hill on Congress Street toward town. We had passed the light by the cemetery, and I saw a woman sitting on the bottom step outside the door to a shop, I think, crying. Her face was red, her expression one of misery. I only had a moment to look, as my car moved slowly down the block. She had long, brown hair, may have been in her late twenties or early thirties. Something was wrong with the picture, so I glanced at the road then back to her. Her denim shorts were in the wrong place, I thought, she had them pulled down closer to her knees, and before I could think another thought about why she might be uncovering herself (drugs? alcohol? mental illness? all three?), I saw the stream of urine.

She had no privacy, no privy, beyond those public steps.

And that makes me want to cry, too.


(Picture found at Reality Times, taken on East End Beach in July, 2006.)

Grief, Prayer, Writing

A blank page

Paper I've been staring at a blank page all week when it comes to writing about something that didn't impact me directly but did impact part of my extended family, in particular my nephew who is 13 years old and suffered a terrible loss when his best friend jumped off a bridge, killing himself.

Usually when I'm troubled, I find a way to tell the story, typing the words at my laptop, watching them appear on the screen. 

Writing, I work things out.

When it's too hard, or too complicated, or too inexplicable, I write it down, and in the writing, things happen.

This is probably why the story of this week sat like a rock, because I prayed so differently, without words, for once. I have a lot of words! But this did not have, not readily. 

Maybe it helps when I know the role I'm supposed to play–the role guides me to what I'm supposed to say or do? Is "supposed" as bad a word as "should?"

This week all I could do was love inarticulately, from a distance.

It did not feel wonderful.

But it was prayer. It was. Maybe the best prayers I've prayed, personally, in a long time. My heart felt hot, a glowing, pulsing rock, full of love and sadness, not a burden to lay down but a trust to carry.

A trust to carry.

So when I say they have been in my thoughts and prayers–my nephew, my niece, their mother–I as much mean they have been my thoughts, they have been my heart prayers.

(I'm grateful to Jan at Yearning for God for the post that inspired an exercise we did at Soul Spa this morning, and to all who inspired her in the first place. It was entitled "A Blank Page is Prayer." This morning I gave blank paper to the Soul Spa attendees, and part of this post is what I wrote on that page.)

Grief, Ministry, Writing

One of Us

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our
weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we
are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so
that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
(Hebrews 4:15-16, NRSV)

If God had a name what would it be?

And would you call it to his face?

If you were faced with Him in all His glory

What would you ask if you had just one question?

(Eric Bazilian, as recorded by Joan Osborne, "One of Us")

I believe I was in seminary before I heard the things I sort of knew described in this way: Jesus was fully divine and fully human.

That may seem surprising, but really, it's one of those concepts you spend a lot of time talking about in seminary and hardly ever trouble to unpack in church. A lot of what we "know" about Jesus comes not so much through teaching of scripture but through the singing of hymns and the repetition of whatever rituals have meaning in a particular tradition.

Some churches default to the divinity of Jesus, while it's probably more typical in progressive churches to focus on his wisdom and his kindness and his inclusion of the marginalized. The latter is fine for devising some life guidelines, but there are times when life frankly sucks and we enter the abyss of grief or the closet of despair or even the breezeway between identities. Some times in our lives defy guidelines, even the simple ones about loving God and neighbor. Some times in our lives center on questions: Why this? Why now? Why me?

In those moments, I'm glad I know that Jesus asked a question, too, about where God was at the crucial moment. I'm glad I know he felt the letdown of his friends' abandonment. I'm glad I know he got angry. I'm glad I know he made a mistake. And this doesn't begin to touch on the embodied experience, not really, of hunger and thirst and desire and tired feet and fear of death and boredom with the chronic complaining of others.

It comforts me to know that a person I think of as having been part of God and one of us became connected fully to God again, able to share the experience of being human. To me this says that the Cosmic Fund of love and goodness and creativity and justice contains our human perspectives and embraces our human flaws with the knowing of having lived those things and more. And while it may not fix what ails us, it's better than being alone.

Well, I believe it is. And this is what I want to know about God. I don't want to argue about what it means for Jesus to be without sin. I want to embrace the idea that beyond what we see, there is more, and in that More is an understanding of our humanity, and a love for it and for us, flaws and all.