Grief

Andalusia and me on December 14, 2012

“Change and decay in all around I see
Oh Thou who changest not, abide with me.”

-Henry Francis Lyte

“It is better to go to the house of mourning,
than to go to the house of feasting:
for that is the end of all men;
and the living will lay it to his heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter:
for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning;
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

-Ecclesiastes

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear —

And not sit beside the next,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not year.

Oh He gives to us his joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled an’ gone
He doth sit by us and moan.

-William Blake

Grief bores holes in the heart that can never be re-filled. They indicate that life has been lived earnestly, that pain has not been denied, but felt. The holes of grief are telescopes into the most sacred center of the human soul, and allow you to peer into its depths and see what a man is made of where it matters the most. Those with no capacity to grieve are actually the weakest of all, those who would not permit themselves to feel the most human of pains, as if they were above it, better than it, superior to those who in their view weakly succumb to the sentiments.

Yet grief is not mere sentimentality, not just the loss of something possessed which a non-existent ego characterized by detachment can brush aside as of lower concern. For grief is perhaps the central emotion that propels men to action — not only the ability to grieve for oneself, but the ability to grieve for others as well.

Scott Peck observes that in order to measure a person’s greatness, you must measure their capacity to suffer. Although all suffering is not grief, all grief is certainly suffering. I do not think that I have had an unusual amount of grief in my life, but certainly my darkest moments of grief have been among the most significant in my psychological and spiritual development.

My compulsion to bring these thoughts out today, indeed, is motivated by the tragic loss of my sweet companion Andalusia, a Great Dane who accompanied through the most tumultuous and difficult period of my life. She is not the only one — Adelaide is still with me, and has been so for just a bit longer, and though I now have friends who have been with me for a part of this journey, Andalusia and Adelaide are the only two creatures who have been by my side perpetually each day, moment by moment absorbing all of the emotions of these years in which I have been thrust along the road to becoming an adult.

In some significant sense, these two dogs made it possible for me to be writing today, and I would be remiss in my discussion of grief if I did not pay homage to them and memorialize their contribution to the rescuing of my soul.

When I moved to Chile in 2008, just before my 26th birthday, I could not have foreseen the direction my life was about to take. I moved here with my then husband, Nick. We were not legally married, but we wore matching rings and had made what (I think) we both believed would be a lifelong commitment to one another. At great expense and with serious difficulty, we brought our dogs Adelaide and Aries with us from Texas. Aries was his dog before we met, and we found Adelaide at a last chance adoption fair at an animal shelter in White Settlement, Texas (yes, there really is such a place).

During the next few months I was still traveling back and forth to the states to finalize some of my affairs there, as I had decided that as soon as possible I would cease further travel to the country of my birth — a decision which warrants its own explanation in another time and place. While I was gone, Nick adopted a small beagle puppy who we named Anais and in December of that year, we decided that we needed an even four dogs, so that we could have one or two dogs with us in the house, and the other would not be lonely.

We drove out to a rural area north of Santiago where Nick had encountered a woman who bred world champion Great Dane show dogs. Both of us were devoted fans of adoption, and not of purchasing dogs from breeders, but this case was special. The woman had put out an advertisement saying she had a young female who was not fit for showing and she was simply looking for a home for the dog with people who would really love her and take care of her the way she deserved. Great Danes are special animals — their size not only means massive food consumption, but also increased health concerns and shorter lifespans, an average of just eight years.

When we arrived to the property, we were greeted a bit frighteningly by a dozen fully grown Great Danes, one of whom must have weighed 200 pounds — Centurion. Later came along Andalusia, who was probably about 9 months old at the time and was originally named Hannah, with the owner of the property. The owner was amazed at how gracefully we had dealt with these massive animals charging toward us, and knew instantly that we were “dog people,” and after a conversation and some tears on her part, we left with Andalusia in our car and drove home.

I will never forget her shyness. When we arrived to our house, she would not get out of the car. She was so nervous about everything. We finally picked her up and set her down outside our front gate, where she continued to be paralyzed by fear. Eventually she gained some confidence, and joined the family, where she befriended Anais, the little beagle, and the two became inseparable best friends.

When she was young, we lived on a piece of property in a rural area that had a lot of land, and she was always running around the field. The strength of her muscles, and the speeds she could reach with just a little bit of “runway” were remarkably impressive. She was so stout, so strong. Everybody who met her joked that she was really a horse. She was a bit goofy and clumsy, though, constantly underestimating her size, and this was always one of her most endearing traits.

One night we couldn’t find her, after it had gotten dark, and she wouldn’t answer our calls. We took a flashlight and went looking for her, and found her immobilized in the field, shaking and unable to move. Nick had the insight that she might have had a blood sugar problem, and went to get some honey, which almost miraculously let her stand up. But she would whimper when she started walking, so the two of us carried this massive animal back to the house and put her in her bed to recuperate. This would repeat a couple of times, and then for some reason, was never a problem again after that.

Throughout these years, life was very difficult. We were short on money, my business activities were not taking off as fast as I had expected, and at a certain point we were even living on expired visas because we did not have the money or proof of income to renew them. Among my greatest fears in this time was the thought of being deported with no way to recover the dogs, and nobody to care for them in the meantime.

As the external circumstances deteriorated further, and my relationship with Nick began to feel the strain of the financial stress and accompanying hardship of living conditions, the dogs were almost my only refuge. One or more of them were always with me in my office, Andalusia being one of the more frequent of my visitors, and playing with them outside provided relief to my otherwise difficult circumstances. There was little I enjoyed more, during that period, than watching Andalusia and the beagle playing tug-of-war with a rope. Andalusia would let the little dog think she had a chance of winning, and was even a good sport when the beagle would get frustrated and snap at her face.

I cannot overstate how dark these times were for me. I have shared this privately with the people who are close to me here at Exosphere, and a couple of times in community sessions as well, but there was one day when I was driving home from a meeting in the city and I could see nothing in my mind but despair. Everything was failing, everything I had worked to rebuild after the previous failures was stillborn. There seemed to be no hope.

The drive to where I was living at the time was on the road going out to the Andean ski slopes, and is curvy, at a high altitude, and overlooks a deep ravine. Gripping the steering wheel to the point of having white knuckles, I thought so hard about ending it right there and driving my car off the cliff. The grief over my perception of myself as a failure, of being doomed to failure, overtook me. I didn’t want to experience that grief anymore. But my mind started thinking through all of the implications of the decision, and I couldn’t imagine leaving the dogs behind in a situation where I couldn’t ensure they would be taken care of. If I had committed suicide, I was certain that Nick would have been forced to go back to the states and would have not likely been able to take Andalusia with him. Maybe the other three, but moving with a dog of that size is a logistical nightmare, and I could only think of her sad face being left behind.

I decided I couldn’t leave on those terms. I had promises to keep.

So I did what I could to enjoy the time with the dogs, to carve out some moments of joy in the midst of my overwhelming pain. It was in this time that I started writing again, and between writing, the 91st Psalm, and the prayers of Kierkegaard, I slowly began overcoming the existential grief that had nearly ended my existence. It was in the midst of this pain that my plans for Exosphere were born, and for the following year, I was working again with some sense of hope.

This would all be upended again the day that Nick told me our relationship was over, after five and a half years. With little reason given, and no advanced warning, the entire edifice of my life in Chile crumbled, and I was left living alone on a mountain, with only Adelaide and Andalusia. I didn’t sleep or eat for a week, and had it not been for the dogs, I would probably have not been able to muster the strength to get out of bed in the morning. But they gave me the motivation to keep going, and again, saved my life.

In the last three years, I have not gotten to spend as much time with them as I would have liked, but the holidays always gave me a unique opportunity to bring them around with me, and I enjoyed catching up on television shows in 2013 and 2014 around Christmas with my dogs sitting next to me. It is fitting, then, that Andalusia passed on Christmas Day this year. I knew she was deteriorating in health, and I had already thought I was going to lose her back in October. These last two months I had to make special food for her every day, and I was very connected to her in this time. I’m fortunate that I got this last opportunity in a sense to have a long goodbye, to make her feel that she was loved, and to receive the gift of that tremendous heart which she so selflessly gave to me in the 7 years that I was fortunate to be blessed with her companionship.

Her bright star burned out too fast, but this is the nature of things. She didn’t quite make it to her eighth birthday, but almost, and that unfortunately is the average lifespan of a dog of her breed. I have much hope that the advances in genetic engineering that will bring longer lives to humans will enable us to have lifelong companions in our canine friends, and that one unnecessary source of our grief can be removed, or at least diminished.

As I grieve the death of this wonderful, beautiful, gentle, compassionate animal, I am most struck by the way she always grieved with me, and that in this moment she is no longer here to do so again. In every catastrophe, every heartbreak, every low moment of the last seven years of my life, she was always present, and she always knew when I was suffering. She always picked up on the signs and gave me all of her affection, and in the comfort of that big cuddly teddy bear of a dog, my tears would always cease.

When I found her yesterday, it brought back memories of my starkest past moments of grief, too. When I lost my pet fish, as a child I ran shrieking through the house. At around the age of 12, I was nursing a baby goat back to health with an eye dropper in the dead of winter. It was born at the same time as another goat, and while the other one was healthy, this one was about to die. I implored my father to let me bring it to the house and try to save it. After a few days of it apparently improving, I woke up one morning to find it dead in its little bed I had made for it next to the fireplace.

When my grandmother and grandfather died when I was 10 and 11 respectively, when my great grandmother died when I was 18, and a decade ago when my friend and mentor Fay Boozman died unexpectedly-in all of these griefs, I have never been able to call forth a spec of stoicism. My feelings of sadness and despair always overtake me. When I try to fight it or ignore it, it always comes rushing back with greater vengeance.

Grief says to me “You will feel me! I will not be ignored!”

The worst of it always comes with a tightened pain in the chest, a pain worse than almost any other form of pain. When Nick left me, I remember waking up every morning with the feeling that there was a car sitting own my chest. The broken heart is not merely a metaphor — it can literally feel like your heart is broken. This despair is why it is often so tempting to go back to denial or anger or bargaining in the Kübler-Ross model of grieving. With death, though, it is much harder to do than with grief about other forms of loss.

This in some way makes death easier to bear. The grieving is more acute, more intense, but there is, in the end, no other possibility but acceptance. Life truly must go on. Life truly must be lived for the living. But that false hope of recovering that which was lost drags along the whole process unnecessarily. Indeed, those people who allow their mourning over a death to consume them are bound to destroy whatever remains of their own lives.

A few weeks ago, I was watching the latest season of the television series Shameless, starring William H. Macy. Macy’s character, Frank, is one of the more lovingly despicable characters I have ever encountered in literature. You literally hate him and care about him at the same time. It is a remarkable feat of acting, as well as writing. In this most recent season of the show, Frank, who is an alcoholic, is saved from almost certain death from liver failure by an organ donor who is later revealed to have been a teenage boy who was killed by an intruder breaking into the house. The father of the slain boy tracks Frank down and invites him to dinner, where Frank arrives to find all of the other recipients of the boy’s organs also there. The father of the boy was so consumed by the despair of his grief that he had in a sense tried to retreat into some bizarre form of bargaining whereby he was able to be with his son by being with the people who had his organs.

As this plotline progresses, we find that the father is so grief-stricken and unable to cope with his grief that he invites Frank (a middle aged, drug-using, sex-crazed, alcoholic) to live in his house, and stay in the bedroom of his dead son. We see the grave stress this has put on his marriage to the boy’s mother, who ends up having sex with Frank as a sort of revenge against the husband’s neglect.

When Scott Peck writes about “doing the work of depression,” I think he is really talking about the psycho-spiritual necessity of going through the process grieving over all of our losses, and doing so completely. It is a sort of mental house-cleaning, whereby we must let go of ideas, beliefs, or relationships that have occupied part of our consciousness because they no longer serve an active purpose, in order to make room for something else that does.

On the farm, I became viscerally acquainted with the value of pruning in horticulture. Every year my father would prune the blueberry bushes in order for new branches, new leaves, new blossoms to grow. Pruning did not merely have a one to one pay-off, but rather an exponential one. The bushes grew even more vigorously after having been pruned. So it seems to be with our psychological and spiritual growth. Grieving makes room for new growth in part by clearing away what is dead and no longer viable for active attention, but also by helping us to see how to better allocate our active attention.

When we lose something and we grieve over it, we often come to the conclusion that it had actually occupied too much of our attention, or had done so in an unhealthy way.

Reflecting on my long-term romantic relationships as well as the relationship I had with my father, and the grieving processes that occurred during the breakdown of each, I have been able to see that I had put too much emphasis on receiving the approval of others, and had sacrificed so much of myself, my own goals, my own principles, in order to receive that approval.

Except for sports, where I never had much aptitude or interest, my whole life was the source of great pride for my father. From my academic accomplishments to my successes in competitive debate, to what seemed to by my rising star in politics, and the fact that I enjoyed outdoor activities almost as much as he did, I always felt like I was exactly the son he had wanted. But this feeling also came with the feeling of a need to protect that pride, and it is undoubtedly in part because of this that I spent many years running away in denial of being gay. My subconscious spent years living in fear that my father’s approval of me was contingent, and I think I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing that being proven true.

When I could no longer hide from myself, and then could no longer hide myself from the world, I endured all of the worst things I could have imagined, actually coming true one after another, the details of which I shall not go into here. Suffice it to say, though, it was the end of the relationship with my father, and it took me a couple of years to process the anger phase of grieving over that loss.

Unlike the grief over my breakup, or the death of my dog, it was never sharp and acute, but dull and long. Like all grief, though, it just faded away with time, but it allowed me, during that time and since then, to be able to “come home to myself,” to borrow a phrase of Henri Nouwen. The pain was not something that could be healed by merely replacing the relationship. Those holes bored by grief cannot be filled. But it was pain, that having been incorporated into the totality of my experience, became a form of intelligence.

Indeed, we might even be able to accurately describe grief as a form of learning. Through deprivation, grief teaches us about what we value, about what we overvalue, about what we undervalue. By carrying it to its final end, through the acceptance of our losses, we learn that no particular loss is the end of the world, and that there is always life after loss.

This intelligence is part of what is required to escape from fear, which is the emotion that most prevents us from living in the present moment, enjoying it for all that it has to offer, and building our future in and through it. Fear steals the only time we have — the Now — by preoccupying us about an indeterminate state of affairs that will be experienced by somebody else (since you will not be the same person when the future transpires). Each successive grief should thus loosen the grip of fear until in the end, we do not even fear our own death, the loss of the continuity of embodied consciousness, and the point at which we confront the ultimate unknown.

The survival of our own grief is a form of empirical faith, for grief is in a sense a form of tempting God. For the person on the spiritual journey, grief says to God “you cannot overcome this pain, for it is too intense and it will never go away.” God rejoins this sorrow not with words, but with the slow soothing of the pain, and so gracefully reminds us that we are never alone, and no pain is too great for him to overcome. Yet there is never an “I told you so” from God.

We must provide our own reminders. Even though we should not live in our pain, or dwell on the past, there is irreplaceable value in being able to recall our griefs, in order to gird ourselves against the onset of an unending despair when we meet with loss again, as we inevitably will.

But perhaps the ultimate goal of grief should be an attempt to transcend it by understanding that our perception of loss is only the result of our inability to see everything. As finite beings, we see only in “part, in particle,” but we are connected to and have our existence in something greater, something so much greater, something truly Infinite, and such infinitude we cannot comprehend. In the Divine Accounting, a loss here is a gain somewhere that we merely cannot, in our mortal incarnations, see the double entry.

Thus grief, like perhaps all other human sentiments, should resolve itself, with sufficient contemplation and reflection, into awe, in which we can live and breath the very essence of our own hidden infinitude and our connection to all of time and space, where it is perceived in the moment of an eternal present and all of our losses are recovered.