Growth and Grief: the Challenge of Being Present

I’ve been struggling with the loss of my beloved dog Ike these past few months.  I really thought my mindfulness journey and everything I’ve learned up to this point would have helped me put his loss “in perspective”.  Because I’m a daily meditator, I am much more equipped to handle adversity, loss, grief, and frustration.  Right?  I approach life from my prefrontal cortex, my evolved brain, and not my monkey brain.  I am buoyant, right?  I can tease out fiction from fact in my spinning thoughts.  Right?  I can weather the storm without sinking.  My wake-up call was the fact that grief blew my way, way off course.  I was in completely uncharted territory; foreign, frightening, and painful.  To run with the sailing analogy…I realize how far I have come, and how far I still have to go. The journey of losing Ike has just begun.

But by starting to cultivate a resilient spirit, I have planted a seed, a kernel of hope for my future heartbreaks.  Come what may, I will try to use the practice of R.A.I.N. to sort through pain and grow through trauma.   I will try to open myself up to even painful experiences (Recognize)…I will experience the pain/grief/guilt/loneliness that comes (Allow)…I will gently explore my tender feelings of blame and self-reproach (Investigate)… and I will take exquisite care of the person who is revealed after such pain subsides (Nurture).

Ike passed away on Sunday, April 7th, in a heartbreaking turn of events. After having a very good second vet correctly diagnose him with a huge tumor on his spleen that Saturday morning, he succumbed to his aggressive tumor so fast we had to call a vet service for an emergency visit to our house on Sunday night.  And then he was gone.

No more plans of he and my husband lounging on the couch.  No more plans of our little family taking road trips; no more furry baby sleeping on our pillows; no more loving brown eyes, toenail clippings, sunbeam snoozes, no more lap dog, no more constant companion.

The image of my husband digging a hole in the pouring rain before the vet came still haunts me.  He didn’t want Ike cremated; he said he wanted him to never leave our home.  So we wrapped Ike like the happy warrior he was (“like a Viking”, Fred said), in his leopard-print Snuggy, with his collar and the ill-fitting blue sweater I knitted him this past winter.  And then he was gone.

If you know me, you know how much I loved that dog.  I don’t have children, and I have had dogs my entire adult life.  I’ve loved them all dearly, and can remember each one with such strong emotions of devotion and companionship (Lucy, Paul, Ella, Tobi…)  Ike was my baby; we rescued each other 6 months after my dad and Ella (my Chesapeake Bay Retriever) both died in October, 2010.  A terribly bad year gave way to the promise of wonderful times ahead with this adorable, spunky, completely loving new little Chihuahua named Ike.  We were family.  He came to work with me as many days as possible.  He helped me take breathers during my day; he reminded me of what really mattered; he was my meditation anchor during morning walks.  My boyfriend (now husband) started to call him his “son”.  He was a joy, a constant, an adoring addition to our world.  I have over 400 pictures of him on my phone, mostly of him sleeping in compromising positions that made me laugh (you know the ones).  He changed other people’s lives, too!  He loved EVERYONE.  He was the goodwill ambassador to the universe.  My little bodhisattva.  And then, he was gone.

There are three distilled options we have when faced with triggers, stimulus, stress, positive or negative emotions, grief and/or trauma. These were my choices when faced with a life without Ike.

  1. Resist
  2. Give in
  3. Investigate

Option 1: resist.  Resisting emotions, grief or trauma only intensifies the ongoing struggle; our emotions become larger-than-life, our grief sits under a magnifying glass. The resistance does harmful damage to our well-being.  The pain of trying to block the turmoil is greater than the gain…there is no gain.  There literally is no positive aspect of trying to white-knuckle your way out of grief.  And trying to ignore it just made me feel like a callous asshole.  Not possible.  Let me clarify; it’s possible for me to be a callous asshole, but not to resist grieving for Ike.  He was gone, and I couldn’t resist my feelings of desolation.

Option 2: give in.  Succumbing to pain and grief feels pretty good for a while.  To satisfy the urge to sink, to hide your eyes from the light, to indulge in self-pity, let helplessness and a bit of despair take over.  This is mourning, defined.  I sat in this state consistently for the better part of a month, not remembering that there was Option 3.  Like I said, grief blew me so far off course that I forgot, temporarily, that I had alternatives, opportunities for growth in this raw, rich territory.  I spent so much time lying in the bark dust of our back yard on top of Ike’s grave that I started to become the first 20 minutes of a bad Hallmark special.  I had (and thankfully, resisted) the urge to dig him back up, just so I could hold him one last time.  I was also giving in to my urge to numb the pain.  I gave in to a lot of big, big glasses of red wine at night.  Just one a night, but I was making it count (and it’s still counting on my muffin top…stupid alcohol).  This type of pain is attractive to the monkey brain…it feels like flight, fight and freeze all at once.  I was paralyzed; I had forgotten how to tread water, how to open my eyes and look forward.  Giving in to the loss was necessary for a while; I will always cut myself slack on that one.  I’m still profoundly sad; that sadness came largely from an overwhelming blanket of guilt borne from helplessness.  At one point, I turned the light toward that feeling.  I needed to reconcile my pain with its origin.

Option 3: investigate.  I have slowly started to unpack the most stinging emotion I felt after Ike passed away…guilt.  Guilt looked like this (incessantly, constantly) in my head: “Why didn’t I know something was wrong sooner?  Why didn’t I question the vet?  Why didn’t I get a second opinion in January, not April?  How could I let this happen to my little guy?”  All under the assumption that the conclusion would have been different, Ike would be here now, and I prevented a positive outcome with my complacency.  The horror and the hurt of guilt has been ceaseless, until I started investigating it.  As I realize I have the option to investigate (why do we always stick the best option at the end, anyway?), I have allowed my guilt to sit there, in me, and poke away.  I didn’t engage it, I didn’t negotiate with it, I let it bounce around until its “truth” became a little less solid.  Its grip has lessened, because facts (not emotions) started to emerge.  I have started noticing my urge to beat myself up, to react with self-contempt.  I have started to watch myself feel, but not immediately react.  I have started to watch myself think, but not immediately react.  I notice, recognize, allow the urge to blame myself come into my vision, and then I start paying attention to the truth.

“What is true?”  I started to ask myself.

I’m not a veterinarian.  I have no idea how to diagnose a dog with cancer.

“What else is true?”

I put my faith in someone with expertise, just as I had with every other beloved dog companion I have loved and lost.  It wasn’t his fault.

“What else is true?”

Ike was dying in November.  He only had symptoms about 2 months before he died.  He acted completely normal (snuggling, running, playing, pooping like a champ).  You would have never caught this, he was too far into his cancer journey to have surgery.

“What else is true?”

Every moment of Ike’s life with me (and eventually, with us as a family) was filled with love, snuggles, peace, joy, happiness, companionship, good food, good walks, good poops, spending time outside walking, spending time inside spooning, so many good times…almost all good times, until the very end.

“What else?”

Ike had pain meds on board when the vet came.  He was comfortable until the end.  You made the best decision for Ike’s well-being and comfort at the time, with the information you had.  There was nothing else you could have done as Ike’s mom and protector.

Letting myself off the hook is my first step to becoming buoyant again.

I’ve found over the months that asking myself “What is true?” in the many scenarios where my emotions are trying to get the best of me is a great grounding question.  It distills my thoughts into investigation mode.  “What really IS true?” I ask myself…and almost all of the time, my thoughts are revealed to be only emotions, not facts. And to recognize that is truly healing, in a way.

Mindfulness is tough shit sometimes.   I hope showing you a tiny snip of my messy, sloppy journey into grief can encourage you, in the very least, to cut yourself some slack when life gets real.  What really is true?

It’s taken me almost a month to write this, and I am encouraged that the healing will continue.  There is no forgetting that little dog.  If you met him, you know how unforgettable he was.  R.I.P. Ike Kellogg. You will be forever loved and forever missed.

Mindful article on loss:


Jason Stephenson’s meditation on loss: