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What I’ve Learned About Grief Through the Death of My Pet(s)

(Written May 1, 2016 – Posted February 9, 2017)

Two days ago, I made the difficult decision that it was time to say goodbye to Blueberry (AKA Budda-Bear), my pet budgie of 14 years.  He was a buddy to my other budgie, Emi, for 12 of those years and Emi’s 2nd partner.  Emi’s 14 years old now, too… 62 budgie years according to one website.  My paternal grandfather passed away the spring we brought Emi home.  My father passed away two years later.  He was also 62.

62 is very young for a man but pretty old for a little bird.  Kidney cancer took my dad.  Kidney failure took little blue.  Today is May 1; old age and complications of Parkinson’s took my paternal grandfather 14 years ago today.  I will forever remember this anniversary, not because I’m good about that, I’m actually pretty terrible about that, but one year after grandpa’s passing, my then 9 year old Dannica came to me before school that morning and asked, “Didn’t great-grandpa pass away a year ago today?”  I really wasn’t sure.  I said so and she told me that he did and that he was sitting in the chair in the corner of the living room waving at her to remind her of that…to remind me of that.

Now, May 1st 2016, I remember that incident and I think of my Dannica, with her great grandpa, perhaps both waving at me from the chair in the corner of the living room even though I’ve lost the ability to see it for myself.  I believe she saw it… I believe they’re there.

My mind is always looking for meaning in the numbers, for patterns, for messages, for answers.  I imagine if I could somehow graph all the significant numbers I notice day to day, they might look like a sacred geometrical flower of life or an infinity symbol, the repetition of birth, life, death, and over and over and over again… maybe it would look like the Golden Ratio present in all life, like the branches of a tree, or a nautilus shell… maybe my life with all its numeric mysteries looks like that too.  If it does, I’d say all is in order even as I feel chaos, and living continues to hurt more than I’d like.

The veterinarian told me Emi would grieve Bluberry’s passing.  I didn’t know what that might look like.  As I made the 30 minute drive home from her office, Budda birdie’s fluffy little body finally at peace and bundled gently in a box, I wondered how to break the news to Emi.  I dreaded hearing his calls not being answered, watching him search for his friend, seeing him sitting there all alone puffed up and sad.  Suddenly, comforting the living was more difficult than saying goodbye to the dying.

I know this feeling well as it’s been a constant companion since my Dannica passed 3-1/2 years ago.  Her brother felt and continues to feel her absence in ways I can only imagine.  I know what it feels like to have lost my daughter, my dad, my grandpa, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, clients, a true love, other pets… I don’t know what it feels like to have lost someone as close to my heart as a sister or my best friend.

Carrying the empty cage and the little box, I sat down next to Emi’s cage and I opened the door.  I gently lifted lifeless birdie so he could see.  I saw recognition in Emi’s wide, scared eyes.  He looked from Blueberry’s body to my face and back and forth and back again.  All I could do is cry and hope he understood.  I just kept saying, “I don’t know what to do,” and I didn’t.

I lit a candle and placed the little box near a photo of my daughter and asked her to take good care of him.  I know she will.  She loved animals more than anyone I’ve ever known and they loved her.  I dug a little grave under the apple tree where Dannica’s ashes are and put the little box in it, covered it over, sat there in the rain reminding myself that Budda Bear isn’t there, in that ground, any more than Dannica is there.  He’s in my heart and he’s in Emi’s.  He’s in the house, in the trees, like Dannica, he’s in the light.

When I came back in, I swept the floor near the cage.  I don’t know why I did that but I remembered doing the same thing close in time to my Daughter’s passing and other loved one’s passings; sweeping the kitchen floor, sobbing, and sweeping, folding laundry.  It’s what the body does when the heart and mind shut down.  It doesn’t know what else to do so it does what can be done mindlessly.

Chicken soup comforts so I started chopping vegetables.  I stopped and walked back to the cage to whisper to Emi, cry a little more.  He puffed up and sat on his perch and didn’t move for the longest time.  I went back to cutting vegetables and it occurred to me that Blue had been alpha bird.  Emi would need me to initiate things, like eating, that he didn’t usually do first on his own.  I grabbed a handful of chopped carrots and sat next to him eating them one at a time.  He watched intently and then jumped down and started eating.  That’s what hope looks like.

That first night, I couldn’t bear to leave him so I slept on the couch near his cage.  He was restless for a while; hopping from perch to perch, finally settling.  He cried.  Yes, parakeets cry.  Morning brought panic and I remembered my own disorientation upon waking following Dannica’s death.  Peace crumbling into reality as I fell out of bed each morning wondering why it was even necessary to do that much.  When I gently lifted the blanket from the cage, Emi was sleeked with fear, wide eyed, and looking anxiously for his friend.  I spoke to him softly but he clung to the side of the cage, little beak hooked over one of the bars, supporting his weight, just looking to where Blueberry used to be…incredulous birdy.

I decided it was a good idea to move the cage so he had a new view through the sliding glass door to the back yard.  The sunlight was lovely, dew sparkling on the leaves of the apple tree under which his buddy-bird now rested.  I sat with him, wishing I could say or do something comforting.  I said lots of things, but he only speaks budgie so I continued to sit.  I watched him watch the world outside; a world he’d never seen, one that no longer includes his blue friend.  Even if I spoke budgie, is any answer a good enough answer to “Why?”

After a time, Emi moved toward the side of the cage closest to me and started making happy budgie noises but then hooked himself, again, in the lookout position. Eventually, he returned to me on the other side of the cage and then to the perch allowing him to look out into the sunlit world again.

He sat there, looking out the window for the longest time, not preening, not sleeping, just sitting, just looking.  I remember the first days following Dannica’s passing, how I sat on the couch, looking out into that world, watching the sun rise, watching the light shift over the trees, the grass, the day go by, the sun light fade and the stars come out and I hadn’t moved.  Grief brings with it, in the beginning, the capacity to be still.  The only force acting upon me was the gravity that held me in place.  I saw the same in Emi, his little beak hooked over the bar of the cage… gravity… Mother Earth just holding him as she held me, as she holds the apple tree and the body of Little Blue Bird and the ashes of my Daughter.

Emi and I, we’ve spent time sitting, searching, watching, crying, each whispering little happy noises to each other in our own languages, becoming quiet once more.  Napping together.  Feeling sad together.  The most peaceful moments are the ones in which we simply sit together in silence and watch the world go on. Silence needn’t be awkward.  The power of simply sitting, fully present, with another being who is grieving can be profound and more healing than anything.

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Sadly, Emi developed the same painful condition Blueberry had and I let him go exactly one month after Blueberry.  He’s now also under the apple tree.  His favorite toys are hanging from the branches, little mirrors and bells.  Happy they’re together and with Dannica.  Happy they touched my life.

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Dear Me

Dear Past Me,

People don’t know you now. Don’t blame them. They’ve lost the “you” they knew and they are grieving that loss. It can be a little scary to meet new people. And, believe me, you are new.  It can be a little scary to meet new people, especially when you don’t want to; you didn’t exactly sign up for this particular opportunity. The people who seem to have turned their backs are now new to you, as well.

Many can’t cope with the depth of your pain because they haven’t felt it. If they have come close, maybe they can’t be there for you because they’re working with their own pain and wondering where everyone in their own world went.

You comfort those who don’t know what to say. That’s part of the unspoken job description of grieving. You’re letting others know that you actually are okay even when nothing feels okay. That’s okay. No one is obligated to actually be okay.

People are afraid to cry. People are afraid they’ll make you cry. If they talk to you about your loss and your grief they’ll feel it and that makes them so uncomfortable they’ll avoid it. The only way to avoid feeling anything is to avoid you. That isn’t about you. It isn’t about you at all.

Once your grief softens, once enough healing has happened that you can, once in a while, speak of your loved one without tears or, perhaps with tears of joy, with laughter, with gratitude, it’s easier for people to meet you where you are because it’s closer to where they are and where they remember you being. Your strength will build until you’re ready to meet people again, where they are.

Moving through grief and into mourning, which lasts a lifetime, is an incredibly lonely journey. You’d like to think you’ll really be there for someone else when they need you to be but the truth is, you won’t be because you are learning to live again and it’s taking all you’ve got in you. When it’s your turn to be there for someone, to comfort them, you’ll feel helpless, too. You won’t know what to say and what you do say will feel trite or heartless because you’ll think you know what they feel but you don’t. No one can know what can’t be known. Every loss, every grief, every journey on every path is unlike any other.

It’s not true that they were never friends anyway. Of course they were friends! They’re still friends in that they still care about you. People generally care about other people, don’t they? When you lost your loved one, you also lost the relationships the two of you had with others. It is loss upon loss upon loss. They were good times; there are gifts that won’t go away. Now there are spaces for new connections. The hardest work is allowing them in. The hardest work is looking outside yourself again.

You’ll think you can’t possibly feel any more alone or lonely than you do. You’ll wish that you could die. You’ll think, sometimes, it wouldn’t matter if you did. You’ll think no one would even notice and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t miss you; not this sad, angry, negative, hopeless, worthless being you think you’ve become. You’ll exist within a slow suicide. What you won’t be able to see is just how much you are loved by people you never even realized gave you a second thought; people who, despite their fear of your loss and your grief, never actually stopped thinking of you. How could you have known? You couldn’t have. That is why I’m telling you now not to give up on yourself. You can’t hear me. I know because I remember being you. But maybe somehow, because of you, I’ll be able to hear you now; and from now on.

It hasn’t felt like it to you, but you have been working so hard. You have a heart which slammed shut and erected an impenetrable wall around itself you weren’t even aware of. You still felt everything, profoundly, but you felt it alone. You could look out but no one could really see in even when you thought they could… or should, not even when you thought you were letting them in. What I want you to know is that it was important that it happened this way. It was essential that you go so far inside yourself you lost the entire world and everything in it including everything you ever thought you were or wanted to be and everything you thought was yours.

There will come a day, I promise you, though you can’t begin to imagine it, your heart will again be touchable and touched. The wall will come down. And when you step out again into the light of this reality, you will glow and your wings will be sparkling and radiant.

Remember, healing happens in the spaces of new connections.

Spaces are usually silent.

With love and compassion,
Holding you until you meet me where I am.

Future Me

A Different Sea-When the World Has Moved On – A Poem by Melissa Murphy

Grief softens

it shifts

it changes

it erupts

it cripples, it heals but is never healed.

It is a constant companion in all the shapes and forms and intensities it takes.

The loss takes everything

…all at once.

And anything you have left is taken up simply by continuing to breathe.

Continue to breathe.

A single breath followed by another single breath.

And continue from your side of this life, in the silence of your own breath, to embrace the one you love who died.

Continue to include that love in all that you do and you’ll begin to hear their whispers in the wind, you’ll feel their presence brush your cheek, they’ll paint magnificent gifts in the clouds just for you and for all the world to see.

For those who notice.

Many won’t.

Not until they do.

Not until their own hearts are ripped by loss, when the grief introduces them to gravity.

It will happen.  It does happen.  To everyone.

It’s just your turn to walk before them.

They haven’t abandoned you.  They haven’t turned their backs.  They have continued living their own lives as they did before yours crumbled around you and pulled them in for a time.

We don’t come together for life.

We come together and drift apart so there are spaces for new connection.

Healing begins to happen in those spaces.

The tide comes in and leaves some things struggling in the sand

What’s left when the tide returns is rejoined with the sea but it’s a new sea, not the sea that left you struggling in the sand.

—written by Melissa Murphy

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The Sweetest Phone Call…Most Precious Messages

This was an absolutely beautiful evening here where I live in Oregon.  Clouds, rain, clearing, more clouds, more rain, more clearing.  As the sun began moving down, the light changed into something magical and golden.  I’ve never been able to resist the urge to go outside and look up whenever I see that golden light, fresh, bright green leaves bathed in it, dark gray storm behind them, brilliant double rainbow above them.  I had a really nice text visit with my son.  I sent him photos of my sky and he sent me ones of his; it was amazing in Portland, too.

PortlandSky     AlbanySky

I was teaching someone how to make a cheesecake tonight.  Ultimately, it’s very little work and a lot of waiting.  Mixing, chilling, baking, more mixing, more baking, more chilling.  Tomorrow, we’ll get to eat that particular magical and golden with Nutella cream sauce drizzled over the top and fresh strawberries.

The recipe we made was for a 9 inch cheesecake but my spring-form pan is only 7 inches.  We made the full recipe and I decided to make a tiny cheesecake in a mini pie pan with what wouldn’t fit.  The graham cracker crust only went halfway up the side and I was afraid the cheesecake part would stick so I started spreading butter around the edge of the pan with my finger.  My student asked, “Don’t you have a brush for that?”  I told him I have a paint brush but it’s too big.  He told me about the one at his place that is just about finger width… and so on… and aren’t fingers just the perfect tool sometimes.  I coated the buttered edge with extra graham cracker crumbs and called it good.

Paintbrush

Between the work, during the waiting, I sat next to the cage where my sixteen year old parakeet, Emi, lives.  We recently lost his partner of 14 years.  He needs a lot of attention from me now so I do a lot of things sitting next to him, talking to him, listening to music together, Sudoku.  He’s survived a few close calls in his life; with nonstick cookware, midnight churro oil melting plastic utensils and a few other smoke-filled room kitchen disaster sorts of things, Fabreeze (Yes, it’s TOXIC TO BIRDS no matter what it says on the label.  It was used 2 rooms away with the door closed and put both birdies on the bottom of the cage within 24 hours).  Emi has scar tissue in his tiny lungs and so he gets a bit wheezy sometimes and makes sneezing noises; COPD for Budgies.  He’s an otherwise healthy, and mostly happy again, little and very old, bird.

As I sat with Emi tonight, it came to me that lavender might calm him, as it does us, and then maybe his breathing would be easier.  All of my lavender is blooming right now and that sky wanted me out there, too, so I grabbed my scissors and a vase and clipped a bunch.  I brought it inside to trim and put in a smaller vase with water and lavender oil to place near Emi’s cage.  While I was outside, my niece called and left a message asking me to call her, she wanted to talk to me about “some things she was experiencing.”

FlowersLotsofFlowers

I felt in the middle of things so I put off calling her right away.  The light through the window caught my attention again and I saw a rainbow being cast from outside onto the curtains behind the couch where I’ve had my most vivid dreams and onto the wall beyond them.  I felt my Dannica’s presence with me and had the thought, “She really is in the light.”  I whispered thanks to her for being with me and I told her, as I do many times every day, how much I love her, my Little Angel, my Baby Girl… and miss her hugs, her physical presence, terribly.

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The cheesecake had 15 minutes left in the oven but it was getting late and it’s later in my niece’s time zone so I put on the headset and called and continued to trim the lavender next to Emi’s space.  She answered in tears, so upset which worried me but at the same time I felt such calm…the beauty of this evening, the smell of cheesecake and lavender and loving my birdie and my Danni and my son and the sky… The Sky!

My niece proceeded to tell me of her experience of the past few hours/minutes/days.    “Just in the past 10 minutes,” she sobbed, “I’m feeling like Danni is trying to tell me something for you.  I keep smelling baking cakes, cupcakes, frosting, sprinkles, and Danni with you and remembering baking together.  Did she paint?  Paintbrush…  rainbows…  and flowers…. lots of flowers!”

What gifts!  It was like Christmas morning in my heart.  Dannica had actually spent the evening with me and found a way to let me know that almost as soon as it happened.  These experiences are becoming more and more powerful for me and less surprising which makes them more and more comforting at the deepest level possible.

Life is certainly something magical and golden.DanniMom

Closure

I used to think when people said they needed closure it meant they wanted to be done with the thing in all its forms and walk away.  That isn’t it, though, is it.

Dannica wanted to be “planted with trees.”  Simply learning of this so close in time to her passing is a miracle.  I overheard her and her brother laughing about the video game noises they wanted to make when they died.  Such laughter, such silliness… I loved being a “fly on the wall” for those wonderful interactions.  So much love between my babies, these siblings, these soul mates.

No music in the world was more beautiful than the sound of those two laughing together!

As I look back over our lives, I can see now that her soul knew.  There were so many signs she would not be with us for long.  Things said, things done, not done.  Things not done well.

Each moment since Dannica’s passing has been surreal… as time moves forward it only feels more so.  I look around me, reflect upon my daily activities and interactions and once in a while, or several times a day, remember *that night*, that moment, the horror, the incredulous split… the separation of my own spirit from form which was absolutely necessary to keep me taking one breath after another, one step, another step, constantly reminding myself that none of this is real.  Were it up to my conscious self to go on, I’d be long gone.

 

 

L.O.S.T.

I must be an optimist.  Life just hits me in the head with a bat day after day, sometimes a day or so in between but then, WHAK! another day, another bat.  I try to maintain that attitude of gratitude.  “Thank you, God, so very much for that bat to the head.”  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  And I choose to do it again, day after day after day with that glimmer of hope that it might one day feel a little different another day.

Why do I try so hard?

Why do I feel I have to?

Who actually cares?

Why does it matter?

What difference does *any* of it make?

What if I didn’t?

Who cares if I eat Goldfish crackers for dinner?

I know you’re still with me, I know you haven’t really died.  So what is the point of this exercise in pretending you have?  Why do I have to continue eating Goldfish crackers as if you never left?  Why won’t you show yourself again and eat them with me?  Show me a goldfish…

I sit on our park bench alone with the ducks.  I adore the empty sight of it each time I drive by and crave the company of *anything* sincere.  Of course, you’re there.  You’re there as much as you’re anywhere and it’s comforting as much as it can be to an earthbound human being.  My human heart will simply never get it.

My human heart will simply always bleed.

…and when I die of a broken human heart, no one will be surprised.