Understanding the Nuances of Grief
I lost my daughter Gigi two days ago. She was a non-human child but my daughter all the same. She was beautiful, clever, funny, enthusiastic, determined, and endlessly adorable.
My love and desire to see a black bear in the wild was kindly fulfilled through Gigi. Gigi looked like a baby black bear: her thick, full black coat of fur, her body shape, and her constant foraging were as close to a bear as the universe could muster for me. Schipperkes, a dog breed you don’t find very often anymore, look very much like bears.
She was our constant companion for almost 14 years, bringing love and entertainment to my husband Lou and I on a daily basis. She became the surrogate mother of our second schipperke Gogo, and for the past 4 years, the rival and sometimes friend of Benny, our rescue angel-dog.
She was a true character and had unique behaviors we have never experienced with a dog. She would growl when she was happy. She would purposely hide and try to scare you when you walked by. Sometimes she would hide and wait up to 45-minutes to scare Lou. She would play this game with strangers outside as well, much to their surprise. She would entertain herself, tossing her toy in the air, bouncing it off her nose, and then chase after it. She seemed to create fantasy scenarios in her mind and then act them out, attacking imaginary objects. She was completely self sufficient that way. Gigi would stare and smile at the ceiling in the dark, almost as if she was watching spirits or fairies we could not see. She loved getting accidentally locked in a closet and would stay there for hours until you’d finally find her, making her ecstatic.
Gigi was also a pain in the ass. She was bossy, demanding, controlling, stubborn, and self-centered. She would constantly get fixated on a desire and there was nothing that could stop her. She peed on the bed just because she wanted to. She would lick the floor compulsively. She was insatiable about eating and drinking. She never stopped her bad habit of eating poop outside. She took forever to find a spot to poop and pee when going on walks to eliminate. She barked for no reason at all. She had bad breath. She knew what you wanted her to do and she purposely did the opposite. She would snap if she felt threatened and defiantly stare if you told her to do something she didn’t want to do. She was mistrustful of others. She was always restless and had difficulty settling down or cuddling. She never had a solid night’s sleep. Most people would have never tolerated her. Despite her relentless trouble-making, she was very easy to love and forgive for all her wrong-doings.
Gigi was plagued with health problems but it never slowed her down until the past few years. She had thyroid problems, fatty tumors, strange hair loss, arthritis, digestion problems, collapsed trachea, congestive heart failure, cataracts and canine dementia. Her liver and kidneys began failing at the end of her life. The past few months her appearance was skin and bones, with only patches of her beautiful bear fur left. She had difficulty with mobility and seemed to be in pain all the time. Watching her demise was a surreal experience. It happened so fast but in retrospect it was happening all along.
In contemplating my grief, I have had some realizations. The first is about life expectancy and ignoring the inevitable. In the natural human lifespan, the first 15-20 years of life are a significant growth and development time. Then, a long stretch occurs when we thrive and have strength and stability. It appears we are the same during these 4-5 decades but the body is very slowly dying. This is the cosmic joke that fools us, because the mind tells us we are fine. During the last 15-20 years of human life, major deterioration starts occurring more rapidly to mirror the beginning of life in the opposite direction. For dogs, this same pattern occurs in shorter duration.
Our mind experiences thoughts constantly. The mind’s job is to generate thought. All of these thoughts are from the past. Mind is memory. This is why the human condition is such that we don’t realize the aging and deteriorating of our body and our loved ones because the mind is reminding us of our past impressions about ourselves and others. I found myself doing this with Gigi. I saw she was slowing down, losing hair, not playing as much, but I still experienced her as if she was in her prime. I guess I didn’t want to see it or I ignored it with the hope she would bounce back.
The three stressful patterns everyone’s mind naturally falls into are grasping, resisting, and ignoring. We desire the things we want, we resist the things we don’t want, and we ignore the rest. It is very easy to ignore aging. Now that Gigi is gone, I find myself wondering at what point she stopped crawling under the coffee table or when exactly she lost the hair around her neck. As someone who teaches mindfulness and is dedicated to focusing on the present moment each day, I feel like I really dropped the ball on this one!
Another realization from contemplating my grief is related to life being a constant learning experience. One can perceive life in the following way. Every being that comes into your life, human or non-human, is there to help you learn and to progress on your life’s journey. Picture your life as a movie or television series and in the different scenes some characters come and some characters go; some stay most of the movie and others are written off. If you were the main character, and the script was well written, you would be influenced by all these characters and your life would progress and develop.
Bringing this concept to a personal level, Gigi was in my life as a teacher. She did her work and has moved on, but what did I learn? I’ve been contemplating this question and when you start down that rabbit hole, it gets deeper and deeper. There were qualities I loved about her. The amazing kicker is that these qualities did not come from her, they came from me - she just reflected them back to me. If I mistakenly thought they came from her, then I’d really be in trouble because love and playfulness would have left my life with her death. This is not true. So what did I love about her: playfulness, alertness, sense of humor, enthusiasm, living life to the fullest. My teaching is that these qualities are important to me because I loved them in her. Since they resonate with me, I need to be aware of my tendencies in this direction and cultivate more of these in how I live my life,
The qualities that infuriated me about her were also mine, not hers. She reflected those back to me as well. When Gigi was over-indulgent, bossy, restless, and lost in her own world, my inner self recognized those traits as potentially problematic in my own character. Knowing this gives me insight for self improvement. Gigi was purely a mirror into my own self awareness. If I perceive her wonderful existence in this way, I am filled with gratitude and I have a glimpse into the parts of me I love and the parts of me I need to work on. She was the perfect teacher and a charming companion.
The rabbit hole went deeper in my contemplation of grief. What am I grieving? I don’t worry about her ... she’s fine. She is no longer suffering and had a great life with us. Some would say she is waiting for me in heaven. Some would insist she just died. Others would state she is reincarnated. She is progressing on her journey, that’s for sure, Wherever she went, the form of Gigi I knew is gone and I will not see her again. This is impermanence. This will happen with everyone I know. However, it does not have to be perceived as horrible. Shifting attention inside instead of being externalized is one answer. Looking for the permanence within, the love and peace that is always present, is the way.
I miss her presence and how she affected me. However, she was not the only one who affected me that way in my life. Nobody in anyone’s life can make that claim. So what do I miss? The familiarity. The mind loves certainty, routine, patterns. Whether positive or negative, helpful or challenging, it feels good to know what to expect. Grief is an expression of this disruption. I miss the little things, her silly habits, her endearing sounds, the smell behind her ears. I became attached to this. Grief is the primal outrage to the loss of this object of affection and attachment. Natural, yes, but based on a stressful pattern that interrupts the constant flow of life. Loss is yet another reminder to ride the wave of the present moment and see where it will go.
I miss my girl. My personal take-away from losing Gigi is to tune in to my emotional reactions in relation to others, whether positive or negative, and use these reactions to increase my self awareness. This self awareness reinforces my necessary ability to take responsibility for my emotional reactions. Far too often it is easy to blame others for the innate human tendency toward grasping, resisting or ignoring. The truth is, everything begins from within. I offer my insights as a potential method for using grief as a springboard for deepening self awareness and enhancing personal growth and development.
August 3, 2020