To Shania and Lara, forever in my heart.
It has taken me a long time to be able to think about, much less write about the day that JJ died. But today, I felt ready. I wish at the start that someone had taken my hand, and explained all this to me; why death and loss are so difficult to bear. I hope that my story helps you travel through this very difficult time of your life.
Last month, on April 6th, was the 1st year anniversary of my Husky dog’s death. Lara (aka JJ) was a wonderful dog and I have many stories of our life together. Our adventures, our joys, our sorrows, our secrets, and much, much more. Most stories about pet loss are about the life of our beloved pets, and they end on the day of death. I have chosen to write this story a bit differently. This story starts on the day that JJ died, and is more about the reality I had to face after.
The day JJ died was extremely traumatic for me. It came on suddenly. Her death brought me face to face with my deepest fears – loss of control, uncertainty, and the unknown. I had my first panic attack on that first night. I had never before experienced anything of such intensity. I couldn’t sleep at all, and couldn’t stop thinking about JJ.
As the days progressed, my insomnia worsened, my anxiety worsened, and I started to develop other symptoms including digestive issues, nausea, fatigue, mood swings, and more. Each day, I felt more hopeless than the day before, and I often wanted to jump out of my skin and escape. This was all very scary and unexpected, more so because it seemed like nobody else had experiences like this for loss, much less the loss of a dog or pet.
I started doing a lot of research on the net and the more I searched, the more fearful I became. Suddenly, it seemed like I could have all of these different illnesses. My condition worsened until I ended up spending most of my time in bed, and being “sensitive” to most foods. Food, sounds, shows, books, almost everything would trigger me, and I was in a constant state of stress. I visited even more doctors, did many tests, and felt even more anxious than ever. Nothing seemed to help.
At the beginning of this year, I decided to take control of my life again. I started by reconstructing my diet from scratch and built a balanced meal plan with lots of veggies. I was hooked on the Cronometer App while doing this. Then, I visited with a specialist who focused on complex diseases. Based on my talks with her, I tried out the Gupta program and also RTT, which as best I can understand, is regression therapy using hypnosis. EMDR is another more open ended type of regression therapy. After my RTT session, which brought up some trauma episodes from childhood, I started reading many books. The following are some of the key stages of my journey towards greater peace.
Emotions Are NOT an Illness
One of the most helpful books that started me on my journey is The Tao of Fully Feeling: Harvesting Forgiveness out of Blame by Pete Walker. This book made me realize that happiness alone is not a “normal” state of being. In fact, all emotions are a normal part of life. Emotions, including fear and depression are NOT mental illnesses. They only grew and became a problem for me because I was spending so much energy resisting and rejecting them.
In this area, the doctors, many books on anxiety, and my own online research worsened the situation because they all reinforced the thinking that feeling anxiety or depression means that there is something wrong with me. I need to take some pills or otherwise fix these emotions.
Every time I visited with my GP she would ask me to fill out an anxiety form, where I had to say how many panic attacks I had, and rate various anxiety measures on a scale of 1-5. Each chapter in many anxiety books had those same surveys, as did the RTT session that I did. Such forms only increased my anxiety. My GP would then suggest that I visit with many other specialists, who would run a series of tests, and their ultimate prescription would be to go see more specialists and run more tests. This did not help with my anxiety.
What did help was the realization that all emotions are normal, even the “negative” ones, especially after a traumatic event such as the death of a loved one. There is no timetable to healing, and in the dark night of my soul, I gave myself the permission to feel.
I lost my love, and my heart is broken.
I feel fear, I feel depressed,
I feel confused, overwhelmed, hopeless, and lost.
I cry, I weep, I sit, I run,
I stand, I dance, I sing, I shout,
When will my heart mend? When will this pass?
Facing My Suffering
There are two kinds of suffering. There is the suffering you run away from, which follows you everywhere. And there is the suffering you face directly, and so become free.
Some of the books that offered me the most solace in my dark time were the ones by Jack Kornfield. I especially enjoyed The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology and Guided Meditations for Difficult Times: A Lamp in the Darkness.
Jack Kornfield presents the RAIN method for dealing with emotions. Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, and Non-identification. In Marc Brackett’s book, Permission to Feel, he presents the RULER method, which stands for Recognition, Understanding, Labelling, Expression, and Regulation.
Both frameworks share some common and powerful tools for dealing with emotions.
Awareness of our emotions is the first step. If we are not aware of our feelings, then we can only react to them automatically. However, by recognizing them, we can take the first steps toward understanding and responding in a way that is positive to our well-being or that reduces unnecessary suffering. For example, a big and constant emotion for me was anxiety or fear. Before awareness, I always felt this constant feeling of dread and spent all my time avoiding more and more triggers until I ended up in bed most of the time. Even then, I could not avoid my thoughts or my painful memories, so the fear just kept growing.
A powerful way to achieve awareness is through mindfulness training or meditation. I liked Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. However, there are many other books on mindfulness training as well as youtube videos, so pick one that most resonates with you.
Mindfulness trains us to shift our awareness, to recognize our emotions in a calmer state of mind, and to be in the moment to experience them. With mindfulness I was able to get a better handle on what fear feels like.
What is fear? To me, fear makes me feel restless, makes me want to run away and do something else, makes my heart race, makes it difficult to breathe (tightness in chest, shortness of breath), makes my stomach unhappy.
For me, this step is about experiencing the emotion, naming it (labelling), accepting that this is indeed how I feel, and realizing that it is totally OK to feel this way. For example, the memory of JJ’s last day always brought up intense feelings of fear. In the past, I would try to avoid thinking about that day by watching movies, listening to music, or otherwise distracting myself. This only worked in the very short term. Avoiding fear only made me feel more fearful, become more hyper-sensitive, and start reacting to more triggers. Avoiding fear narrowed my focus, and significantly narrowed my life, until I was hardly living.
The best way I found, of dealing with my fear, is to feel her, invite her into my heart, stay with her, make her into a friend, and get so comfortable with her that she becomes a valued companion. Fear is an emotion, she is one of my emotions, she is a message from me to me, she is a part of me, and she is trying to warn me of something so that I can survive. She and I are one, and loving her helps me love and accept myself – warts, fears, guilt, shame, depression, and all.
Accepting all of my emotions, learning to love every part of me, especially the parts that hurt, helped significantly in my journey of recovery. In both Western and Eastern psychology, self-love is a key part of healing.
Fear is NOT some inner monster that is out to get me. When I thought of fear as a monster, she became a threat, which made me fear her all the more. Rejecting parts of our emotions, parts of our body, parts of our thoughts and memories, rejects our oneness or wholeness. This compromises our ability to truly develop self-love and to avoid unnecessary suffering.
For better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
I pledge to all of me, my faithfulness.
I am on MY side no matter what, in failure, in sickness, in pain, in old-age, in fear and in depression. No more rejecting parts of myself that are considered unacceptable by my parents or society. This message is what I love most about Disney’s Frozen.
Once I am able to stay with my fear, I can start investigating exactly what it is that I actually fear. Is it a thought, a memory, an emotion, a person, a place, or a thing. Why do I fear it?
I have been running away from fear for a big part of my life, so there were many things that I feared. I feared memories of childhood, I feared my mother, I feared displeasing my father, I feared getting ill, I feared thinking about the day that JJ died, I feared being tired, I feared being sad, I feared fear. At first, dealing with all these fears seemed like a daunting task, and I had a day of fear just sitting with that thought.
However, I realized that I do not need to do all of it at once. Indeed, there is no time limit for dealing with my fears. At the start, I visualized fear as different Pokemon creatures. It was exciting to go hunting for each Pokemon and capture her into my magic ball. Each time I bested one, I got better at hunting and capturing. The more encounters I had with fear, the less intense she became. The more practice I got, the better my skill and tolerance level.
Every day, I would focus on one or more fear triggers. When fear arose, I would lean into her, invite her in, and start talking to her. I visualized her as a cute devil girl. What do you fear? Why do you fear? Sometimes, the fear is of something that is inaccurate or untrue. In this case, thought replacement is a good way of dealing with it. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy provides a good framework for thought replacement and thought stopping. I like the book Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks: A Workbook for Managing Depression and Anxiety by Seth J. Gillihan PhD.
Some troubling thoughts however, are true. In this case, accepting the thought and its attendant emotion(s) becomes a better strategy. More about this later.
God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
the courage to change the things we can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Talking and journaling about my emotions have also been very helpful. So far, I have filled up four journals and am quickly filling up a fifth. I write about what I’m feeling, thinking, and what moves me in a book or show.
Books on loss and grief often talk about writing letters to our departed loved ones, and I have tried that too. Early on, I followed the The Grief Recovery Handbook, which has a very structured way of letter writing. In some ways, the structure was helpful, because it provides concrete steps for how to approach processing some of the memories and emotions related to my loved ones. However, it can also limit the amount and depth of processing done.
Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief proposes a more open form of writing and expression. At the moment, I prefer a freer style in my journaling. I also talk about my emotions and thoughts with my partner and some friends. Talk therapy is another possibility, but it can be difficult to find a therapist that suits.
As I understand it, using language to describe our emotional experience can help engage the logical part of our brains, which can help to calm us down and balance our emotions. I find myself being a lot more emotionally authentic after writing or talking about my emotions. I no longer try to hide my negative emotions, and open expression helps me to accept all of my feelings as a normal part of my life. Emotional expression can also help with releasing some of the emotions’ internal energy, thereby giving us some relief.
Art, song, and dance, can also help.
In the regulation section of his book, Marc Brackett talks about 5 types of emotional regulation. I have briefly discussed mindfulness, CBT, and distraction in the sections above, so in this section I am going to focus mostly on non-identification or the meta-level. Please refer to Marc’s book for a fuller treatment.
Often times, we take our thoughts and emotions very personally. As a result, we can easily get entangled in them and get swept away by our intense feelings. This is when we automatically react, rather than stopping and taking the time to respond in a balanced and productive way.
Non-Identification or the meta-moment is just that: stepping outside of time and taking a breather; creating some space around our strong emotions, so that we may calm down and figure out a positive response. Using mindfulness and shifting our awareness to our breath is often a good way to start. Some people also suggest using counting or repeated phrases to shift our mind. Once we are able to do this, we can connect to our higher-self or higher consciousness. Some people may visualize a shining figure, a loved one, Nature, a respected leader, or spiritual entity.
Talking to ourselves in the third person or talking to a different part of ourselves can further help with non-identification. We can then ask for advice and help from our higher-selves. With practice, this type of visualization can be quite helpful in popping us out of entanglement, and providing a buffer for our intense emotions.
Depression – What, Why, How?
After sitting with my fear for a while, I find that underneath all of that fear is the feeling of depression. What is depression? For me, depression is more than just sadness. It usually starts with tiredness, then becomes sadness combined with hopelessness or despair. My body, especially my stomach feels heavy, sometimes I also get abdominal pain, gas, nausea, or a headache. I get unmotivated to do anything, and my thoughts decidedly take a very dark turn.
The core of my depression is linked to the loss of my two dogs and also to my primary life coping mechanism, which is striving and control. I have always been a very goal directed person, and in the past, identifying goals and putting my all towards them have served me well. I believed that if I truly desired something, I could get it through striving and control.
Unfortunately for me, there are many things in life that are not in my control. When Shania and later JJ died, my life changed very suddenly. Previously, I would wake up every morning and look forward to the day ahead with Shania and JJ. Now, that was all gone. The feelings of happiness, contentment, and peace were all gone. My old life was over and no amount of striving or control would help me get it back. There was absolutely nothing I could do to bring Shania or JJ back to life and reclaim what I lost. There was no way to fix things. This fact lies at the heart of my hopelessness and depression.
Many people say that time heals all wounds. In my case, I was stuck in the anger/bargaining stage because I did not know how to properly process my emotions. I followed many different diet plans thinking that this diet will help me return to normal, I went to see many specialists thinking that this doctor will help me get back to normal, I took supplements and medication thinking that they will help me return to normal, I tried many many things to get back to normal. That was what I told all the doctors, specialists, therapists, and anyone that I met – “I want to get back to normal.” Returning to normal meant getting my old life back. Sadly, that was impossible. No diet plan could do that, no medication could do that, and nobody could magically bring back what was lost. It was gone, finished, and there was nothing more that could be done.
Until I realized this, and started to accept it, I could not move on.
I am now living in a new normal, where I often feel intense emotions, including fear, depression, and confusion. I have developed digestive issues as a result of this, which can be uncomfortable. When talking to my neighbor about this, he said that depression is really difficult because we do not know how long it will take to go away. He is absolutely right. I am depressed about losing my old life, but I am also depressed about my new life. This is the dark night of my soul.
How long will it last? How do I find the light at the end of the tunnel?
I could grit my teeth, soldier on, take it one day at a time, and hopefully find the light after enough soldiering. Alternatively, I could follow Jack Kornfield’s teachings and learn how to let go of the light at the end of the tunnel. Instead, I learn how to dance beautifully in the darkness, and in doing so, I may find that the light was within me all along.
Acceptance or dancing in the darkness is easy to say but difficult to do. It means letting things go or letting things be as they are, and being totally ok or comfortable with that. As with fear, I need to invite depression in, sit with her, talk to her, be comfortable with the physical symptoms, and make her into my friend and confidant. This need not happen all at once. Each day, I do a little bit, and then a little bit more. As with fear, it is most difficult in the beginning, and it slowly gets a little easier each time I try. When I feel depression coming on, I lean into her, start thinking more about Shania and JJ, listen and sing our special songs, and cry. Crying may help with self-soothing, and may release stress and pain.
I am still a work in progress, but I am starting to feel better and I like the changes that I am making. Part of healing is learning how to love being myself again. In life, Shania and JJ taught me a lot and gave me much love and happiness. In death, they continue to teach me and help me improve myself, my relationships, and my life. I am still full of sorrow, but I am also grateful to have shared many years with them. I will have them in my heart always.
When love turns to loss,
When joy turns to sorrow,
When courage turns to fear,
When contentment turns to turmoil,
When hope turns to despair.
What is one without the other?
Both are within me,
the broken and the whole,
This is life, and I want to live it.