Making Friends with Grief

2020 has been a hard year for everyone.  With COVID, the world and our sense of normalcy were shaken.  Some of us lost loved ones to the virus.  All of us had our lives changed.  If we were lucky enough to keep our jobs, we still couldn’t go out as we normally did.  Weddings were delayed, holidays missed, goodbyes went unsaid, and hugs became a novelty.

We grieved what was lost.  Sometimes things we did not appreciate before.  Other areas of life continued on, both the pain and the joy.

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While this blog shares my personal relationship with grief this year, I write this with the thought that others grieving may find something in my words.  Hope, discovery, a sense of connection…I’m not sure, but if you’re reading this, I thank you for sharing in part of my story

As a human being walking this earth, I’ve had some experience with grief at various degrees.  Additionally, as a mental health therapist, I have had a little training in helping others experiencing grief.  I learned the well-known 5 Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) by the brilliant Elizabeth Kubler Ross and then watched the videos of Martin Prechtel’s speech, Grief and Praise.  If you haven’t yet seen those videos, I highly suggest you do.  In short, Prechtel’s belief is that on the other side of grief is gratitude. It is only if we’ve experienced love or joy that we experience the deep sadness of having lost someone or something.  Or, better said in the words of David Kessler (Kubler’s protege) “You don’t have to experience grief, but you can only avoid it by avoiding love. Love and grief are inextricably intertwined.”  In hindsight, we count our blessings and find gratitude for our sorrow.

On a rational level, Martin’s speech was easy for me to accept and understand.  Of course, the challenge is always putting theory into practice.  In 2020, there was no escaping hardship and loss, with my only choice being going through.  But could I find light in the dark, the rainbow after the storm, and thanks through my tears?

During spring and early summer, I shared many of the same fears and sorrows as most of my friends and acquaintances.  Financially, I was worried. I had two part-time, self-employed jobs, both threatened by instability.  At Easter time, I was sad that I couldn’t go see my family in Ohio, where both my mom and older sister, Amanda, were battling cancer.  In June, I felt the absence of my dad’s yearly trip to Colorado to visit me, my twin sister, and his grand-dog. Then in August, while camping in the mountains, I got the call that the doctors could do no more for my older sister.  

Personal Grief

Just a few days after getting “the call”, me, my twin sister (Sandi) and my dog (Pacer) were packed up and headed to Ohio.  We had 3 precious and sacred weeks with Amanda before she passed on September 3rd.

I remember waking up the morning after Amanda passed.  I had gone to sleep in the same bed as Sandi and my dog, like we had with Amanda when we were little, waiting for Santa or the Easter Bunny to come.  We opened our eyes at nearly the same time, and in seconds our tears were spilling onto the pillows.  Sandi opened the bedroom door so Pacer could sit with my dad at the kitchen table downstairs.  Then she laid back down and held my hand, neither of us ready to get up and face the reality of what we had lost.  

And while I shared this grief with family, it was sharp, acute, a knife slicing through my heart.  An intimate relationship had been severed. My older sister, in physical form, was no longer on the earth to walk through life’s challenges with me.  

Weeks and months later, the grief still comes in waves.  Within a moment, it feels like my breath has been taken away.  Being a therapist, I know my only option is to feel it or let it build and consume me later.  Sometimes that’s all it is, a moment of intense pain before it passes. At other times, the tide moves back slower.  I need time to let the tears fall in order to let the pain pass.

Collective Grief

In fall, I return back home in Colorado to smoke.  First from one fire, then suddenly, from several.  Neighbors down the canyon are losing their homes.  In town, we all had our bags packed.  Then it was our turn to go, as the East Troublesome Fire roars over the Continental Divide and burns through Rocky Mountain National Park.  

In the mornings, I would hop online, checking to see if the fire consumed homes and businesses of friends in my community.  I breathed sighs of relief for my neighbors and said prayers for those in nearby towns who had not been so lucky.

Again, I’m filled with sadness, though this time it is a collective grief. It’s not as sharp, but I feel its heaviness.  I share the fear and pain of my neighbors, my fellow mountain-dwellers. While I am feeling more than just my own emotions, there is some comfort knowing that I’m sharing these feelings with hundreds of others.

More Grief

I broke up with a boyfriend in June.  Without getting into the details, I’ll simply say it was rather abrupt and many strings were left loose.  By the middle of fall, I was in a more reflective state, ready to have the conversation that should have been had months earlier.  We sat down on my favorite rock outside my house, Pacer often poking with her snout to get between us.  Each of us spoke our truths, both acknowledging the how and whys our lives didn’t, and couldn’t, fit together as we continued our journeys.  Knowing the brevity of life, I decided to tell him a harder truth.  That I had loved him.  Him, ever cautious, maybe too cautious, with words told me he thought he did and still loved me too.  These are the words that ripped all my wounds back open, though I didn’t understand it at first.

I knew he meant what he said, as at the core of his being, he is love.  But I knew he didn’t love me how I wanted to be loved: fiercely, wildly, unapologetically.  I cried for what seemed like the better half of the next 24 hours.  I wanted to text Amanda, and I knew I couldn’t, so I cried more.  Slowly, as I let the waves pass, I started to see a little clearer.  I realized wounds not only from the year were re-opened, but childhood wounds, wounds from my parent’s divorce and never feeling like I was enough.  I heard the questions from voices that I thought had quenched* and healed from: “Am I loveable?”  “Am I worthy of love?”

*As a therapist, both from my own experience and those of my clients, I know these voices and stories that we thought were done with still like to pop their head up from time to time, often from new angles, just to make sure we really understood the lesson.

That evening, as I was headed back up the canyon with Pacer, the pain started to recede slightly.  Almost with my normal reserve, I was able to sing-a-long with Miley Cyrus:

“She got her hair pulled back ’cause the sweat’s drippin’ off of her face (her face)

Said it ain’t so bad if I wanna make a couple mistakes

You should know right now that I never stay put in one place

Forever and ever, no more (no more)

The midnight sky is the road I’m takin’

Head high up in the clouds

Oh

I was born to run, I don’t belong to anyone, oh no

I don’t need to be loved by you (by you)”

Pacer was resting in the back seat.  I had just seen my twin and her boyfriend.  I had talked to my dad and texted my mom.  A friend had bought me flowers.  I had all the love I needed, and I reminded myself of all things I loved about me too, coming up with another: a strong will, that will never let me settle for anything but what is right and true. Going through the pain allowed me to open back up to the love and beauty I already had in my life.

Still a little puffy-eyed.

Making Friends

Yet the heart itself cannot actually break, for its very nature is soft and open. What breaks open when we see things as they are is the protective shell of ego-identity we have built around ourselves in order to avoid feeling pain. When the heart breaks out of this shell, we feel quite raw and vulnerable. Yet this is also the beginning of feeling real compassion for ourselves and others.” -John Welwood

I’ve only lived in Estes Park for a little over two years, but even in my list of complaints, I’ve come to love the community and all the people in it. I’ve witnessed so many acts of kindness, sometimes being on the receiving end, and a neighborly love that I’ve never experienced in other places.  As for the Rocky Mountain National Park, the more I explored its mountains and lakes, the more RMNP became part of me, leaving imprints on my soul.  I nearly cried when I watched the aerial shot of the burned area, my heart weeping for the trees and the animals who called the spaces home.  

Eventually, I rode my bike down to Glen Haven, taking a closer look at the charred, black trees from the Cameron Peak Fire (the largest wildfire in the state’s history, although the East Troublesome fire wasn’t far behind when it exploded in size overnight).  “I’ve hiked that ridge.” I thought to myself.  “I know those trees.  I know what they feel like.  Now, I feel like them too.  Black and charred.” But if I know anything about Mother Nature, with time, space, and the right resources, She will heal.  And I will too.  Neither of us will be the same.  Nor would I want to be. But grow, we shall.

I miss my older sister every day.  At night, I’ll often watch a slideshow of her pictures.  I cry and smile at the same time.  So many wonderful memories!  I hear “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and “Hey, Soul Sister”, two of her favorite songs, on the radio, and I know she is watching over me.  My life would be so different if I hadn’t had her in my life.  Would I have had the courage to fly? 

My heart is open. Vulnerable.   

“I will be brave,” I think to myself. 

I write Amanda another letter.

Amanda, 

I can’t promise you much, except that I will live until I die.  

Despite the threat of wildfires and floods, I will continue to live in the mountains, 

because this is where my soul soars.  I will do my best to be a steward of the land, even if my actions seem insignificant.  I will continue to put my heart on the line, in all relationships, because life without love is not alive. So I’ll keep my armor off.  To give, to receive.  And just like I was your little ray of sunshine, I’ll do my best to be that for all other beings, even when darkness threatens to consume me.  I will scream in anger and dance in joy.  I will laugh until I cry.  I will run through pain until I reach the stars.  Amanda, for you, I will live.  

It’s almost winter now.  My grief isn’t exactly one of those friends I want to excitedly embrace once we get a COVID vaccine, but I do open up to it.  Nor do I wish pain on anyone, I just hope others allow themselves to lean into their grief when it comes.  For it will come, to any living being walking this earth who is brave enough to love.  I am also not an expert on grief.  I still haven’t found meaning in my sister’s death.  Is that even possible when someone dies so young?  What I do know is that I have some power to create meaning for myself, a choice on how I will let it define me.  And still, though I can’t explain it in words, I know that somehow, I am a better person for having faced the storm. That I am both softer and stronger.  I realize that I cannot understand the vibrancy of life unless I accept all of my emotions.  

Sandi, Pacer, and I running in October, feeling all of the pain and all of the love.

In the morning, I watch the sun’s pink light creep up the mountains. 

“Life is beautiful…even when it’s not.” -Amanda Rose Nypaver (1984-2020)

Ray A. Nypaver

Growing Up (in the) Church

Preface:  These thoughts come to me in the midst of a new, budding relationship.  Yes, there is a “new Boy” who’s been nothing but kind and thoughtful.  Still, it’s been a hesitation of mine from the start that he “identifies” as Catholic.  I know identifies is a funny thing to say in defining someone’s religious choice, but for me he’s not the Catholic I grew up with—he’s more of the John Pavlovitz type—to the point where there are times that I want to say to him, “You’re not really Catholic then.”  In my mind, to at least help me make sense of it all for now, I’ve divided it up to the Catholic Church as a business, and Catholic the religious practice.  But to back track a bit, he’s seems (and has stated) that he genuinely does not care that I identify as spiritual.  Which makes me question if I am hypocritical in my own spirituality that I do question the sustainability of our relationship because of our beliefs.  I won’t let myself completely off the hook with that thought, as I do want to make sure that I don’t deny others of the religious and spiritual freedom that I was denied growing up.  However, I do want to acknowledge the weight and heaviness of the religion classes and lectures I sat through as a kid.  I thought I had processed it all before this relationship, but it seems that the Universe is offering me a new challenge.  As a brief example (with the rest being in metaphor below)…I’ve felt the need to bring up things that I normally would not want to do so early in a relationship so the new Boy has a clear idea of what he is getting himself into.   After much stumbling on my words, I told him I had no plans to ever get married (leaving out that if I ever change my mind, I want to get married outside the confines of four walls and by a woman).  I can’t blame all of that on the Catholic Church…part of it has to do with my parents’ divorce, my young and married uncle dying before turning 30, and the narrative I created in childhood around that.  But there is the religion class where we were told that the obligation in marriage was to procreate…and while I love kids I’ve never wanted them for myself (plus, Pacer is the best little girl I could ask for!).  And the whole “two become one” thing always seemed skewed in the man’s favor.  Finally, there’s the whole patriarchal and oppression thing that surrounds most religions…but that’s been written about more eloquently by others, so I’ll end this very long preface now.

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I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe

I try to cry

But I am drowning

Cleansed, I hear them say

But from a made up sin I did not commit

My clothes are white

But then my body grows, and its back to black

I run down the street on wobbly legs

I’m screaming:

Hear me

See me

Acknowledge me

All heads turn the other way.

I am but a ghost.  A Ghost?

No, for I am a woman.

I trip and fall.

I am but a ghost with bloody knees

Is this my cross to bear?

I choose to wear only bones

To be more like a Man or further hidden,

I no longer know.

Still, without this chest

Without my life-giving blood flow

There’s less force to do the things that I am told

Like my body is only for him

And the children to come after

For that is what is required for me to become seen

If I am good

Am I good?

It is only years later that I inhabit my body again

That I realize it wants to sing, to dance

To come forth as only the feminine spirit can

So I choose to run

And run

And run

Miles, valley, rivers, and mountains later

I break free of the chains, my cross

Finally, I have found my Heaven within.

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The evening after writing this, I cam across this amazing video: Be a Lady They Said

 

 

Self-Partnered though the Holidays

Recently one of my favorite actresses*, Emma Watson, made headlines as she used the term “self-partnered” rather than single to describe her relationship status.

*Partially for her role as Hermione in Harry Potter, partially because of her activism, and partially because my family says I look like her (!).

Additionally, rapper/singer Lizzo has talked, or rather sung, about being her own soulmate.  There’s been a few haters, but more people have followed up with positive comments on this new terminology.

Truly, I love it so much that I wish I could check off “self-partnered” rather than “single” on my voter registration.  (Or rather for me and in congruence with my website name, the proper term may be dog-partnered.)

But, as Watson alluded to, it takes some work to get from single to self-partnered.

And I’m not quite there yet.

Now before all the haters say “see, I told you it wasn’t possible” let me say that I have identified with the term before.

A few years ago, after my heart was torn from a break-up with a man I was still in love with, I was living with my dog, sister, and her boyfriend in a condo we decided to all rent together to save money.  While I still mostly kept to my own, I had people I loved to briefly chat with throughout the day, often lamenting about the joys and pains of graduate school.  Speaking of grad school, I also had a small cohort/friends of other wilderness therapy students that I interacted with constantly.  For an introvert that thoroughly enjoys alone (aka, a dog and her girl) time, my life was full of social interactions and little time to do nothing, or rather, scroll through social media.  I felt content and fun-filled in my life without being in a romantic relationship.

Which brings me to the “work in progress” part now.

For one, my private counseling practice has been taking some time to get going, and my run coaching career is work-from-home, so I’m not spending a lot of time in social environments (though I am currently typing away at the library).  I live in a smallish mountain town, so finding friends is a bit of a challenge.  However, I have made a few friends recently, and that’s added a lot of joy to my life.  I also have a few core friends, though they’re spread out.  Still, our get togethers and chats are a valuable pieces of my well-being.  Additionally, my last break-up came with some small-t trauma, and I’m still processing the pain/confusion of the relationship. I have had some extra alone time lately.

The funny thing is, I rarely feeling lonely.  At this time of the season, I’m pretty happy snuggling with my dog and watching holiday movies (favorite: Elf).  And I’ve made sure to partake in my favorite holiday traditions and activities: my yearly November trip to Salida with my sister, her boyfriend, and Pacer to see “S” Mountain lit up like a Christmas tree, the tree lighting ceremony in my town, and the weird but wonderful holiday parade in the town down the canyon.  There’s been a few times I wished for a Hallmark* style romance in these situations (I’m not going to get into Hallmark movies right now…I find them predictably comforting…and I am sticking to my story for now!).  Additionally, unlike the previous year I’m grateful that I could enjoy the latter two events without an argument with the ex-boy.

If I could point to any other culprit that I would say is preventing me from fully claiming the “self-partnered” status, I’d blame the time I spend on social media.  A lot of my friends would laugh at this as I don’t even have a smart phone, but again, I work from home on my computer.  And then I’ll check social media at night, scroll through the feed, rather than diving into the book next to me.  There’s quite a bit of research out there on social media and loneliness, and as person who also happens to be a therapist, I can attest.  Temporarily de-activating my Facebook account may be something I try in 2020, while I consider getting a smart phone.  The benefits are getting lost less on camping trips as well as getting work done while on camping trips (with an re-active dog, its hard to find a coffee shop I can sit in and leave her the car, especially when it’s warm out), but I’m fearful of a further social media addiction.

As a therapist, I know that humans are wired for connections.  I know the goal is not dependence, independence, but interdependence.  And I know that being surrounded by people you love, but not romantically in-love with, is the key to being happily self-partnered…and happy when you do have a romantic partner!

With that, here are my tips for being happily self-partnered through the holidays:

-Spend time with friends/family weekly, especially one some evenings.

-Partake in all the holiday traditions and activities you enjoy, whether it is by yourself or with a friend.

-When you do settle down for that holiday movie, place your computer somewhere far away from you.  Commit to watching the whole movie without checking your social media.  (If you can ditch social media more than that, awesome, but I’m going to take baby steps.)

-When you are not listening to holiday music, put on some Lizzo!

“Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.” – Hamilton Wright Mabie

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*Due to Hallmark’s ad pull, I’ve made the switch to Ion, Lifetime, Netflix Christmas movies, Elf, and traditional Christmas movies.

**I’m undecided if I’ll go back to watching Hallmark this Christmas…Hallmark reverses decision.

Lessons from the Aspen Grove

When I worked at an addiction treatment center next to the forest, our spiritual advisor would take the clients to an Aspen grove next to the center.  When the spiritual advisor left, I followed in his footsteps.  We told the clients that the Aspen grove, the hundreds of trees in front of us, were one organism. Underground, they were connected, firmly rooted because of how they intertwined with one another.  That way, when 2013 flood swept past, or when harsh mountain wind blew through, the trees remained upright.

I told them this with fervor, as I knew that at the heart of addiction was disconnection.  Many of the clients had already begun to learn this, as in group they let their guards down, shared their stories, and made deep friendships.  Within days, I could often see a shift in the clients, a glow, like those of Aspens in the fall.

I told this story again to my mother, just a few weeks ago, at her first chemo appointment.

Just the week before, she called me on a Wednesday evening to give me the news “I have cancer.”

She told me not to worry.  That she was tough and going to be fine.  She had the same doctors as my older sister (still going through her own cancer treatment), and they were going to take an even more aggressive route.  She told me not to come home, to continue my work in Colorado.

Two days later I learned from my older sister that my mom was in surgery to have her port put in, a small device put under the skin to make to make blood draws and infusions easier during chemo.  My older sister and my step dad went to her first chemo treatment, which my mom was upset about.  She wanted to go alone.  Not to be an inconvenience to others and their “busy” schedules.  It wasn’t until almost a month later that I found out it was stage 3.

But when your family, both in blood and deep friendship, schedules and to-do list don’t matter.

My mom’s stoicism didn’t stop my from collapsing to the floor in pain and tears minutes after we hung up, with my dog rushing over to me to lick the salt off my cheeks.

It didn’t stop me from feeling anger, sadness, and confusion.

As I gave myself the space to feel all of my emotions, I came to a few realizations.

The first being that this storyline, the storyline of “I have this problem, but it’s not for you to worry about” has shaped my own beliefs growing up.  When I felt sad, so sad that I wanted to claw my way out of my body and escape to somewhere, anywhere else, that I wasn’t enough to share how I felt.  It was my burden to bear.  Alone.  Even after the depression passed, a fierce independence took over.  It’s taken me years to learn to lean on others, like a fallen tree resting on its neighbors.  Still, I have to fight the urge to just collapse.

Second, I remembered the message of the trees.

Even more amazing than hundred plus trees in one Aspen grove being one organism, they are connected even more intimately through a fungal network.  This network not only allows the trees to send vital nutrients to each other, but also communicate.  If there is concern about disease or insect infestations spreading, the trees will send out distress signals to each other, allowing the others to alter their behavior.  And if a mother tree is felled, the surrounding trees may continue to send her nutrients, keeping her roots alive.

Humans have created this world wide web in our own way through technology.  But I suspect there is a deeper form of connection between loved ones, one that may not be visible to the untrained eye (trees also send out chemical, hormonal, and electrical signals).

I can’t say with certainty that without my phone I could have picked up on the distress of my family hundreds of miles away from me.  What I do know is that I feel better when I am in the loop, and even better when I can offer some form of help, be it a card or flying back to Ohio to provide company.

When I told my mom about the trees, I went on to say that because all the trees are connected, one’s challenge is not just theirs alone, but shared among the group.  My analogy, trying to tell my mom that we were all in this together.  She wasn’t a burden but an opportunity for our family and friends to come together and find strength.

She said she understood, but I’m not sure she felt my words.  Maybe I said too much.  I don’t know.

When I got the original call from my mom telling me she had cancer, I texted my sisters (after I picked myself up off the floor).  I told them that I never wanted us to keep things from each other, good or bad, that we never had to “go at it alone.”  When they both texted back “agreed”, I felt we solidified a pact.  We were in this life together, for reasons both known and unbeknownst to us, tied together by cell phone signals and invisible visceral strings of love.  My heart felt a bit lighter, like an Aspen leaf held up by the wind.

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(Love) Withdrawal

9/14

(For You)

While I’ve never had a substance use withdrawal, I’ve had it described to me enough that I can imagine what it must feel like.

And I think I’m in a love withdrawal.

I understand why there are so many songs about drugs that sound just like love songs.  My song is in reverse.

I’m sad and in pain.  I’m numb.  And for a little bit I’m free.

This plays on repeat several times a day.

Looking back, I only remember the good times.

The laugh shared over coffee and a board game in Ned.  Our first 14er summit.  Lying naked in bed.

I remember the times he made me feel beautiful.

I forget the bad.

The evening arguments.  Crying down mountains.  Sleeping on opposite sides of the mattress.

But my body is yearning for those few times of coziness and warmth, the two of us snuggled beside Pacer.

I crave the dopamine surge of a text of Facebook message saying “I love you.”

I resist my own urge to text “I miss you.”

I want the highs but not the lows.

Finally, my dread of the lows surpassed my want of the highs.

I didn’t like myself anymore when I was with him.

And so I quit.

So we could be ourselves.  So we could be happy.

My stagnant refusal to relapse isn’t just for me.

It’s for him, because I still love.

The withdrawal pains slowly subside.

Each hour, each day, brings a little more relief.

But his taste, his essence, will never leave me.

Relapse.