Thursday 30 July 2020

Surrender

Although I am aware of the 5 stages of grief in the K├╝bler-Ross model, I am only ever able to summon a list of 4: denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance. Depression it seems, is the one I keep forgetting, and the one I am now hurtling towards.  As the intensity of shock passes, and my brain begins to comprehend this new reality, deep sorrow turns to melancholy and the lessons begin to settle. Melancholy is almost harder than the fierceness of grief. It is flatline. 

But anyway, I don't believe in those five neat boxes. What of guilt, or sorrow. What of love? What of the complex emotions borne of traumatic chemical imbalance? This sudden dearth of oxytocin? Of up-regulated stress hormones? The 'helpless-hopeless' sensation as a result of depleted dopamine? I am in cold turkey from the withdrawal of this once unrelenting mutual love. I am feeling the loss. My body hurts, my cells ache for their medicine. 

We are amazing, complex creatures. How do these feelings serve us? Where are the lessons in such pain? I am starting to sense that I have an opportunity to heal from all of my past hurts, to uncover the dark treasures I have embedded deeply in my tissues. I am cracked wide open, the wounds are once again fresh. What fortune! Now is time to heal from the shock of an assault, of difficulty to conceive, of a cancer diagnosis, of the anguish of a son on life support, of losses and deaths previously emotionally buried.

But oh how it stings. It burns. It crushes. 

I am being asked to question my beliefs. About myself. About life. About death, and beyond. I am being asked to treat myself with more love and compassion than I have ever shown myself. To shed my old friend Not Good Enough who is once again my companion. To see if I am able to be authentic and raw, to ask for help, to understand my love language. Am I able to be strong, and vulnerable? Am I able to feel without labelling my emotions and putting them into those convenient boxes?

I turn once again to plants for solace. White chestnut to help with the merry-go-round of unhelpful, repetitive thoughts. Lavender to naturally calm the nervous system. Lemon balm to ease anxiety. Magnesium, and ashwaghanda. Aconite for shock, ignatia for grief. We have oxytocin homeopathy. I am planning a family ritual around taking this love hormone, when the time is right. These things all help incrementally, quietly, supporting us back to a new wholeness. We recoil at our enforced shearing, but we are starting to grow back new coats, with a deeper understanding of what it means to be here now, to love, to lose. 

I dream and recalibrate. I moan and shake and sob.

Meditation is my friend. Nature is my ally. Mother Earth is ready and able to hold me and take my pain. She is grounding. She pushes up. Her tides give me hope and put me back together. The rhythm of the South Downs rocks me gently, unrelenting, unwilling to stop for grief. Cycles of life are easy to recognise in the wild abundance of nature, in the black gold. There is life and death in blades of grass, in ears of wheat hanging heavy, ready for harvest, in the hawthorn berries, almost ripe, astonishingly early. In giant hogweed and in poppy seedheads. In flowering mugwort and nettle seeds. On our brave new walks fresh beauty is revealing itself in versions of animal that were once obscured by thundering lurcher paws. I understand these delights now visible; rabbits, birds, sheep. I am grateful for them. I am excited to retain my newly recognised animal identity. The need to move and explore and be curious. The desire to be fully present and in my body. 

If life is a series of losses, great and small, ever increasing, how do we embrace the gifts of such loss? I am willing to open and explore them, and to observe these new feelings with curiosity. The pain of birth, of re-birth, the unexpected beauty on the other side of discomfort that we could not possibly previously have conceived of. The technicolour. The collective love holding us gently as we sway, grounded in our consciousness, antennae to the wind, faces to the sun. Surely we must include grace, trust and surrender in any model of grief? And those other emotions which are too grand and too complex to name?





Thursday 23 July 2020

Hierarchy of Grief

My beautiful dog, Ace, is gone and I find myself, for the first time in my life, on the precipice of grief, buffered by no-one who's love I perceive greater and who's sorrow is rawer. This time it is for me to feel the unrelenting contractions of loss, pain and disbelief. There is no hierarchy of grief to hide behind. 

It is an intensely powerful thing to grieve as a family unit, each feeling the same depth of pain, in different ways at different times. We are broken open, but able to hold and comfort each other, really understanding the chasm of loss that each other is experiencing. My children are teenagers and are humbling me with their capacity to explore this agony, to be emotionally available, articulate and generous. Still Ace teaches. 

In spite of all of the beauty and love, the rituals and the ceremony, the day after his passing I was bereft. My belief in the beyond evaporated with his energy and nothing held me sane. There was simply a vast space where once a magnificent force of nature existed. My children felt him leave, but I did not. I felt anguish for betraying his trust, for not being able to save him. For calling the person who would force his transition.

For all of those who have felt this pain before me, I am astonished, and I marvel at the resilience of humans to heal from grief. Grief, it seems to me, is a kind of madness, a rocking, wailing, salty insanity as our embodied spirits try to make sense of the incomprehensible. There is no place to hide, nowhere to sit, nothing to imbibe that will bring solace.

To love unreservedly is to ache viscerally. To the guts. The marrow. Deep into the heart. Nothing makes sense. He is nowhere and everywhere. This pain is deep and raw and consuming. And we must sit in it, allow it, immerse ourselves in the recognition of a great love. 

Our dog reminded us that we are animals. That we can be wild and free and at one with nature. He was kind and he attracted love. We have turned back to our wild selves to grieve him. On his last hot, Downs walk we gathered wild flowers to cover his beautiful body and to lay a carpet for his final journey. We asked for loving entities to come and guide him home; his mother, who died recently, and the dog who guided us to him in the very beginning. We asked our own spirit guides to support us. He had buddhists chanting for him, shaman holding him, others praying. We supported his passing with fresh rosemary, and with oils of rose otto, frankincense and bergamot. We filled our house with hawthorn branches, lavender and bowls of foraged flowers. We smudged with sage and eucalyptus. We drummed his physical leaving, a compelling rhythm that found unity in the heartbeat of our shock and pain. He was smiling even in death, outdoors where he wanted to be, surrounded by nature, love and compassion. We sat by an open fire and tried to process an event so horrific but so gentle. Euthanasia comes from the Greek 'Good Death' and as time continues to unravel, we see that we were able to give him exactly that.

We have built a shrine and we tend to it daily, keeping a flame alive, fresh flowers in a bowl. We have baptised ourselves in the ocean, cleansing ourselves for a new beginning that we are not ready for and did not want. 

We are listening to music. To screaming saxophones and African beats, gentle lulla-byes of love and truth and faith. Every word has been written for him, and for us. Words are powerful incantations and the very spelling of them into existence to translate our pain is surprisingly comforting. We have sobbed and held and danced. We have shocked each other with outbursts of grief at realisations of 'lasts', that there will be no more. 

As the days pass we find that the beauty of the rituals in which we bathed him, and which did not serve us in the shock of the aftermath, are in fact guiding us gently back to a belief system and to comfort. He was always a huge presence, and his energy has taken no time to show us some (frankly outrageous) signs that he is still here. They come daily, and they buoy us.They cannot compensate for the physical loss, the missing of touch, but they are settling like sediment into our cells, creating a new sense of wholeness.

I will be eternally grateful that this great love, this teacher of the unconditional, came to me and to my family, with no expectation, to show us purity, curiosity, boundless energy, kindness, pain and a higher love. He has taught us so much, not least to grab life and all of it's shame and sorrow, guilt and glory ... and joy.



Saturday 18 July 2020

Death Doulas

As we come to the end of our time with our magnificent young dog I am being called once again to question my spiritual beliefs. I am being given huge opportunities to learn from my grief, and all of my unresolved 'stuff' is coming to the surface: unfairness, abandonment and unwillingness to let go. The child in me is wailing and raw. The adult is bereft. I am not afraid of death FOR him, but I am acutely aware of the impending missing OF him. Of his soft little mouth, and his huge strong body. Of our daily adventures and our insane ability to communicate with each other. Many times over the past almost 5 years I have wondered about this intense relationship - what is it? Animal-human bonds are deep and meaningful and fill a space that was always intended to be filled. If we are lucky they are pure soul connections.This dog has been a mentor and a muse. One of my life's great teachers. What luck. What pain. 

I have tried hard to reverse this shocking disease in my dog. I truly believe that the body can heal. But he has been clear, he is not for healing. I have had to dig deep and be true to my beliefs; that we must never force, and we must allow and support the process of dying. Even if it is vehemently not what we want. He is an entity and must be respected. 

And so to the process of dying. Birth is a process. Painful and beautiful. We allow it, we prepare for it, and we accept that it takes time, and support from others. Meaningful death is no different. Death doulas can support the dying AND the grieving, by creating a comforting and comfortable environment. In the days leading up to death they can advise us and hold us in ways that most of us are not culturally versed. I am so very lucky to have a friend who is a death doula, generous and willing to support this process for us as a family, to share her wisdom and to give us some much needed tools to guide us through the next phase. 

We are spending our last two days speaking gently with our dog. Telling him how we feel, what is about to happen, making any apologies and letting him know how grateful we are to him. We have made a journey stick, commemorating our walks with him, a totem. I have collected fur, and we have one of his puppy teeth dipped in silver. When his time comes, we want his spirit to transition gently and easily. We want to hold space for him to die with grace and dignity. We will call on his spirit guides to accompany him home. 




We are planning rituals and making a shrine, lighting candles and finding objects that seem important or relevant to his earth bound life. We are nurturing ourselves as much as him.

After he has gone, we will grieve in our own ways, respectful of each other's timings. We will have a fire pit and recount stories of how he touched us, what he meant to us. We will honour him and his gifts. And we will gently remember to focus on what we still have rather than what we do not. 

I want to hold my children in their grief - to teach them that there are other ways to express their pain than way of the British 'stiff upper lip'. They can sob quietly, wail loudly, both or neither.
For my children the death of our dog is bringing up painful and frightening feelings about my cancer experience. They may be ten years older but it touches all of the nerves of loss. In pain there is opportunity to grow, and if we ignore that, we waste the lesson. And so I am asking myself, how can I model grief in a way that is healthy. How can I put into practice my beliefs about death in ways that will one day comfort them? I want to show them that self care and honest expression is vital during painful times.

Death is life. Grief is love. Acceptance is grace.



Saturday 6 June 2020

Anticipatory grief

Yesterday I learned a new term: anticipatory grief. It refers to a feeling of grief occurring before an impending loss. I am deeply grieving my dog. And he is still here.


In a way this form of grief gives us the gift of time. We are able to really soak Ace in before he is gone forever. We can say sorry, I love you, goodbye. In another way it is agonising. It means facing a reality that I desperately don't want to face, that we are on an inevitable, unexpected journey to a destination without him. 


Yesterday I saw a wonderful homeopathic, herbalist vet, Tim Couzens. This man smiled from his eyes. He greeted us in shorts and a t-shirt. Everything about his practice felt comforting. There was hope in his demeanour, and in his rows of tinctures, herbs and natural medicines. I had waited 8 long days to meet this gentle man. He shares with me a belief in supporting root cause, in natural medicine, in holding an animal with dignity and love. And he couldn't tell me what I wanted to hear. 


He listened to my description of my larger than life, beautiful dog, before calmly telling me that from looking at his scan results, Ace's condition is severe. His heart is so enlarged that it no longer resembles a heart. My boy's body is working hard, and he could experience a fatal heart attack at any moment. Tim recommended supplements which I I am already giving - hawthorn, dandelion, COQ10, plus CBD oil and L-carnitine. He hopes to see us again in two weeks. I understand the inference of that sentence. 


The natural supplements feel right and good for my dog and for the way we live. They are supportive of the heart muscle, as opposed to the pharmaceutical drugs which are symptom-addressing. I believe in the power of the body to heal. I believe in plant based medicine to support that. I also believe that most diseases are borne of toxicity or deficiency, and that we need to eliminate toxins, and re-nutrify if we are to heal. The conventional medicines are potent, and needed to regulate Ace's heartbeat and remove water from his lungs. My dog is teaching me about being open to new ideas, about combining allopathic and natural medicines. He is teaching me about an integrative approach, which for so long I've quietly rejected.


Just before meeting Tim we saw a wonderful therapist, Lisa Gorrie, who works with 'Applied Zoopharmacognosy'. This is the practice of supporting your pet to self-medicate and heal themselves through scent, plant based medicines and nutrients. Working this way, you never force or hide medications and supplements, you simply offer them, trusting that your pet will choose what they need. It's the ultimate lesson in relinquishing control and it takes the pet-owner relationship to a new level. My boy loved it! He chose antivirals and antibacterials and immediately got his appetite back. He knows what he needs, and if I'm mindful he will show me how best to support him, even if that is in dying. 


And so to dying. For many years I have felt solid in my beliefs about life and death. And yet here I find myself, emotional, desperate and bewildered at the impending loss of my dog. My dog. It feels outrageous to be so deeply attached to an animal when I have experienced the loss of friends and family. It occurs to me that grief-pain comes from the inability to let go, from the desperate refusal to accept and support the natural process of dying. The one kindness I seem able to give myself at the moment, amongst too much coffee and not enough sleep, is really owning all of the feelings. Allowing the crazy thoughts of how we can hold on to him, or a piece of him. The mental bargaining, the clinging and pleading with him not to go. The irrational, ugly thoughts. The anxiety about having to miss my dog every day for the rest of my life. The melodrama and the emotional flatline. 


Denial is one of my favourite places to be at the moment. In denial I can feel optimistic. As Sophie Sabbage says in her brilliant Ted Talk about grief, denial is not grief, denial is denial. Anger is not grief, anger is anger. The stages of grief are not linear or compartmentalised. They all have a place and a purpose. 


We are still out foraging. This morning I found Ace drinking comfrey water in the garden. It's rich in potassium, magnesium and B vitamins - all good for the heart, all depleted by his medicines. He knows. He hasn't forgotten to trust his instincts. We went on a long, gentle walk over the downs looking for comfrey and finding wild roses, anti-inflammatory and supportive of the heart and circulation. 


I also feel inspired to finally cable our wifi, something which has been on my to-do list for a long time, never completed. Wifi is well known to negatively interrupt the vibration of pets, and children, who are much more sensitive to it's frequency disruption than adults (although it absolutely affects us too!) The heart is an electrical organ, it makes sense that it would impact heart rate and circulation. 


There is so much to learn. And so much to love. 








Saturday 30 May 2020

Puppy lessons part two

My beloved dog, Ace, was diagnosed with congestive heart failure this week. He is almost 5 and usually has the most robust and vivacious energy. To say that we are all devastated would be an understatement. And so begins a new journey with him - one of even more presence and renewed unconditional love. There are so many lessons revealing themselves. From acknowledging our feelings, to being mindful of our energy around him. With the shock of a diagnosis comes the gift of a life thrown once again into technicolour, the surprise that that lesson had faded, that there had been some subtle seepage of comfortable taking-for-granted. And again, the big lessons, the reminders to trust and surrender.




Ace is a beautiful, big dog. Huge. He has always attracted attention from strangers, and been lavished with love and affection. As a result he is incredibly curious about, and loving towards, people. He is wonderfully patient and gentle with children. His heart has been relentlessly, unconditionally filled with love. Maybe that is why it's so big. His left ventricle is enlarged and failing to push oxygenated blood efficiently around his body. As a result there is fluid building around his lungs, making his breathing fast and laboured. He has lost weight and his coat is rough. His body is working hard. 

But he is still playful and happy. He smiles. The wag is enthusiastic and when it meets an obstacle (which it frequently does in our small house) it reverberates. He rushes to dance with me when we play salsa music. That dance is not the most elegant, and involves him jumping (invited) onto my back, front paws gripping my waist, his head nibbling my shoulder, while he kangaroo hops ten inches off the floor. He comes for a blow dry when he hears the hairdryer. He is hilarious. Strong. Soulful. We find him endlessly beautiful to look at. None of us has ever managed to sufficiently drink him in. He is majestic, derpy and handsome. He is soft. His paws smell of popcorn. We have painted the inside of one of our cupboards pink in homage to the delicious colour of the inside of his ears. We are obsessed with this dog.

He has taught me so so much in the past 5 years. My journey with him has totalled half of my post diagnosis life. He has truly shown me my ultimate healing environment by finally being the one to get me moving. We have covered much ground over days, weeks, months and years. We must have walked close to 10,000 kms together. He has shown me the seasons, the changes, the beauty of nature pushing up in Spring, and the coldness of muddy East Sussex winters. We have favourite pathways, rivers, forests and chalk pits. We forage together. He has shown me why we should eat cleaver tips in spring and where the best elderflowers blossom. Together we have discovered fields of clover, wild cowslips, hogwort, mullein, dulcamara, and hawthorn. We know where the peregrine falcons nest, and which fields hold the sheep that he would so love to chase. We get high, up onto the South Downs, and low, onto the beaches where there is sand at low tide. He has given me the gift of freedom and of feeling connected to Mother Earth in a way I have never before been, or thought possible. And he has shown me how to see love and familiarity in all animals, in the way they lay, scratch, stretch. No lie, elephants in Sri Lanka reminded me of my dog, as did camels in Morocco. And by being part of a dog walking community I have made wonderful new friends, and I see the genuine kindness in humans. 

And so to his healing, and the acceptance that maybe that is not what will be. For weeks now he and I have been walking through fields of hawthorn trees heavy with blossom. I have taken to bringing a large basket and secateurs on those walks, and collecting the flowers and leaves, not really knowing why this year in particular I have been drawn to cut, dehydrate and make tincture from these beautiful plants. I was aware of their powers to aid circulation, support the kidneys and improve heart function. And also for their potency in grief. And so, Ace and I find that we are both taking the medicine from this plant. 

I'm amazed at how similar the allopathic treatment for congestive heart failure is for humans and dogs. That has lead me to believe that I can support Ace with herbs, homeopathy and supplements based on what I know about the human body. As such we are giving fermented cod liver oil, vitamin E and oily fish to counter the cardiac cachexia (lean muscle weight loss). He is also taking liposomal glutathione and taurine, and we will be starting him on COQ10 as soon as it arrives. Magnesium and potassium are vital for heart health, and we are adding those to bone broth with colostrum. We feel lucky that we have all of these supplements indoors. He is raw fed and not interested in treats. I am having to be creative about getting him to eat these supplements, but I wholeheartedly believe in the power of supporting body systems with nutraceuticals, so I will find a way. 

He has been prescribed diuretics to move fluid from his lungs. These will eventually deplete his kidneys to the point of failure. I am keen to find alternatives to pharmaceuticals, but it feels like a fine line and a huge responsibility. At the moment I am giving him homeopathy to help with this, and we are making fresh teas from plants which are diuretic, like dandelion. As the dandelion wanes, I am looking for plants that are fresh and relevant. He is still teaching me. Elderflowers have diuretic properties, and are abundant at the moment. This local, seasonal magic feels potent to me right now. 

He has also, maybe ironically considering his name, huge personality and big heart, been prescribed ACE inhibitors. This medicine widens and dilates blood vessels so that his heart doesn't have to work so hard. There have been studies to show that pomegranate juice is as effective. Pomegranate is in his protocol. 

It's a lesson in patience. We are watching him. Making sure he is comfortable. I will let him guide me in whether he needs more, less or something different. 

Beyond the physical healing he is teaching me to be even more gentle, patient and communicative with my children who are aching at the moment. I've realised that whether he lives or dies, he was always going to teach us about the process of dying. And of loss. And of letting go. Maybe that will be his biggest lesson to us all. 

But at the end of all of that is LOVE.




Saturday 2 May 2020

Hello, it's been a while

It's been a while since I've written a blog post. Almost 4 years to the day in fact!

Today I received a lovely message from a friend who said that she had only just realised that the blog she followed when she was newly diagnosed was mine. She had wondered what had happened to the author and if she was still well. Her message got me thinking about all of the reasons I wrote this blog, and all of the reasons why I stopped.

Two and a half years after my own diagnosis, I started documenting my cancer experience. It took me that long to feel safe enough to blog, to feel well enough mentally, physically and emotionally to share my story. Around that time I was receiving a lot of emails and phone calls from people who were interested in alternative treatments, many of whom who had reached the end of their allopathic journey and were looking for something else. Because I had rejected chemotherapy, radiotherapy and tamoxifen, those people were curious about my protocols. The blog was a place where I could signpost people to all of the wonderful practitioners and treatments that I had found, and it served as a possible shortcut when, at the point of diagnosis, overwhelmed and scared, we find ourselves needing answers fast. I called it Grow because I was still learning. Ten years on, I am still learning. The ideas in the blog are all seeds. Seeds that others can take and plant, research and identify with, or discard if they don't resonate.

Around that time I started admin-ing on a wonderful Facebook group, Cancerucan. That group is an utter beacon of hope and solidarity to those experiencing cancer. I got heavily emotionally involved on a daily basis. I felt that suddenly I had a connection with people who were speaking my language. A language of circulating cancer cells, genetic polymorphisms, hormone tests .. and fear. Initially it was a blessed relief and it calmed my feelings of isolation. But over time I began to feel that cancer was defining me.

My world once again turned into a place where cancer hung in every moment. As an admin, for a long while it was my job to join new members. That involved talking to people who were often newly diagnosed, at the exact point of their most intense feelings about life and death. Over time that level of anxiety became pervasive. I had a skewed perspective on how prevalent cancer was. I started to see it everywhere, in every stranger's cough, every friend's ache, in my husband and my children.

And then I took a step back and looked at my immediate physical environment. We had moved to Lewes by then, and my community was that of creatives and home educators. No-one had cancer. My real life was not, in fact, all about cancer. My real life was about nature and connection, learning, being, freedom from routine ... it was about all of the things that I love.

I thought about the ways in which our cells mutate to survive in hostile environments in the body. In acidic, dehydrated, toxic environments. I looked at the mental and emotional environment I was creating in my body, and it was NOT conducive to health. My REAL environment however, was.

I decided that I was finally ready to cut the cord. Cancer had certainly served me in ways that I had been unprepared for. It had allowed me to reclaim my voice, shown me how to develop a spiritual practice, given me a loving lesson in nutrition and taught me that to learn I had to un-learn. It had released in me the strength to start a new life which felt more compatible with my soul's desires. But I hadn't noticed that over time I had held on so tightly to my new master, unwilling to let it go, that it had in fact become my master.

I stopped writing the blog and I stopped being an admin on Cancerucan. I began to put my energy into positive, local enterprises. I started a Wellness group for young home educated teenagers. We have been running it weekly for almost 2 years now. To be able to share what I have learned with these healthy, open, enquiring, articulate young people is an incredible blessing. To share the premise that we are each responsible for our own health, with a group of kids who are open to that idea is just amazing. We have talked about the big stuff like epigenetics, and the small stuff, like the cell. We have played games to support our learning about phase 1 and 2 liver detox, and we have foraged over the Downs, and made natural medicine from our hauls. I want these children to understand that they have choices in how they eat, think, breathe and live. I want them to understand that they can positively impact their health. I want them to develop a running conversation with their bodies so that they can respond to lack or toxicity, rather than masking symptoms with an allopathic mindset. Most of all I want them never to have to get to the stage of ill health that I did because I wasn't equipped with an understanding of how my body worked.

As for my health. It has been 10 years and 2 months since my diagnosis. I am still counting! I am well, and managing my health from a functional perspective. I pulse my protocols depending on where I feel my body needs support. At the moment I am going gently through menopause, and I find myself, after years of painful periods, oestrogen dominance and breast cancer, missing oestrogen and all of the wisdom it rhythmically dispensed. I am well, with no evidence of cancer. But I am always mindful of maintaining that healthy internal environment that keeps cancer quiescent. For me that is a mind, body and spirit approach that serves me well.