Thursday 30 July 2020


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.