The Magic and Mundanity of Death and Grief
After this past week, I know three things to be true:
Grief is exhausting. Loss is a layered experience. Death is both magical and mundane.
A new angel sits on my altar. Last Saturday, on May Day, I said goodbye to my long time caprine companion — an abundant source of my joy, my steady sidekick through my twenties, my teacher in patience, a beloved soul.
Of the chronologically listed five stages of processing grief — denial and shock, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — I’ve visited them all already in a week and hop between them depending on the day or the hour. Grief is not linear. While this trending phrase serves as a reminder to be gentle with oneself, it’s also a bittersweet revelation that grief has no definitive end; ironically, it’s a living thing. The stage of acceptance is not the final resting place for a grieving heart for it can be disrupted at any time by any of the other early stages, but rather it’s the place in which one hopes to dwell more than the others. Acceptance also houses forgiveness, remembrance, and peace whom are supportive roommates for an aching heart. What I’ve learned so far about every stage of grief is that there lives an incredible amount of love.
Currently, a wave of remorse has washed in and I’m wading in feelings of regret, doubt, shame, and apology; thus is the burden of the mourner. Regret brings questioning if there was more that could have been done and how that might have granted a different outcome; doubt brings second-guessing the decision to call on the procedure that assisted in his death, whilst regret sneaks in for not doing it a little sooner; shame enters to compare my grief to others’, for mourning a non-human companion when others’ suffering may be greater than mine; apology is relentless, as is feels like there is much blame to carry. Grief creates a disconnection between the body and the mind, the prior being the one to endure the weight of every layer of the experience, the latter knowing ultimately that hindsight can be cruel and that no amount of self-condemnation can reverse the permanence of death.
And yet amongst the sloshing of this remorseful wave, there are jewels of incredible beauty; beauty that both strokes your hair and pulls your heavy head into its chest and also breaks your damn heart. This is the juxtaposition of being a bystander to death, for being a doula to a soul near the exit, the complicated balancing act of holding space.
In the early morning on May first, all progress that was made the day before, all hope for recuperation, vanished suddenly and my supporting role as nurse was reassigned to that of death doula. Shock. In between the transition, there was a momentary rush of adrenaline, a last-ditch desire to find a miracle, a “Hail Mary”. Denial. Bargaining. I then recalled on the words I had just moments before spoken aloud to myself as I urgently went over to the pasture that morning after learning of his condition: “Our time together is inevitably limited. My mourning is my own. The priority is his wellbeing and it is my responsibility is to assist him in being as comfortable in his body as possible.” Acceptance.
For four hours I held my sweet friend’s face in my hands, stroked his spotted cheek, supported his weak head in my lap, and stayed as present as possible; I was consciously making an effort to memorize every part of him. The impermanence of our time together was unavoidable and every observation was being logged into my memory bank — the pattern of his coat, the salt and peppered extra-soft spot behind his ears, the slow rhythm of his breath in his belly, the last moments of eye contact. Some details so specific that I’d never before noticed but were so precious in that present moment, others a bittersweet last-look at the qualities and features that I’d admired and loved about him so much over our years together.
I realize that not all who suffer loss are privileged with the opportunity of time to say goodbye. This is one of death’s most wrenching effects on the living — the lack of time to make peace, to properly express love, to be present to ensure that the journey out is as good as it can be. I’ve been here too before and there are no words that can assuage that pain. In these instances we only have what already exists in our treasure chest of memories to observe the cherished subtle nuances of our loved one’s being. Specific visual details may be few, but the undefinable spectrum of feelings associated with the memories of your loved one can provide golden nuggets of qualities from their being that you can remember forever.
In my own process last weekend, I found myself struggling for ample words that expressed the capacity of all that I was feeling — the whirlwind, mash-up of memory with current reality — and then I gave myself permission to get out of my head and into my body and just feel without the need for articulation. Memories are summoned in the same way I think, where words feel forced and limiting but the absence of them allows in the breadth of the experience of remembrance.
I’m a quiet griever [thank you to my partner who is quite the opposite and still has been so patient in giving me space and solitude in my own process]. Sometimes I process aloud with loved ones or alone, but mostly I seek comfort in that wordless space of feeling. I have witnessed the effect time has on memory, the way it can erode the details and soften the edges like a persistent tide on coastal stone faces, and so I do treasure the written word for its gift of transportation back to a specific time and place. Currently, my memories of last weekend exist only as short snapshot sentences that fail to encompass the entirety of the thousand-word picture. But together they read almost as a poem, an ode to the magic and mundanity that is death, and the immense presence of love in every phase of grief.
Memories of May 1, 2021.
The scent of the wood shavings that made up his bed,
the cool seven o’clock breeze over my wet eyes,
the light mist of rain between early sun,
the spider suspended in her web under the roof of his small house, who’d resided there for weeks, perhaps watching our daily visits and the administering of medicines and the physical therapy, feeling the vibrations of the songs sung to comfort, the stories told to remember, the words whispered to assure and allow; a witness to death and to what came after.
The time on the technician’s watch, 12:37pm and seconds counting, while we waited and then it was announced he was gone,
the strain of shoveling damp earth,
the laying of leaves, of a body, of offerings,
the planting of his favorite thing from which I anticipate seeing the first sprouts,
hands on the soil, imagining them resting on the body below,
the feeling of “what now?”,
the quiet cleanup, the laundry, the dismantling of a home,
the relief of the day ending, of climbing out of filthy clothes and into the bath, of washing my face and my hands, compress on swollen eyes,
the framed photo found, placed in the center of the altar with the lock of hair, the lighting of the candle and of the incense, greeting the ancestors as I usually do but this time letting them know that someone extra special was coming their way.
[Two weeks after adoption and my first Halloween as a new goat-parent. I dressed as Ellie May Clampett which only made sense if I stood next to my sweet new friend.]
[always a source of entertainment — luckily this ride of mine, my first on the island, already had plenty of character.]
[...always a source of entertainment, part two — even if it didn’t feel like it at the time. Throwing it back to our outdoor kitchen days when we returned home from a day of errands to find that somebody had found his way through the entry gate and made himself right at home. In case you're wondering, this mess is all his!]
[the sweetest heart of all.]
“Prayer of the Goat” by Carmen Bernos DeGasztold
[always my observant companion on outdoor dye days; most content when his humans were busy projecting around him in the yard.]