HOW TO COPE WITH GRIEF

This month, I feel as though many people I know or have come across are coping with loss. In particular, I’m feeling for some friends of mine and their family who have just said goodbye to their girl, Tessie. This morning I read a touching blog on Bloglovin’ about a couple who lost their little Yorkie last night. Last month, my Mum and I, along with our vet, made the heartbreaking decision to euthanise our Treasure; our fourteen year old Maltese x Lhasa Apso girl.

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I was – and still am – grieving deeply for Treasure. It’s an experience that I know (after reading many posts by pet owners on forums about coping with the death of a pet) many people can relate to. Coping with the loss of a pet is, in many ways, similar to coping with the loss of a loved one of the person kind. A few months before my fifteenth birthday, my Dad passed away after a prolonged battle with cancer. My Dad’s passing followed the death of my Gran, great grandmother, and grandfather in the preceding eighteen months (my Aunt’s immediate family; she is an exceptionally strong lady). Though it’s a fact of life that each one of us must deal with loss during our lifetimes, I suppose I am well-versed in coping with grief for someone of my age. Each time, there have been some coping mechanisms that have helped me come to terms with loss.

1. Accept that grief doesn’t end

I remember about six months after my Dad died, I was feeling as though my grief would never end and I suddenly realised that it doesn’t. Certainly the weight of the grief gets less as the nature of it changes over time – but you get used to it, rather than get over it. ‘Grief’ is defined as deep sorrow due to someone’s death. Grief does not end, because you will always be sorry that someone has died. Your loved one may not have been sorry; they may have come to terms with their death and even embraced it (especially in sickness or old age). Yet even after the initial trauma subsides, you will continue to feel sorry that someone has died because they are missing from your life. I think the French way of saying ‘I miss you‘ sums it up: tu me manques. It is more closely translated as ‘you are missing from me‘.

The concept that grief doesn’t end sounds strange. It seems that never-ending grief would be very hard. On the contrary, I’ve found that accepting this concept has made coping with loss easier. Why?

Firstly, if you think of grief as a process that will come to an end, you risk putting your life on hold in the meantime. When your life is on hold, it’s very difficult to find enjoyment in day-to-day life. And this makes grieving much harder and much more intense. Of course, you will be sad everyday. But too often we make the mistake of feeling incapable of (or worse – guilty about) doing things that make us happy: having a laugh with friends, taking a walk in nature, taking a swim at the beach, and looking after yourself. Subconsciously, we tell ourselves that we will go back to doing these things when we are happy again. But I consider that we don’t do happy things because we are happy… it’s the other way around! The little things that give us joy contribute to our happiness. And by continuing to do these things even when we are sad, we will more easily cope with our grief. Consciously keep doing things that bring you joy, however small. Drink tea. Paint your nails. Watch the sun set or rise. To begin with, the sad moments of the day will outweigh the happy ones. Slowly, you will achieve balance.

Second… when you accept that grief goes on, you recognise that your love for your loved one does not end. Deeply feeling love in this way makes memories less painful, and allows you to carry those memories into the next chapters of your life. This Friday, it will be six weeks since we said goodbye to Treasure. Next February, it will be ten years since my Dad passed away. A whole decade. I’m still grieving. Just today, I had a great chat with my Mum on the phone on the way to the gym. Out of nowhere, I suddenly wished I could call my Dad and I felt a pang of sadness. I feel sorry that he isn’t physically part of my life anymore. But I also take comfort in knowing that, because I am still grieving, he is still in my thoughts! And of course, in my heart.

2. Take Julie Andrews literally

I’ve suggested consciously doing things that make you happy, but that’s easier said than done when you are feeling sad. It’s much easier to start by simply writing down things you know would have made you happy in easier times.

So, when grieving, I take Julie Andrews very seriously; I  list a few of my favourite things and then I don’t feel so bad. Here are some of my favourite things.

You don’t have to write a huge list in one go. Start by trying to name five things. Gradually add to your list. Jot down things that make you happy as you remember – keep a notebook with you, or create a list in your phone.

I keep a handwritten copy of my list in my wallet and  hang another copy on my list. I keep it visible so that when I’m sad, I’m reminded to do one or two things on my list every day.

I think there’s not much that’s more authentically ‘you’ than a handwritten list of your favourite things. But for a visual list, try Pinterest or Tumblr.

3. Look after your physical self

I believe that physical and mental health are closely connected. So, it’s particularly important to take care of yourself when you’re grieving (and your emotions are taking their toll on your mental health).

Most importantly, I make sure I get at least eight hours sleep every night. Sleep is when you process your emotions and begin to heal. That said, sleeping is my special skill. If sleep were an Olympic sport, I would win gold. I’ve never had trouble sleeping and grieving only makes it easier. For some people, it’s really difficult to sleep whilst grieving. In which case, keep your routine. Go to bed at the same time every night. And…

Exercise, outside if possible.  Exercise releases endorphins and endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t shoot their husbands. They just don’t. You’ll be surprised how a twenty minute walk outside can lift your mood. And help you sleep.

Eat healthfully. If it’s difficult, keep it simple – each day, try to eat five serves of vegetables, two serves of fruit, and as many differently (naturally) coloured foods as you can. Drink plenty of water and try to avoid alcohol (and coffee, if you’re having trouble sleeping). Chocolate will definitely help… but it’s not a substitute for good nutrition. If chocolate and other ‘feel-good’ food is all you’re eating, you will feel better in the short-term but longterm, they will do more harm than good for your mood.

And a massage, pedicure, haircut, or facial won’t go astray.

4. Celebrate your loved one’s life

For me, a big part of grief is fear, stemming from the unknown. A future without my loved one is unknown… Will I forget what my loved one is like (without them around)? Will I regret not spending more time with them while they were still around?
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Celebrating my loved ones’ lives has helped appease this fear. Here are ways I’ve celebrated my loved ones, human and animal:
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  • A scrapbook of memories. Mine includes photographs, newspaper clippings, and handwritten descriptions of times we shared. Creating it was soothing. And it allowed me to reflect on the wonderful times we had shared together in the past, which helped appease my fear that we had not spent enough time together.
  • A letter to your loved one thanking them for their special quirks and the special times you shared. I was so scared to say goodbye to Treasure, because I didn’t want to forget the way she cleverly opened the door with her nose, or the way she dipped her head and wagged her tail when she came to cheer us up when we were sad. So I wrote those things down in a letter, along with other memories that ‘made her Treas’. I know that when I read the letter in years to come, I will smile at the little things I would otherwise have forgotten.
  • An ink paw-print. When we decided to euthanise Treasure, Tom suggested we take an ink print of her paw. I am so grateful we did because every time I look at the print I smile at the memory of her cute little paws!
  • Raising or donating money in your loved one’s memory. In February, I cut off 40cm of my hair to raise money for the Cancer Council WA. I also donated my ponytail to Beautiful Lengths, which makes real-hair wigs for ladies undergoing treatment for cancer. My gorgeous friends and family were so generous in their donations. It was lovely that, through my Dad’s memory, we were able to contribute money to support other families affected by cancer.

5. If it helps, share your story.

Hence this post.

This may be a bit of a controversial suggestion, since the topic of death is largely considered a taboo subject, especially in social media. But I actually believe it’s healthy to share your story as a way of celebrating your loved one’s life. Why not? We celebrate our living treasures!

You don’t have to share your story publicly. If you do, try to focus on the positives; the wonderful ways in which your loved one was special and enriched your life. When you need to share how bad you’re feeling, it’s best to speak with an understanding friend or family member (or seek out an online forum of people going through similar experiences).

In many ways, I have been extremely fortunate to have had the chance to spend time with loved ones before they have died. When I described the circumstances surrounding Treasure’s passing to my friend Jack, he said, “there are some circumstances we just can’t explain.” Those circumstances can be bad- an unexpected or premature death. In these cases, there probably isn’t an explanation as to why someone had to die. And, if there is, we are unlikely to understand during our lifetimes on earth. Searching for an explanation for the circumstances while you’re grieving may exacerbate feelings of guilt and frustration, and make it harder to cope with your grief. Instead, when you’re questioning the circumstances, recognise that it’s because you’re feeling despair. Then, remind yourself that you can’t control the fact that your loved one has died. Sadly, you can’t change that fact, either.

In our case with Treasure, the unexplained circumstances were good…or at least the best outcome in a bad situation.  We felt like Treasure really chose her time: almost fourteen years to the day since we first brought her home. It was the shortest day of the year, right after my Mum returned from holidays and I completed my last ever university exam. We were all together in our family home in Perth. This last fact alone is quite remarkable; for the past eighteen months, Treasure has been living with my Mum, five hours south.

In early June, my Mum and Bruce took holidays in Queensland. I dog-sat Treasure and our other dog, Paris. For two whole weeks, I got to spend time smothering Treasure and Paris with love. Every morning, I got up early to let them outside. After Tom went to work, I wrapped Treas in a blanket and carried her back to bed with me where we spent the next hour or so cuddling under the covers while I read a book and snoozed. The whole time, she was in great spirits and I had no cause to suspect her days were numbered. On Sunday morning, two days before my Mum returned, Treasure stopped eating… a first, for her! I managed to coax her into eating some organic free-range chicken for dinner! But she wasn’t interested in food the next day. Or the day after that.

On Wednesday, Mum took Treasure to the vet, who told us her kidneys were failing. The symptoms only show up when the kidneys have almost completely failed – Treasure’s were about 90% failed. She wasn’t in pain just yet; she just didn’t feel like eating since her kidneys were shutting down. She would only have a few more days. This came as a shock; we expected that when it would eventually be time to say goodbye it would be because Treasure, literally, had a big heart. Two years ago, we had found out that Treasure had developed a heart condition common in small dogs, which caused her heart to enlarge, put pressure on other organs, and cause fluid to collect on the lungs. She has since been on medication, which keeps fluid off the lungs. The fluid medication had taken a toll on her kidneys and accelerated age-related kidney disease. We were devastated.

The vet was able to fairly accurately predict when Treasure would die naturally. Together we made the decision to euthanise her a couple of days before this day, to prevent her last few days from being in pain. Until then, we had two full days together. That night, Mum and I slept in the same bed, cuddling Treas between us. The next morning, I had to sit an exam. As soon as I got home, I kept cuddling Treas until Tom got home.

I will forever be grateful for how supportive Tom was during the hard days before we said goodbye to Treasure. On Thursday, he brought home some ink so we could take Treasure’s paw-print. Treasure and I spent her last sunset outside. Tom captured these very special images of us enjoying her last sunset together. Neither of us look our best. Me -with no makeup and red, puffy eyes from crying and no sleep. But I will cherish these images forever.

 

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Paris knew something was wrong – he had been avoiding us all week – but that evening he said his goodbyes to Treasure. As we were sitting in front of the heater on a pillow, he curled up to Treasure, rest his head on her back and stayed there for some time. Afterward, for the second and last night, Mum, Treasure and I cuddled in bed.

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Friday was another beautiful day and Mum and I took Treasure and Paris to a lake and river nearby our family home. We had spent countless hours walking Treasure around that water as a puppy and well into her older age. We went for a last walk – this time carrying her in a blanket. She seemed to really enjoy the sunshine, and the breeze that skipped across the river and gently ruffled her fur.

We spent several hours by the water. Treas hadn’t moved much the past few days, spending much time sleeping. But all of a sudden, she lept up, barked feebly at some nearby people and then made a determined beeline for the river. I think if I hadn’t had scooped her up at the last second, she would have marched into the river Virginia Woolf-style. She was ready.

We bundled Treasure in her basket with her blanket. We wanted her to go to sleep as she did every night. When the vet delivered the euthanasia – enough to euthanise a dog bigger than Treas- something remarkable happened. Treasure didn’t die. She drifted into a deep sleep with her eyes closed and her chest rising and falling peacefully. It felt very natural. Mum and I got an extra two hours of stolen time with Treasure, stroking her as she slept before she eventually passed away. The vet said, “she must have been very special, because she did this in her own special way.”

Mum and I had two fears as Treasure aged; first, that we would have to make a hard decision about euthanising Treasure if her heart began to slowly deteriorate. In a way, we were grateful that the decision was made for us. Second, we were so scared of how quickly she would die following the euthanasia. It seemed that Treasure took care of each of our big fears. We can’t help but wonder if these were her last gift to us, from the deep connection we shared.

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We love Treasure so much and will continue to miss her every day. Thank you, Treasure, for bringing so much joy and unconditional love into our lives.

Thank you, for reading. If you’re grieving, I hope you can find solace in this post and some of the tips for coping.

Yours Fairly,

Ashlee

 

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5 Comments

  1. Kat
    August 19, 2013 / 12:11 PM

    Ash – bawling my eyes out at work reading this.

    Absolutely beautiful xx

    • Ashlee
      August 19, 2013 / 7:47 PM

      Thanks so much, Kat (for reading and for your lovely comment!). I’m sorry for making you cry at work!

  2. Janet
    August 30, 2013 / 7:02 PM

    I so love your way with words Ashlee. There is a gentleness there that is soothing my soul …. and many similarities to the way we farewelled our Minty.

    • Ashlee
      August 30, 2013 / 7:58 PM

      Thank you so much, Janet! It means so much to me that you took the time to read and leave such a lovely comment :) Our beautiful dogs have such a special place in our hearts. They never leave us x

  3. Sarah
    September 2, 2013 / 3:38 PM

    Ash, thank you for your beautiful words in this article and thinking of our family when tessie passed away. This was such a beautiful beautiful tribute to your dad and treas. I love all of the photos, especially the one with you, your mum and treasure. Your words really tell a story, I felt like I was there with you on her final days. Our puppies and the fond memories of them are always with us xxx

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