Earlier this week we put down our old dog, Clyde. He was the 3rd pet in about a year and a half that we either had to have put down or had disappeared overnight (you know, outside cats on a rural island with lots of wild animals around us). But this one was different, we decided last week to have him put down at our house, in his field. Jason and I discussed how much of this process Zoe should be a part of; whether we should just let her play at her grandparents and just talk to her about it after it was over or if we should let her be there for the whole process. Then it occurred to us, hello, she’s 9, She can decide for herself. Sometimes, we don’t give children credit for knowing what they actually need and want. She waffled a bit and then decided she wanted to be there. We then spent much of the weekend talking with Zoe about how sad she was about having to do this and how much she would miss Clyde. When asked what she would miss most about Clyde, she replied, “1: I love him, 2: I will miss him, 3: he’s stinky.” Sometimes that is enough.
The vet showed up on a sunny Monday afternoon and we all walked out to the field where Clyde’s pen is, we placed a blanket on the lawn and we sat down with him. Zoe watched the vet take out all the instruments she is so familiar with; stethoscopes, syringes, tourniquet, anesthesia. She knew what these were all for and she leaned into me and the tears started. She repeated that she would miss him, and cried some more. Then she calmed down some, gave him a hug and then looked at me, threw her arms around me and sobbed some more. I hugged her hard and let her cry. She asked if she could keep his collar and if I could print a picture of Clyde for her. We talked about the fact that he was now in doggy heaven with Barney and our cats D’Artagnan, Guinness, and Hermione, running around like he couldn’t on this earth. We asked if she wanted to leave and she shook here head and said no, she wanted to be there, she sobbed and sobbed and placed some flowers on the grave and asked if she would be able to visit him and see him again. We tried to explain that no, it’s just his body here and we can’t visit that, but we have all our memories. She then picked a spot in Clyde’s field for him, right under the sign that says ‘Zoe’s Orchard.’
And then she then went back to her grandparent’s house to play with her cousin and sobbed and sniffled her way through the smiles on the swings.
Why am I sharing this story, especially since I promised you all sequins and humor?
Because I couldn’t get this scene out of my head. Because I am trying to raise a daughter who knows that grief is good, that grief gives us strength. This is not something I am particularly good at. I actually think that most of my life I have been taught that grief isn’t good, that you should move on, that time heals all wounds. But what if it doesn’t?
When I was in 7th grade, my best friend died, suddenly. I had no time for closure. She had been frail all her life due to congenital heart defects, but this was an unrelated incident. To this day, I don’t actually know all the medical things that she dealt with, because those things didn’t matter to us when we were kids (sounds like someone else I know). She had been in and out of hospitals her whole life. She was tiny, kind, never complained, and we had long-term BFF plans to conquer the world together. Then one day at school a teacher told me that while in PE class, my BFF had choked on a pendant on her necklace and hadn’t been able to breath for several minutes. I was told she was at the hospital in Seattle in a coma. Big scary words for a 12-year-old. When I got home from school that day I begged my parents to take me to Seattle to see her. They said no, that it was probably better for me to remember her the way she was than to see her this way. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. A week later, on Memorial Day, the phone rang as I walked in the door after a baseball game. I knew in my gut, before my mom even answered that call, what it was about. My BFF had been removed from the life support machines that afternoon and was gone. I went to my room and fell to pieces. Life took on a whole new perspective from that point on. There were no longer any guarantees. Kids don’t always live longer than their parents. Life can be unfair. I was told all the usual things adults tell kids: “everything happens for a reason,” “she’s in a better place,” “she’s not in pain any more,” “you’ll get over it,” “it won’t hurt forever,” blah blah blah. What I wasn’t told was that it was okay to live in my sorrow for as long as I needed. I don’t remember being told that everything I was feeling was legitimate and important.
This lack of dealing with emotions for any amount of time is fairly common in my family. Not that we didn’t have moments of heartbreak and sadness, they just didn’t last long, or at least not outwardly. I don’t remember my parents crying over the loss of their parents or pets or even on really crappy days. I’m sure they did, I just think that maybe they hid it from us because they were trying to shield us, but maybe that isn’t the way to go? My grief over my BFF lasted for years, but all internally. What if I had been encouraged to talk about my feelings and had been validated for them. What if I had been told that sometimes shitty things happen and there is no reason for it. Would I be better at communicating my feelings now?
When I think back on the last 9 and a half years with Zoe, I don’t actually remember crying or embracing my grief any more times than I could count on my fingers. I actually asked my husband about this because, how is that possible? That’s crazy, right? Especially considering what we have been through. I remember crying the day I got the phone call when I was 20 weeks pregnant and told by a nurse that Zoe had a congenital diaphragmatic hernia. A what what what??? I remember getting mad and getting angry and crying and crying and crying and then I remember pulling myself together and thinking, well, let’s freaking do this! And then, instead of grieving any more I powered through. I went to the neonatal doctor appointments and was VERY realistic about the ultimate prognosis. When I went into labor, I pushed her out like a freaking machine and then immediately ordered Jason to go with Zoe to the resuscitation room. I don’t remember it but Jason says, the second Zoe was born the nurses flipped her onto my belly and I started sobbing. I’m guessing that was mainly due to the drugs and also because I was told that touching Zoe was not going to be an option. And then it actually happened. Instead of that beautiful memory though, I remember yelling at him “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine, go with Zoe!” I got showered and dressed and was at her NICU bed within an hour. And then I didn’t leave. I sat stoically and quietly by the bed, I read to her and played her music and rested my fingers on hers. I made her tiny hair bows that I stuck on her scalp with KY jelly (thanks to the awesome NICU nurse for that tip) But above all I stayed calm. I joked with the nurses and I made myself walk away for at least one meal a day. I stayed calm for Zoe because what else could I do? I’m not saying I didn’t sometimes get teary or pissed off or that I didn’t cry for a whole minute when she was wheeled away for surgery. But those moments were oddly minimal. I remember thinking that every minute, every hour, every day we spent with her was more time than some other parents had with their kids and therefore I should be grateful and shouldn’t have anything to grieve about. The first time I remember myself all out breaking down was 3 months into this journey when we were driving from the hospital in Portland where Zoe was born to Seattle Children’s Hospital. Zoe and Jason were ahead of me in the ambulance and I was following in our car. And boy did I cry! I probably shouldn’t have been doing that while driving, but you know, I’m stubborn. I was terrified: new hospital, unknown future, and no one there to watch me cry. It was the perfect storm for the outlet of 3 months of pent up grief and emotions.
But really considering all we’ve been through, I just haven’t let myself grieve. Why? Part of it is just the logistics of being a medical mama. You have to be brave and put on that mom face. You know, the one that tells your child it’s all going to be okay. She is the one going through the shit, so you better buck up and be brave if she has to. But I really think that part of it is that I was taught as a kid that emotions and feelings aren’t something you discuss or indulge for very long. You can have them, but then you need to move on. I never really thought about it and, in fact, I always rather liked my strong, German/ Scottish/ Norwegian emotional constitution that could take on anything, I thought of it as one of my biggest strengths. But, as I watch Zoe grow and feel and experience life, I kind of want the exact opposite for her. I want her to be able to talk, to be able to feel, to be able to sob, to be able to have her heart break into a million pieces and I want to be the one there to tell her feeling all those emotions is okay, that she is allowed to feel those feelings as long as she wants to. That her every emotion is validated and valued.
This past Mother’s Day, I struggled. I woke up to Zoe and Jason bringing me coffee and flowers and we hung out for few minutes and then we all went on with our day as usual. I made breakfast, did some laundry, danced with Zoe. Then I realized my anger was for some reason building. I’m still figuring out what was the catalyst, but what I do know was that when I went to get ready for the day, I lost it. I was standing in the shower and I suddenly wanted to scream. I started to fall apart. So what did I do? I made myself stop because I was afraid I might never stop and because I was afraid my husband would walk in and I would have to try explain why I was mad and sad and done with the day and I didn’t know how to explain any of that. Because crying is not what I do.
I share these thoughts because I need to acknowledge that if I am asking my daughter to open up and feel then I better damn well do that too!
Grief is an unavoidable side effect of life and it is my choice to acknowledge its presence and my choice to decide how I would like to deal with it. For right now, I am choosing to try to talk about it, to air my thoughts with my husband (and apparently the world, since I’ll be posting this soon). I am not quite ready to sob like Zoe did the other day with Clyde, but you know what, I just might the next time I take her back to surgery, or listen to her cardiologist talk about scary next steps, or watch her struggle to keep up with her peers, or watch the movie ‘Wonder’. For now, I’m taking baby steps. They still add up to miles in the end.