Category Archives: Life Purpose

A dog’s death helps put human loss into perspective

I have lost a loved one, a colleague, a boss and a dog in the last half of 2018. I am grieving my dog’s death most deeply of all — and not only because it was the most recent. I was present for the emotional, messy aftermath of the death and for the tending and burial of the body in a way that the funeral industry and sanitized social norms rarely allow us to be, any longer, for human beings.

Griffin, a miniature schnauzer, was only six and a half years old when he died after escaping the yard of the rural farmhouse outside of Mankato where my husband and I were staying for my stepmother’s funeral. Whether a vehicle struck him or he died of a stroke or heart attack, we will never know. His body was intact. David, my husband, had no blood on his hands after retrieving our pet from the cold, dark road. Aside from the eerie dead eye, unblinking and black as coal, Griffin looked afterward like he was asleep, tucked into his little “nest,” as we called his dog bed.Lucy and Griffin

Facing the particulars of our dog’s death is helping us grieve in a way that our “mourning-avoiding culture”— as the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado calls it — deems improper for human beings. If we are present for death at all, an undertaker quickly whisks away the body, leaving loved ones little time to absorb the blow. If the body is present at a memorial service, it typically is in a closed casket or made up beyond recognition like a perfect mannequin.

I convinced my husband to cover Griffin’s body with a T-shirt after we determined he was dead (“Wake up! Just wake up!” I was shouting inside my head as I felt the still-warm body for a pulse). I cited the covering as a sign of respect, but it really was for my own comfort. The next morning, nearly sleepless, I could not look at Griffin’s face again as he laid in the kitchen, still tucked inside his bed. I raised the covering in back to see the flank of his lifeless form. At the suggestion of my sister, a dog lover, we let our other dog, Mia, sniff the body to say goodbye. David and I both felt negligent and nauseous. We each cased the road for any sign of tire marks or fur, blood or bodily matter. Nothing there, no answers.

We brought Griffin home to St. Paul, and I watched as our older son helped bury the dog he loved in the backyard. My husband’s back heaved with sobs as he lowered Griffin into the grave. Gone too soon, this happy creature whom David adored, so much so that I jokingly referred to Griffin as “the grandchild.” My son told me later he had never seen his father cry.

“He cried when you were born,” I said.

‘I don’t know what to say’

I had an unsettling dream three weeks after Griffin died. He was with us again in the city, but he was running away. I saw him beneath a moving car, managing to keep pace between the tires. I knew he could not last long with his squat body and short legs. I knew he was gone for good. Was my subconscious trying to tell me that a car really had hit Griffin, that the premature death had been our fault?

Twice I have had the privilege of being present with loved ones close to their time of death. I returned to the bedroom of my mother’s memory care unit moments after she had gasped her final breath, her face composed again, at last, her confusion eased. Years earlier, I was the last person other than his partner to see my friend D.L. alive. I still recall the words I whispered and the way I stroked his head.

These memories are holy, but they are not the norm. News of the other three deaths this year came via phone calls. I was sad to hear of my stepmother’s passing at 91, but her death was neither shocking nor unexpected. The other two deaths stunned me — a 31-year-old colleague killed at his lake cabin while cutting down a tree, my boss felled at home by a heart attack five days later, only hours after we had texted about some work issue. Like Griffin’s demise, these deaths struck without notice. Two people who mattered to me were simply gone.

I am neither the widow nor a relative of either of these men. We were colleagues but not close friends. Maybe that’s the point: I feel this ambiguous loss —yes, I am reading the Pauline Boss book of the same name — but have few people with whom to share it.

A woman who used to office on my floor tried to buy a card after my boss died last July but couldn’t find one. “I don’t know what to say,” she told me with a sheepish shrug. Curious, I Googled “death of a boss” and came up with a blog post by a woman who makes teddy bears from the scraps of dead people’s clothing and an advice-driven column about how to cope until your dead boss is replaced. The Google search “death of a colleague” yielded a few more results, but even those focused primarily on how to remain productive.

“Few if any supportive rituals exist for people experiencing ambiguous loss,” Boss wrote in her acclaimed 1999 book. “Their experience remains unverified by the community around them, so that there is little validation of what they are experiencing and feeling.”

When our dog died, the teenager next door brought us homemade sugar cookies. My backyard neighbor placed a wreath of dried flowers on Griffin’s grave. Funny that outreach for a pet comes more naturally than outreach for a person — unless you post the news on Facebook, in which case a sad face or a generic “you are in my thoughts and prayers” seems to suffice these days for authentic communication.

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Cooking for funerals and other feminine arts

“You’re cooking a lot lately,” my husband said recently on one of the below-zero days that has defined our Minnesota winter. Actually, I have not been spending more time than usual in the kitchen. He is just reaping fewer of the rewards.

A plastic tub of banana muffins made with honey, oatmeal and mini-chocolate chips went to Mary, whose father died at 93. We delivered sweet potatoes with ginger and orange juice to Karen, after her third surgery for a detached retina appeared to be successful. (She had reminded me that “orange vegetables” are good for eyes.)Beef stew photo

Earlier we had brought her a calories-be-damned comfort meal of beef stew adapted from my mother’s ’60s-era recipe and soft spoonbread full of oil and cheese.

It is both a sign and a symptom of my sixty-something stage of life that homemade food is the essential gift to nourish friendship. Parents’ funerals have replaced weddings as the defining ritual of our age. Health has become less an assumption and a birthright than a blessing that can vanish in a flash.

My own mother died in September 2015. The spontaneous gifts of food from friends and colleagues meant so much that I noted them in my eulogy:

  • Rachel’s platters of fresh vegetables delivered the day she heard the news
  • Sarah’s homemade desserts for the funeral reception
  • Cathy’s fresh rolls and minestrone, still warm from her stove
  • Kate’s vegetable soup, which she urged me to freeze and then reheat on a day when we were overwhelmed with company.

When my father, a more conventional Christian, died last October, the women of the church served up a meal of tuna hot dish, fresh fruit and slabs of cake on paper plates. The United Methodist Men’s group that he attended for years was not in evidence.

Neither did any male friends bring gifts of food when my parents died. Cooking as a tasty and tangible sign of caring remains a feminine ritual among us aging feminists.

Kitchen confidential

I was a 34-year-old career woman who out-earned her husband and hadn’t yet decided whether to have a second child when Hillary Rodham Clinton made her infamous, on-camera remark about not having “stayed home to bake cookies and have teas.”

Clinton was an emerging hero to feminists of my age and ilk, middle-class white women whose mothers had forsaken any dream of paid careers to be homemakers and helpmates to their husbands. Today’s cultural commentators would call us “privileged,” and we were, but not for the reasons they might claim. We were the first generation of our race and class to have choices: about work, about reproduction, about marriage. About all of it.

Taken in that time, 1992, and in that context, Clinton’s “cookies” comment was more bold than condescending.Cookies

“Hillary was a revolutionary,” I told my younger son in 2016 when he caucused for Bernie Sanders. “You might not see it now, but for a woman then to be a lawyer and wear suits and keep her name and have only one child was remarkable.”

I am grateful, at 60, to recognize that “women’s rights” takes many forms and that feminism, at its core, means having the freedom and opportunity to be whomever you want to be. I practice some of the feminine domestic arts out of necessity. Preparing meals is cheaper and more healthful than eating out. Knitting is relaxing and can carry me through a multi-segment Ken Burns documentary. Cotton pants and blouses require ironing to look professional.

Cooking for others? That is a true gift of the heart and a legacy of yesteryear’s “church ladies” that I eagerly uphold. I keep the refrigerator and pantry stocked for my sons when they drop by. I relish cooking dinner during my brother’s annual Christmas visit. I am the first to volunteer to host potlucks for friends and neighbors.

“I’m just someone who likes cooking and for whom sharing food is a form of expression,” says no less an accomplished woman than Maya Angelou.

Who knew that the future of our democracy came down to baking cookies? Had Hillary recognized  the domestic arts as no threat to her independence, she may have softened her divisive qualities and sharp-edged reputation. We could have had a different president.

Chew on that.

Happy New Year? That’s up to you and me

Nothing is more over than Christmas when it is done. I feel that as I begin this New Year’s greeting the morning of December 26. We spent too much money. We ate too much food. All of it was an investment in people we love: our grown children, our siblings, and the friends and colleagues we are blessed to have.

But now the wind is blowing strong. A Christmas Day storm has left the streets rutted with ice. We are back to daily life, still facing the real-world problems that we briefly escaped over the holidays.

My neighbor’s empty house was nearly vandalized on Christmas Eve, because some desperate soul — perhaps addicted or unemployed — lacks the empathy to recognize how his criminal, intrusive actions will haunt this family for years to come.

A man chastised me on a neighborhood Facebook group the other day because I complained about the slippery sidewalks at the soon-to-open CVS drugstore near my house. “Caught in a war zone in Syria. Living in such poverty [that] starving is the norm vs. sidewalks aren’t shoveled where I like to jog. #FirstWorldProblems.”

Sanctimonious, to be sure (or, as my son said, “what a dick”), but I see the man’s point. Looking beyond my relatively privileged life to the real burdens some people face seems especially important at the end of 2016, seven weeks after an election that dashed my hopes for a more inclusive, benevolent society.

Counting blessings is the surest antidote to the inevitable post-holiday letdown. It also is a positive start to 2017, a year when my primary intention is to figure out how to contribute my time and talents to the causes I care about.

Blessing No. 1: A middle-class safety net protects my family.

present

My husband lost his job barely three weeks before Christmas, and I earn significantly less than I was making in a previous management position. Paying our mortgage and monthly bills on my salary alone will be a stretch.

And yet: We own property that brings us income. We have savings we can tap. My husband is able-bodied and employable.

Born and raised in what is now the declining middle class, my husband and I were taught not only how to save money but to invest it. Modest inheritances from deceased relatives have helped put our sons through college. My job provides health insurance and a generous retirement plan. Because we have maximized those privileges, we will make it. The uncertainty is scary, but we will be all right.

Blessing No. 2: Having less money is helping me discover who I really am.

We hosted three different Christmas celebrations this December, and the one where I recognized what I truly value was at a potluck gathering of working-class people whom I had never met. The mother and grandparents of my older son’s girlfriend, our guests talked about their jobs as a means to an end, not as some noble calling or an integral part of their identity.

That notion that the professional is personal — that title and salary confer self-worth and justify self-importance — has gnawed at me for the past two and a half years, since I sidetracked my career and stepped into a job that affords me less income but more time for résumé-enhancing activities such as blogging and going to graduate school.

present_2Having less money this Christmas forced me to give presents of homemade food or inexpensive items that required thought and creativity. Similarly, spending an evening laughing and talking with people for whom work is not their lives helped me, finally, to quit apologizing for my unconventional career choice and to reacquaint myself with the reasons why I made it.

Blessing No. 3: I have learned the practice and necessity of gratitude.

Back in 2011, a spiritual adviser asked me to exchange a gratitude list with her by email every night. The practice helped me notice and recognize blessings such as good health and strong friendships, the ability to support myself, and the dogs who bring me companionship and joy.

The discipline of that gratitude exercise carries on in my ability to seek perspective when I’m upset, to respond rather than react to disagreements or unpleasantness, and to remind myself daily of all that is good about my life.happy-new-year

“You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessings,” writes essayist and novelist Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s a modern take on an ancient Biblical passage: To whom much is given, much will be required. 2017 can be a Happy New Year but only if each of us, individually, thinks and acts communally — and has the grace to share what we’ve been given.