Personal

Comparing and contrasting grief

People kindly keep asking me how I’m doing since Mom died. I always say some version of, “This is hard, but I’m okay.” Sometimes I add, “Losing my daughter at the end of last year was so wicked hard that losing my mom feels like a walk in the park.”

Rana the last time I saw her, Aug. 2021

Rana’s death was a deep shock that wouldn’t lift for a long time. Then I was furious with her for taking her own life. I was exhausted for weeks. At first I couldn’t sleep at night. But soon I slept hard every night, but still awoke tired. I’m not normally a napper, but sometime in the afternoon I’d just hit the wall and nothing but 20 or 30 minutes of sleep would get me past it. Then I was deeply sad, and I felt lost.

In time, my grief settled into an ongoing sadness, a dull ache. By mid-summer I was starting to enjoy life again, thanks in part to antidepressants and good grief counseling, and Rana wasn’t on my mind every day anymore.

All my life I expected that my mother’s death would tear me apart. I adored Mom and always felt very close to her. She was a source of safety for me as a child, and she did many lovely things for and with me that are lasting good memories.

Mom watching my brother run track, Spring 1985

After Dad died, my relationship with Mom became unsettled. Not only was she grieving, but also she was figuring out what she wanted and who she was without her husband. This altered some of our familiar patterns and occasionally left one or the other of us feeling a little alienated from the other. It was never serious, but we needed to have some conversations to make amends and find new patterns.

We were still working things out when the cancer came. The treatment wiped her out, as treatment does. Then, thanks to osteoporosis, her vertebrae started developing hairline fractures, one by one, with treatment and recovery each time. She wasn’t able to do very much. All she wanted was to be able to run her errands, see her friends, and work in her garden, but all of this was severely curtailed. She watched a lot of TV, and she lost a lot of weight, mostly muscle. “This sucks, Jimmy,” she said. “If this is the rest of my life, I don’t want it.”

I was relieved for her when she died. I was relieved for my brother and me, too, as we felt helpless while she suffered and declined. The devastation I feared never came. I’ve felt like a hundred pounds have been draped over my shoulders, and my mood is low. There have been a few very rough days. But this grief is young yet, and who knows how it will unfold. At least I’m functioning reasonably well.

Margaret with her parents, Jo Anne and Walt, at Mass in April, 2018

We lost my wife’s mom, Jo Anne, in the summer of 2019. I’d known Jo Anne, and Margaret’s dad, Walt, only since about 2014, as I came late to the family party. They were a dear couple, devoted to their faith and their family. Jo Anne was smarter than she usually let on, and she had a wonderful creative streak.

Her deathbed was in Margaret’s sister’s home. All of Margaret’s seven brothers and sisters, plus husbands and many of the 20+ grandchildren, gathered more than once to pray the rosary over her. She was conscious for many days as she slowly faded away, and was able to interact with her family on some level until nearly the end.

When she died, I was saddened, and I felt the loss. But I’m not sure I’d say I experienced full-on grief; I had known her only a handful of years, and we weren’t close. I mostly felt bad for Margaret, and tried as best I could to be there for her.

Jeff and Mariah just after they eloped in January, 2018

In April of 2018 we lost Mariah, Margaret’s son Jeff’s wife. It was an accidental death. Jeff struggled through his 20s to find his footing and build a stable adult life. He had some staggering setbacks. So did Mariah. Their difficult experiences lined up well enough that they understood each other. They were crazy about each other, and I think Mariah is the love of Jeff’s life. Her sudden death was traumatic for us all. Margaret and her daughter Lain were devastated, as they knew her well and loved her very much. I wasn’t as close to her, but even so her death felt like being hit in the head with a baseball bat. I staggered through my life for weeks, reeling. But when that passed, I was mostly okay again.

Dad with his new puppy, Shadow, in about 1991

I say mostly okay because I had lost my father in January that year. Dad and I had a challenging relationship; I wrote about it at length. He loved me to the best of his ability, and I think I loved him. I was attached to him for sure. But I often felt terrorized by him as a child. He was easily angered, and when angry, he was harsh and punitive. For example, when I was a boy he grew tired of me not putting my Big Wheel (a plastic tricycle) away when I was done with it, so one day he made me watch while he sliced it in half on his band saw. I worked hard to forgive his bad behavior toward me so I could be at peace.

In my 40s, I finally realized that the only way I was going to have a relationship with him was on his terms. I was deeply disappointed, as I hoped for greater openness and closeness. I was never happy about it, but in time I came to accept it. He loved to argue, and I learned the hard way to refuse to be baited. He was always interested in my career, so we mostly talked about work.

Dad learned he had lung cancer in 2007. His cancer metastasized in 2017, and he died the day after his birthday in January, 2018. I wasn’t very sad and I didn’t miss him. I still don’t miss him. But the first year or so after his death I was anguished and angry over the terrible lost opportunity, a lifetime of next to never having the close, warm relationship I always wanted with him.

Gracie and me
Me and Gracie in about 2009

On Thanksgiving day in 2013, my dog Gracie died. My first wife picked her up as a stray and it was clear she had been abused. She never fully recovered from it and was always a difficult dog.

I got our two dogs in the divorce. Sugar, our Rottweiler, died within a year. She was the best dog I ever had, and I missed her, but I didn’t grieve for long. I guess we just weren’t that close after all. Gracie, on the other hand, was the dog I never wanted. But after Sugar died, she bonded hard to me — and in time, I to her.

Gracie lived to be very old, at least 18. In her later years, she slowed down considerably and became deaf. This only drew us closer as I took greater care of her and even worked out hand signals to communicate with her.

She died on my parents’ kitchen floor. I felt my heart breaking as she lay there dying. I was torn up that she drew her last breath while I was on the phone with the emergency vet.

But she was just a dog, right? I went right back to work as if nothing had happened. But I missed Gracie terribly. I cried a lot for weeks, and it hurt for a year. I still miss Gracie, nine years later. I’ll never understand our bond, but it was deep and strong. I moved out of the house we shared in 2017, four years after Gracie died, but I never stopped expecting to see her lying in the nook created where my desks intersected in my office. It was her perch; she could see and hear much of the house from there. I never stopped being disappointed she wasn’t there. I seldom remember my dreams, but when I do, Gracie is often in them.

From all of this I conclude that the experience of grief varies widely, and depends on the relationship you shared with the person (or dog), as well as timing, namely what else has happened in your life, especially lately.

But I’m tired of grieving. I’m ready to move past it. Unfortunately, Margaret’s dad has been in painfully slow decline for a year now, and is under 24-hour medical care. He can’t do anything for himself anymore, and spends his days sitting. It’s no kind of life. We all hope he dies in his sleep, tonight if possible, so he can be released. But that’s one more grief to suffer.

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Gracie in the rear view

Happy face in the rear view
Kodak EasyShare Z730
2008

This photo is a very happy memory. At the height of my road-trip days I usually brought my dog, Gracie, along. She loved to go! I saw this happy look on her face in my rear-view mirror all the time when we’d take to the road.

When we made this trip, in October of 2008, we’d lost Gracie’s constant companion, Sugar, just a couple months before. Gracie was deeply bonded to Sugar and really came apart after Sugar died.

Taking to the road always raised both Gracie’s and my spirits. We went on a lot of road trips in those days. This was the year I surveyed the Michigan Road from end to end over several spring and summer Saturdays. I had wrapped up that trip at the end of August, shortly after Sugar died.

Gracie and I were well overdue for a road trip when we made our next, and last, trip of the year on that October Saturday. We explored Indiana State Road 42, which begins just southwest of Indianapolis in Mooresville, and leads to Terre Haute. It parallels I-70 and US 40, but as a narrow two-lane highway with lots of 90-degree turns, it’s a far less convenient route. But Gracie and I had a wonderful day together, out exploring. We were both in our happy place.

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Photography

single frame: Happy face in the rear view

A happy dog, road tripping with me.

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Sleepy

Tired road-trip companion
Kodak EasyShare Z730 Zoom
2009

While Gracie was still alive, she rode along on my solo road trips. When I had a friend along I generally left Gracie at home as her shedding would fill the cabin with tufts of her fur and it wasn’t an experience I wanted to force on my friends. But when my friend Michael and I made this particular road trip down US 50 in Illinois, I brought Gracie anyway because otherwise I would have needed to leave her home alone far too long.

Gracie loved to go out on the road! She’d leap into the wayback of my little wagon and off we’d go. But a long road trip always wore her out. Here, we were on our way back home at the end of the trip. Michael was driving, so I turned in my seat to photograph my dog. That’s definitely her tired face.

Photography, Road Trips

single frame: Tired road-trip companion

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Gracie

Gracie
Canon Canonet QL 17 G-III
Fujifilm Fujicolor 200
2009

It was on Thanksgiving three years ago that I lost Gracie. She was very old, at least 17, and had been in declining health for a few years. She was a difficult dog, but we were deeply bonded. I grieved her passing for a long time.

I took this photograph in 2009 while testing a Canonet QL17 G-III I had just gotten. I didn’t know it leaked light. I was disappointed at the time that the leak marred this photo, because I like this composition. Today, it feels like looking through the mists of time upon my old friend.

Film Photography
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Stories Told

Eulogy for Buckethead

Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime. This is the story of Sugar, a wonderful dog I had who died eight years ago.

My stepson was over at a friend’s house twelve years ago, running around in the back yard, when the Rottweiler next door sailed over the fence and bit him on the leg. The puncture wounds were not serious and they healed without complication. The dog’s owner was mortified, apologized all over himself, and swore he’d keep his dog from clearing the fence again. We decided to let bygones be bygones.

Several months later my wife called me at work. “Jim, the people with the Rottweiler still feel so bad that they’re giving us one of their new pups! Isn’t that exciting?”

If the fact that they wanted to take the offending dog’s progeny did not prove that my wife and stepson were completely mad, the fact that we had a five-month-old baby most certainly did. But as usual I buckled and we got the dog.

Worried about the Rottweiler reputation, overblown if you ask me, my stepson named her Sugar so all would know she was a sweet dog. But when my brother inexplicably nicknamed her Buckethead, it tickled me so improbably that it stuck.

Sugar
The oldest photo I have of Sugar, from about 2000

My little Buckethead was on the small side, having been the runt of the litter, but she was smart, gentle, and obedient. My baby boy used to crawl up to her and yank on her ears, and all she would do was look up at me with long-suffering eyes until I intervened. She favored my wife and followed her around the house, which provided good opportunity for my wife to play “head bitch” (her words, not mine!) so Sugar would know the pecking order and her place in it. Sugar did challenge for top spot a couple times as Rottweilers will do, but my wife put her back in her place swiftly and efficiently. Her care gave Sugar lifelong contentment and happiness. When my wife picked up a stray abused dog, to our surprise Sugar took her under her wing and provided, in her doggie way, much of the same kind of esteem-building structure for Gracie that my wife had provided for Sugar. While Gracie will always have issues, I think Sugar’s companionship gave Gracie a lot of security and kept her from being a basket case.

Gracie and Sugar
Gracie and Sugar, 2008

Our dogs’ job was to secure the back yard against the great squirrel menace, and they poured all of their energy into it. When they spied one in the yard, they tore after it relentlessly, to the unending detriment of the patio enclosure’s screens. One day, a squirrel trying to escape Sugar scaled the maple tree, and then Sugar made a flying leap and scrambled right up into the tree’s crotch – which was six feet off the ground. She momentarily forgot about the squirrel as she looked down at the ground, her body’s tension showing her puzzlement. We had to coax her to jump down from the tree. After she did that, she realized she could go up there anytime she wanted to, and so she did. We used to entice her to do it to amuse our guests.

As she aged, arthritis crept into her joints, ending her tree-jumping days. And then my wife and I divorced. The dogs were hers, and she kept them; I didn’t see either of them for a couple years. But nine months ago she asked me to take them, and what a blessing it has been to have them back! I enjoyed the quiet of living alone, but missed having someone happy to see me when I came home. The dogs have been excellent company, and as the new top dog in their lives I’ve grown much closer to them. Sugar accepted the change with the characteristic good humor and serenity for which I always admired her, and set about making new routines in her new home. (I wish Gracie had transitioned so easily!) But she was almost 11 years old, quite elderly for a Rottweiler, and her arthritis had grown worse and she lacked her old energy. Some days I couldn’t get her interested in a squirrel in the back yard, and even when she did chase one, Gracie would sail off the edge of the deck after it while Sugar went down the steps gingerly before trotting out. I could see that I would have only so much more time with her.

Sugar
Old and tired near the end

Lately she has had some days where she lay around subdued, getting up only to eat and answer nature’s call. Then yesterday her legs gave out underneath her twice while I got ready for work. The second time, she just crumpled into the grass and I had to carry her inside. The vet diagnosed autoimmune hemolytic anemia (AIHA). He said that the treatment for it would be very hard on her, especially at her age, and he estimated only a 30 percent chance of success. He said that without treatment, she’d die within a week – and it would be a horrible death by suffocation as her body destroyed her red blood cells. Yesterday was the end of the line for my poor Buckethead. I scratched her ears and stroked her head until she was gone. Everybody who’s ever had a dog through its old age has a story to tell, and this one’s mine. Gracie and I are both grieving in our way, but we will get along without old Buckethead. I’m telling people that to help Gracie cope with her big loss I’ll be giving her extra attention and making some new routines – tonight, I put her on the leash and took her for a run while I rode my bike, something we’ve never done before. But the truth is these new routines will help me grieve and move on, too. Goodbye, Buckethead! You were an excellent dog.

Sugar
Sugar, 3/1997-8/14/2008
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Shiny dog

This is my favorite photo of my dear, departed Gracie. I had bathed her earlier in the day, leaving her fur good and fluffy. In black and white, her orange fur came out silvery.

Shiny dog • Pentax ME • 55mm f/1.8 SMC Pentax • Kodak T-Max 400 • June, 2012

Film Photography, Photography

Favorite Photos Week: Shiny dog

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