Upon Trauma & Grief…and Writing Again

TW: Death, pet death, drowning

I’ve been absent for a while, unable to feel inspirational enough to write or even to inspire myself. But then Joan Didion, one of my favorite writers, passed away this week. If you read A Year of Magical Thinking (and if you haven’t, you absolutely should), you know that Joan dealt with not only the sudden death of her husband, in front of her, but later the same year, the slow death of her daughter to cancer. From that trauma and pain came her lovely book about grief and healing. Remembering her journey helped me to process the end of my journey. Even writing this, which I’ve been drafting in my head for months, is a huge step forward.

So what happened? In late September, I was working from home alone, except our three dogs: Coco, our elderly girl of 14 1/2, Jax, now 6 and Suki, then 6 months. Coco had been struggling for the last year with some mobility issues but still got raving health reports from our vet. That day, she was struggling a bit, so I had to carry her outside to go to the bathroom. I left her there and walked back inside with the puppy. A few minutes later, I went back outside and realize that Coco was floating lifeless in the deep end of the pool. I jumped in, pulled her out and tried lifesaving measures. I was told later that CPR on an animal, even when performed by a vet, is less than 10% successful. My kind neighbor heard my shouting, ran over and then got her car for a quick drive to the vet we share. Unfortunately, too much time had gone by and Coco did not survive.

My lovely Coco

Processing what had happened was so difficult. I felt responsible even though now I can see that it was a freak accident. At the time, though, it sucked all of the life out of me. The pain was so great, I couldn’t image how people who lose a spouse or a child could ever cope. What I realize now is that the intersection of trauma and grief is a strange one. You never quite get to deal with the traumatic event, the flashbacks, the post-traumatic stress, because you are thrust immediately into grief. You have a husband who you made a frantic call to and rushed to the house only to find you gone. You have a child who lost the dog that she’s spent her whole life with. You eventually need to make arrangements, to say goodbye, to start informing your friends and family. You shield the majority of people from the entire story. You push all those feelings down.

Luckily, I realized I needed a few things. First, I needed an emergency session with my therapist. She was instrumental in telling me that even though this was a pet, I still had to go through the grieving process and especially allow myself to be sad when I needed to. Validating my feelings was important. We also took a nightly walk with our other two dogs, giving them attention and love and allowing my Husband & I to talk out our feelings together. Honestly, we also got a short-term prescription from our doctor for some medication that helped us relax and keep calm. We had to not only take back the pool so it wasn’t a negative place. We also needed to make sure our other dogs knew where to go to get out of the pool if they ever fell in, especially the puppy who had never been swimming.

While these things helped, I still went through a depressive slump. The thing is if you have depression, you can slip into a dark place for a lot less! I wasn’t working out regularly (not even yoga) and I was overeating a lot. Needless to say, running went straight out the window. I wasn’t necessarily eating unhealthy, I just was just eating until I felt over full and even a little sick. It’s a familiar concept for those that self-harm: make something hurt outside so the inside doesn’t hurt so much.

I kept thinking I would get back to “normal” next week, then the week after. Pretty soon it was December and I still was stuck. I think I didn’t want to treat myself well because I was still blaming myself for what happened. The “What Ifs” were the worst. What if I hadn’t gone inside with the puppy, What if I had brought her back in right after she went to the bathroom, What if I was able to get to her quicker.

I read recently that grief is all the unexpressed love you have. In focusing on that love, I have been able to turn some of that love towards myself. I started doing yoga, even if it was only 10 or 20 minutes. Then, I focused again on my eating. Last week, I even fit in some strength workouts. Did a switched get flipped? No. Not even close, but I’m moving forward and pushing through. All I can do is take one day at a time.

I still sometimes sit out by the pool, either sitting on the part of the deck where I pulled her out or just in my chair next to it. I still have flashbacks but I quickly try and replace them with good memories. My husband and I continually trade videos and pictures and we have some gorgeous pictures of Coco around the house so we are bombarded by beautiful memories.

Coco & the puppy, Suki

Really in the end, life is about processing feelings and moving through. For all I have lost in 2021, I have gained a lot too and that can’t get lost in all the grief. I’m choosing to take all of the unexpressed love and spread it around.

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