Category Archives: Death

A Shelter in Stormy Weather

Have any of you wondered what the name Open Hearth Studio is all about?

stormy weather - hail on grassWhen I think of the image of the Open Hearth, what I see is an old fashioned kitchen: a shelter from the stormy weather outside. I envision a life centred around the fireplace where it is warm, bright, and comfortable, and where conversation is intimate. This is the environment that I try to create, despite not having a fireplace in my studio! This is the atmosphere where I believe healing can happen. I’m writing this in a brief sunny moment, right after a sudden and surprising hail storm.

People usually come to Open Hearth Studio in the midst of the most stormy and stressful periods of their lives:

when they are grieving, or struggling with a big change, either happening in the present or coming up on the horizon.

Grief, loss, and change can arrive much like that hailstorm – we might know that it’s natural, but it might have surprised us if it arrived without warning. We’re certainly having a lot of feelings, and some of them might not make sense or seem “right” to us. A move, retirement, or job change can be exciting and full of potential, and it can also bring feelings of loss and fear. A divorce can feel devastating, and sometimes we see a glimmer of new possibilities.  A new diagnosis can be frightening, and yet there may be some relief that at last you know what is wrong. Death can come with terrible sadness, worry about the future, and confusion. Yet alongside it may live tender memories, feelings of love, and gratitude for suffering ended.Stormy Weather

So the invitation is to come in out of the cold, stomp the snow off your feet, and settle down for a healing conversation, where all the parts of you – the pain, doubt, confusion, love, and hope within you – can be met with warmth and acceptance, and where you can move towards reconciliation and healing. The Open Hearth (even without a real fireplace) is waiting for you.

This month, I am offering an introductory Art Therapy Workshop for grief called “Art to Ease a Grieving Heart” where you will

  • Connect deeply with yourself so you can discover exactly what you need to avoid emotional overwhelm as you grieve.
  • Learn how to communicate with family and friends about expectations so you can make plans and decisions without defensiveness or guilt.
  • Create a concrete self-care plan for dealing with important milestones and special days to help you stay grounded and moving forward in your healing.

You can find out more about it on my workshops page, and registration is available online at Eventbrite or by contacting me directly by email or phone (250) 595-0405.

Pet Loss: Grieving For My Dog

Audrey - by Marion Evamy
Audrey’s memorial portrait by Marion Evamy of Red Art Gallery

I’ve been preparing to write this post for about 8 months…

thinking that it would be helpful for those who have felt left out of the discussion around grief because they are “only” grieving the death of a pet. For those who have been told that pet loss is “not the same” as mourning a person. In a sense, that much is true. There is no such thing as “the same” grief.  Every death is a terrible loss. Every grief is a complex experience of memory, pain, and myriad other emotions. No one wins in the competition of “who hurts worse?”

My dog, Audrey, died four weeks ago, and the preparation made no difference at all.

I have been conscious of watching myself grieve pretty constantly since then. It’s an odd experience, being fully immersed in the feelings and direct experience, and then unexpectedly finding myself popping back up into my head to think “I’ll have to remember this, so I can write about it later.” I don’t really recommend it, but it’s what is happening, so I guess I’ve just got to go with it. My hope is that both you (and later I, too) will find it useful.

Having to hit the “reset” button every other moment …

For me, anyway, that’s what it felt like for the first few days. That scuffle I’m hearing: no, that’s not Audrey following me, it’s just wind outside. Her collar jingling? No, that was a cellphone in the next room. Thinking that I should wait a few more minutes before getting up to go to the kitchen to make sure Audrey’s soundly asleep so I don’t disturb her? Oh, she’s not here; I can get up and do anything I want without bothering anyone. Except what I want is to have her here, to have to (to be privileged to) consider her, to be irritated by her constant needs. While I am surprised less frequently by her absence now, after a month (which feels like about two weeks), it still happens more than I expected, and I imagine that it won’t go away entirely any time soon.

Self-Care, whether you think you need it or not

I  thought it might be a hard decision to cancel appointments in my Art Therapy practice when Audrey died. I knew I’d “probably” need to give myself the same time and permission I advise to others to deal with her inevitable death. Good old ego, thinking only in terms of “probably,” and thinking that all the other pet losses I’ve “had experience” with would have anything whatsoever to do with this loss. I thought I’d feel responsible and a little guilty, so I might let myself waffle a bit on self-care. In the end, there was no question. I didn’t want to see anyone. I wanted so badly not to see anyone that I gratefully accepted my clients’ graceful responses to my last-minute emails telling them I had family circumstances that required my attention for two days. Thank goodness I did. And thank goodness there was a weekend and a “business and paperwork day” as a buffer zone in there too. I would have been good for absolutely no one if I had stuck it out and kept my appointments. I’m still catching up on paperwork.

So what would be useful for me to say here?

It surprised my “witnessing self,” how many of my assumptions about my own reactions were inaccurate. I thought my previous experiences were going to make more difference for me than they did. I thought I was completely committed to one particular course of action, and in the end I went with something else. What my heart wanted in the moment was stronger than any of my rationally considered plans. Perhaps what I want most to get across here, and what I know is still just outside the reach of my language, is the sensation of grief, beyond the whirling thoughts that want to explain explain explain – not really able to mask the true experience. No matter how often I slide upwards into heady observations, turning clever words and ideas over and over in my mind, that I would write a great little essay with, the solidity of the feeling remains, and grows oddly comforting. Stay with that, I remind myself. That is the truth; that is the medicine that will heal me.

Since my own art and poetry haven’t quite come through yet, I leave you with the image of Audrey painted by Marion Evamy of Red Art Gallery (above) and the words of David Whyte, a master of finding words for grief:

THE WELL OF GRIEF

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

from River Flow
New & Selected Poems
Many Rivers Press © David Whyte

Acceptance and the Unexpected

audreynov2016I’m pretty sure I owe you all some news. I’ve been asked off and on for the past few months, often tentatively and apologetically, whether my dog Audrey was still alive. I wrote some months ago about the expectation that she would die soon because of an inoperable cancerous tumour. It’s a funny thing, expectation. When a vet (or a doctor in human medicine) tells you that illness has taken hold and that death will come immanently, you tend to make plans based on the numbers given. “You have about six more good months; you should do what you can to wind up your affairs and make every day count.” “She’s close to the end, you should come and visit now while she’s still lucid.” Or in my case, back in March, “July’s a really long time from now, for her, I don’t think you will be needing a pet-sitter for that trip you have to take.”

July was four months ago, and while I still think in terms of “will she be here for (whatever the next holiday or visit is)?” I have become pretty used to Audrey still being here. We joke that she is “the dog that never ends, yes she goes on and on my friends…” like the children’s song that goes around and around (and never ends). Under the joke though, is the sure knowledge that one of these days we’re going to have to go through whatever her death will look like. I am reminded of a line in an obituary (and I’m not sure if this is a real memory, apocryphal, or from my own imagination) that says someone died “suddenly, after a long illness.” That’s what it feels like. We can expect the inevitable, but no matter what, somehow it still manages to sneak up and grab us by surprise. And so we waver, caught in that gap between expectation and acceptance.

So I’m writing this little piece to simply let you know, Audrey is still here. She’s even slower, has the same temper, and the same sweetness that lies just under her skin if you take the time to let her show it. I have to help her up and down the stairs, but she still seems to be happy to be a dog, despite her limitations and occasional limp. For whatever reason, she perfectly happily munches up her various pills without needing the bribe of a treat. We suspect she’s trying to make up for her old habit of snapping before thinking. Good dog, Audrey.

Living in Dying

2013-09-02 19.50.03I know my dog is dying.

Audrey has been with us for almost three years, and, honestly, she rescued me, not the other way around. She is 15, of uncertain heritage with something of a wolfhound, and something of a border collie in there somewhere. Her temperament has always been uncertain as well. Not too trusting, not always polite, but quick to feel terribly ashamed of her bursts of temper.

We have a lot in common. I have always been a person who experienced what an old teacher of mine called “creeping enlightenment” rather than those sudden cataclysms of joyful change. As I watch Audrey move towards what is inevitable for us all, in her own doggy way, I find myself experiencing those new and painful cracks within that tell me I’m growing again. The creeping vines of changing awareness are once again at work inside me and I’d better be prepared to make some room for them. Open a window, let more light in, drink more water … and find the courage to let people in to support me, to be my trellis.

I watch her for cues and clues to what she needs, and find I need those things too as I prepare to wade into grief again. We walk much more slowly now. We save our energy for when the foolish squirrel  wanders into our vision and THEN we put on a burst of speed, and enjoy the hell out of the 10 second run, goofy grin on both our faces. She needs to watch what she’s eating, so as not to disturb the very inconveniently placed tumour that won’t stop growing. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if I paid more attention to my diet too… We stop and smell every … single … thing …. I stop multi-tasking with my phone while I’m walking her and let myself notice that there’s a certain flower bed in our nearby park that has been planted with hundreds of hyacinths that bring me memories of a t-shirt in grade 5 that had (yes, really) a scratch-and-sniff decal of a hyacinth on it. She is clear when she’s done and wants to go home. I have a harder time with that one.

Each new grief brings back memories of every dying we have ever experienced.

I remember my friend who died on the last day of high-school. I remember the boy who took his own life in middle school, who I so regret not making my friend. I remember my grandparents, each of whom died in their own way, consistent with who they were. I remember other pets, from Tippy to Sean to Nanna to Zeke and on and on. I remember and revisit the traumatic experiences when death has come too close to my beloveds. Through the surgeries I’ve had to wait through, breathlessly, when the mortality of my parents, my nephew, my child, my friend reaches up and slaps me in the face. And then not just theirs but mine, and yours, and every living thing. If I’m not careful, I step back into the fear. I step back into the closed room where the sun doesn’t shine and the vine cannot grow.

Instead, I’m going to choose to walk with Audrey. She’s smart, this dog of mine. When she hurts and needs our help, she does let us know -thanks to that wonderful temper! When she’s happy she does not hide it behind dignity. I’m going to honour my memories, the painful and the good, with gratitude. I’m definitely going to be making a lot of art to help me see and hear what my soul needs more clearly! I’m going to keep facing forwards, into the sun. And if I should happen to fracture a bit, in this wonderful tension between past and future that is our current life, then that’s where the vine will creep through, blossom, and bear fruit.