Sunday, October 11, 2015

Lessons From My Horse, Part 2

What do you do with grief, any grief, perhaps, but more so a really traumatic grief, the kind that didn’t happen at the right time or in the right order, in its proper place?  Those who have never faced this kind of grief don’t have the ability to fully comprehend it.  Those who have are not experts in it.  They only know where they’ve been and where they are.  And even that sometimes feels elusive.  Loss has existed for as long as the world has, certainly longer than humanity has, and yet in societies where we’ve managed to substantially cut our number and types of losses, we’ve also managed to lose our understanding and handling of grief.  We so easily forget.  

Traumatic grief changes people.  It changes every part of who you are.  You fear things you didn’t used to fear.  You don’t fear things you once did.  You have more patience for certain things and less patience for others.  You care differently, see differently, feel differently, experience everything differently.  And you want every person you know and every new person you meet to know all this, to know what happened, to know your life was once one way and is now another, to know that what they see is so little compared to the strange, inexplicable depth beneath that, to know that this is important to you.  But you don’t want to say it, because that doesn’t naturally come up in conversation.  And you want it to naturally come up.  You want it so badly.  You want to be able to say to that new friend, that new co-worker, that new boss, that you got up this morning feeling happy and content about the sunrise and hot tea, and excited about new things at work and that you’re also afraid and sad and basically going crazy inside, and all that feels normal to you.  Because it is normal now.  Because we humans can live in the middle of greater paradox than we think we can.  And because if it ever happens to them, you want them to know they won’t be alone.

Grief is strange.  We can go along for weeks, months, maybe years just living our lives, when one thing that has happened a hundred times, hits a different button than usual and knocks us to the floor, making us feel little different than we did days after the original tragedy.  Someone named that experience for me.  She called them grief attacks.  They show up when they feel like it and don’t bother consulting your schedule first, maybe even forcing you to email your new boss and explain why you can’t function like normal and have to take the day off.  Or maybe not.  But probably.  And you hope she can handle with care the burden that has just been unwittingly handed to her, because not everyone can.

In these dark moments, unplanned and unexpected, the ones where you feel the most out of control, your brain seems to halt all activity of normalcy while simultaneously racing through all your life experiences and relationships desperately searching for the one thing that will make you feel normal again, the thing that will give you back your sanity.  It is no surprise that some people land on destructive behavior.  Sometimes, I’m surprised more don’t.  For some of us, maybe many, the spinning wheel of possibilities slows to a stop not on family or friends, but, interestingly, on our animal companions.  

For many people, in a desperate search for normalcy, we discover no one gives us that better than our animals do.  Our pets are uncomplicated: they eat and they sleep on the same schedule every day, and they love you so long as you keep it that way and maybe even if you don’t.  They don’t ask questions.  They don’t wonder if they’re saying or doing the right things.  They’re not afraid of your loss and your grief, and most of all, they don’t look at you differently for the rest of their lives.  You existing and loving them and feeding them on time is the only criteria they need.  In the kindest way, our animals remind us that time keeps on ticking and the world goes on.  The elderly Ms. Threadgoode remarks in Fried Green Tomatoes, “A heart can be broken, but it keeps on a-beatin’ just the same.”  Sometimes the only heartbeat that keeps us moving is the one we feel when our animals lean up against us.

Last week, I was surprised by grief and had to leave work.  I sent the truth to my boss and a short email to everyone else explaining nothing and saying I wasn’t feeling well and just packed up and left, with tunnel vision, speaking to no one.  It took everything I had to get out while looking like I was at ease, even though I couldn’t get enough air and the world was pressing in around me.  I got in my car and headed out to the one place that gave me peace.  I went to see my horse.  

When I got out of my car and called out her name, her ears perked forward and she looked up and walked toward the fence.  In that moment, when just minutes ago the world seemed crazy and foreign, there is nothing better than a thousand pound animal, in a pasture full of distractions, responding to your voice.

Stella was the first place I went after receiving the news about my sister and nieces; she was my solace in the weeks following, and she brings me peace, even now, when I need it most.  When I walk her in circles and work to get her hind feet moving, she is not wondering how I’m getting by.  As I guide her through serpentines, she is not distracted by my grief.  More curiously, neither am I, because in that moment, I’m focused on what she’s doing and she’s focused on what I’m asking and the world beyond us is of no concern to either of us.  For that hour, all is right and uncomplicated.

What do we do with our grief?  When you’re spending time with the four-legged friends you love, nothing, I suppose.  We don’t have to do anything with it.  As I sat observing a nearby horse clinic today, the trainer encouraged the only pre-teen rider there and said to her, “As you grow older, you’ll discover that things will let you down in this world.  It is true.  It will happen at some point, and it will happen a lot, but your horse--your horse will never let you down.  Not ever.”  Animal companions are consistent and unwavering when all else is muddy and uncertain. They’ll sit with you.  They’ll walk with you.  They won’t ask you awkward questions, and they’ll love you today no differently than they did yesterday.  Because no matter how different you feel and how your heart breaks, their heart keeps on a-beatin’ just the same, and it’ll beat for you until yours is strong enough to start again.  No questions asked.  

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