How to do Hard things.

My best friend’s mom just died. That was a hard thing.

I had the privilege of being up close and personal with the process from the moment of diagnosis until after her last breath. It may seem strange to call it a privilege, but Beverly had a beautiful death, surrounded by people she loved, prayers, singing, and even laughter. Her daughter Nancy stayed by her side from the moment she entered hospice until long after she took her last breath. Nancy covered her in flowers, and sat in silence, until we all returned to sing her body in procession to the car that would take her to a forest on Salt Spring Island.

While it was exquisitely beautiful it was also really, really hard. Not just the final goodbye, which Nancy wasn’t ready for, but the whole rapid decline from seemingly healthy at the end of February, to gone at the beginning of June.  I learned a lot by living with my friend during that time and watching how she handled such a hard thing. And I want to share with you…

5 things I learned to get through a hard time.

1. Accept that most things are out of your control. Not just when things are hard, but always. Care people show up at the wrong time, or don’t show up at all, disease progresses faster than expected, flights are cancelled, baggage is lost, dogs poop on the rug, your kid gets dumped by his girlfriend.  What’s within your control is how you respond.* So…

2. Be kind. When you’re going through a hard time, you might become driven by your sadness, fear, anger, or even determination to get through. When things are hard for you it’s easy to become self-obsessed. You forget that others are going through hard times too. So that person who bangs into in the grocery store without apologizing may not be a jerk. She may have been up all night changing a loved one’s diapers, calming night terrors, or trying to get medications right. And don’t just be kind to others. Be kind to yourself. Take naps, eat well, grab some time alone or with friends. And definitely…

3. Ask for help and accept help when it’s offered. My friend’s not one to ask for help. She’s usually on the giving side of the give/take equation. But during this time, she asked for and accepted help. She wisely asked people to do things they were good at and wanted to do. She didn’t expect it to be perfect. She just let them do what they could do in the way they wanted to do it. Any bit of help took some pressure off of her so she could focus on her mom. Whether people rush in to help or not…

4. Be appreciative. Not only did Nancy express her appreciation for friends who stepped in and offered support. She thanked each doctor, nurse, pharmacist, caretaker, janitor, and delivery person for doing their job. Many jobs are stressful, even more are thankless. People were touched by her appreciation and even that she noticed. She wrote cards, gave flowers and chocolates, but mostly just acknowledged what people were doing and said thank you.  To do this all, she had to…

5. Slow Down. When you’re facing something hard you’ll probably notice one of two impulses – Rush through it or Resist it. But unless you’re ripping off a bandage, the better way is to slow down. When you slow down you get a chance to feel your feelings and release them so they don’t build up and erupt in surprising ways when you least expect it. When you slow down you can pay attention to what’s needed, notice and appreciate others, and be present to whatever and whoever you are with. When you slow down you feel your own feelings, which might be scary but suppressed feelings don’t go away – they just get in the way. Slowing down, even briefly, can show you what you need. Hard times are great teachers if you’ll slow down to get the lesson. They are often riddled with beautiful moments if you’ll go slow enough to witness. Nancy’s days were full and challenging but almost every morning we took time on the couch to connect and do some somatic work to support her nervous system to do the hard things ahead. Find simple ways to slow down your experience so you can really be present to it.

*A note from #1 about being able to control yourself. When you’re scared or stressed your nervous system takes over. Once you’re in fight or flight or even freeze, you’re no longer your rational, compassionate, caring self. You are in survival mode. Have you ever looked back and wondered why you yelled or stood stunned? Have you ever been ashamed of your behavior and wished you’d been different? It’s easy to say you can control yourself but to be at your best in hard times, you have work to regulate your nervous system at all times. Find support and exercises to become more resilient. Practice those exercises when times are easy, so you’ve got them in your system when times are hard.

Please share this with someone who might be going through a hard time. And I’d love to hear what you do to get through something hard.

A Love Story

Wednesday was like any other day, until it wasn’t. After my client call I got up to get a glass of water. He always followed me to the kitchen, but today he couldn’t get up. His back legs just wouldn’t work. I watched as he spun and fell on his face. I went to him and gently raised his back end. His front legs crumbled beneath him. I helped him outside where he vomited fiercely, releasing everything from within. I called Mark who came home right away. Making the decision was easy. We have always agreed that we would never let him suffer. I called our vet who was fully booked, but agreed to stay late for us at the end of the day. So we spent a few hours lazing in the shade with him, creating a love sandwich with our bodies.

It was during this time Mark realized the date, October 17th. It was 10 years ago today that Guapo arrived in Santa Monica from Mexico. Mark and I have never been a couple without him, which is why we think of ourselves as a threesome. For the last 10 years he’s always been by one of our sides.

Guapo and I have covered many miles together over the years. When I was healthy we’d wander between 4 and 8 miles a day. We walked a slow two only yesterday. His pace was the rhythm my body had longed for, and through our walks he taught me to live in sync with my own true nature. I learned to open my heart after hurt, to give without doing, receive without guilt and love myself just the way I am. He taught me that there is no waiting – only being.

He’d started preparing us for this day exactly a year ago, when he took his last long hike. Guapo and Mark climbed to the top of Solstice Canyon the way they liked to do, and sat looking out at the ocean, the breeze blowing through his fur and lifting his ears. The next day he was stiff and moved like the 14 year old dog that he was. From then on we stayed on flat surfaces. Though most days he could still do his regular 4 miles, sometimes he let me know he wanted to turn back early. In recent months our walks had slowed to a crawl, a beautiful bridal procession of 6 legs and two hearts. It was a tender joy to pay close attention to his movements, giving him time to sniff and pee without tugging on his aging body. Even then he was teaching me not to mourn what had been, but to love what is. I was humbled and honoured to be by his side.

Anticipating and serving his increased need for care fit seamlessly into the fabric of my life. It was a privilege to massage his muscles and joints, rubbing in essential oils every night. Each week we would drive him up the coast, through the winding roads of Topanga and into the valley where he’d drop into a warm salt water pool and be transformed into the determined working dog of his youth. It filled us with joy to see him this way. It would add spring to his step for days.

When it was just the two of us, I’d ask Guapo to let me know when he was done with it all, and promised I would do right by him. It was clear today he was ready to go. He rested his head on my lap in the car, a ride I wished would be over soon, and never end. Our final act of loving devotion was a lethal injection that killed him in seconds. It shocked me when his head dropped violently and he lay breathless in my arms. We kissed his beautiful face and stroked his silky fur, the two of us a sobbing mess of devastation, cracked open by love like a Rumi poem. It was so hard to let go, knowing I’d never see him or hold him again. That’s one of the hardest lessons to learn in relationship – the beauty of letting go.

Mark and I walked into the ocean that evening, which was still as warm as summer. We thought it would wash away our tears, but they keep coming. As the warm water splashed around us and the sun set behind the mountains, we talked about how blessed we were to have known him, and learned from him. We figure he must have signed a 10 year contract, not a day longer, and it expired today. Ten years trying to teach the two of us is a long time. I hope we’ve been good students.

When we return to the house it feels too small to me, too big to Mark. We are grumpy Goldilocks without our bear to make everything right. As hard as today was, I know tomorrow will be harder. When I stretch my legs over the bed I won’t feel his strong body below me and run my feet through his silky fur, the black patches mysteriously softer than the rest. I will walk to the kitchen without my 60 lb shadow. When I open the fridge door in the middle of the day, I won’t gently slide his sleeping body out of the way, and quietly move him back in place without waking him. I will eat a banana without his big brown eyes daring me not to share it. When I open the front door I will look at his pillow on the porch where he will not be waiting. And somehow I will find the strength to walk, placing one foot in front of the other.

I wrote this on the night of Guapo’s death, two years ago today. It’s part of my love story.