I’ll let you in on something – the last blog I posted, the one on CBT and ACT from May 1, was mostly written by about April 14 (it just needed a bit of polishing and layout work). I was planning to post it sometime the week of the 17th. But during that week of the 17th, I suddenly felt the need to start writing about another subject. That’s because on Saturday, April 15, the day before Easter, I lost my beloved dog Tucker to complications from a brain tumour.
I say “lost,” but it would be more precise to say that he died from euthanasia. To make a long, sad story short(er), my husband and I had known Tucker had been ill since last fall, but it seemed like his condition had plateaued (thanks to some medications), and we imagined we’d have several more months with our 11-year-old boy. Then that Saturday, his condition declined rapidly and obviously, and we quickly had to come to the decision that we needed to let him go. Through some sort of Easter miracle, we were able to track down a veterinarian on the Saturday of a holiday weekend who was willing to come to our house that very day to carry out the euthanasia, so Tucker’s passing was fortunately peaceful. We were left shocked and grieving, but grateful for the end he was able to have, the end that this sweet, agreeable, loving dog deserved.
My husband and I don’t have kids, so in some ways, our dogs have come to fill that role in our lives. We’ve had dogs (one or, more often, two at a time) for the last 13 years. They are the centre of our household and our lives, and, along with my husband and me, comprise our little family. Tucker was the second of our dogs to die, and like the first time when our dear Duffy died four years ago, it hit us hard.
So following Tucker’s death, I felt the need to write down some of my thoughts about it, as I always do when I’m feeling overwhelmed (after all, that need to write down the stuff in my head was the origin of this blog!). I wasn’t sure at the time whether I would turn my random thoughts into a blog post, and I wasn’t ready to really sort through my grief, so I set those writings aside and went back and finished up my post about my experience with anxiety therapies. It was a nice, neutral topic, so working on it was something of a break from my grieving.
But I guess I’m ready now to start talking about Tucker, the bereavement experience, and how it all fits in with my anxiety disorders.
I’m finding the experience of grieving while also having Generalized Anxiety Disorder a peculiar one. Because of my psychological issues, I’m accustomed to the disconcerting sensation of feeling anxious or overwhelmed without being able to pinpoint the cause of those feelings, often because they have no rational, understandable cause. Grief is different. Yes, I may at various times feel some combination of sad, guilty, grateful, wistful, angry, relieved, irritable, unsettled, happy, and/or confused – but my feelings make some degree of sense to me because I know that this is grief, caused by a specific life event.
At my previously-scheduled regular visit to my psychiatrist a couple of weeks ago, I basically just rambled about how I’d felt since Tucker died, and my doctor reassured me that the jumbled feelings, the disorientation, the irritability, the tiredness, they were all normal expressions of grief. He said all I could do was let my bereavement run its course, to experience it without repression, and to go easy on myself in the meantime.
So for once, the difficult feelings I was experiencing weren’t a sign of something being wrong with me, a mental disorder – they were normal, natural, and temporary, and would most likely go away without treatment. Knowing this was actually quite comforting.
As a result, I haven’t felt the obligation to push myself to get through my usual daily routine if I don’t feel like it. I feel OK about giving in to my feelings, whether that means spending the day lying on the couch listening to poignant music, or binge watching Netflix, or eating a whole lot of chocolate (the one advantage of experiencing bereavement at Easter time was the ready supply of chocolate candy that I already had in the house). If I didn’t want to leave the house for a few days, I didn’t. If I needed to take a day off work, I did. I didn’t feel pressure to try to be “normal.”
I rarely give in to my anxiety in the same way as I have to grief, as much as I sometimes want to. Maybe one reason for that is because some days I find functioning while grieving is actually harder for me than functioning while battling anxiety (possibly simply because I have so much more practice battling anxiety). Grief, especially at the beginning, had me stumbling through my days, misplacing things, staring off into space. I’d turn on a TV show I normally like and suddenly find I couldn’t stand it. The act of dragging myself all the way around the grocery store felt like a marathon on my leaden legs. Something as seemingly mundane as accidentally brushing my hand against a dog coat casually left over the back of a chair would suddenly leave me in floods of tears.
With my anxiety, there may also be days that I would rather skip work or eat comfort food all day (or both!), but I don’t feel that I can give myself permission to do those things. I guess that’s because anxiety is a chronic illness for me, and if I want to be part of the world, I have to learn to cope with anxiety and function at the same time. I don’t really have to learn how to do that with grief, because I know this fog of sadness won’t last. I’m also absolved of the pressure I would normally be inclined to put on myself to do something in an attempt to “get better” – I know I just have to ride this out as best I can. In truth, it’s probably good practice for the “Acceptance” part of my Acceptance & Commitment Therapy.
Another significant difference between my experience of grieving and my usual experience of living with a mental disorder is the difference in how they are perceived. People who know me, who know what my dogs mean to me, immediately understand how losing one will affect me: grief is a normal, understandable part of the human experience (setting aside the occasional lack of understanding one encounters while experiencing pet bereavement in particular). Whereas anxiety disorders are not normal, and often not readily understood. Anxiety is also the sort of thing that you can do a decent job of hiding if you feel so inclined, while having a dog who is suddenly no longer a member of your household is a fairly conspicuous life event, so you have no choice but to be somewhat open about what’s happening. So there can be a discrepancy in the degree of stigma attached to grief (usually not a lot, as long as you steer clear of folks who don’t care much for animals) as opposed to the degree of stigma attached to mental illness (often quite a lot, including self-stigma).
Am I saying that grief is easier to experience than my anxiety disorders? No, I definitely wouldn’t go that far – bereavement has been a very tough slog. I guess I’m just finding that in some ways, grief has been a bit less complicated to handle than living with a mental illness. One thing I do know for sure – as distressing as all of this grief has been, it’s trade-off I happily accept for having had the chance to share 10 wonderful years with a beautiful creature, a creature I loved with all my heart (and will continue to love for the rest of my days), and who loved me unconditionally in return.