JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

This is going to be a tough month.

Posted by on Jul 6, 2019

Coriall & me, his first day “home”

This is going to be a tough month, I can feel it already. July 2018 was full of loss and pain and now, as the year anniversary of too many memories arrives, the dread I was anticipating is coming true. Fatigue has been an unnatural plague these past few days and as the calendar flips to this precarious month, perhaps an answer comes clear. As I put on my running shoes to force myself to exercise out of this funk, I find a lovely long hair wound up in my socks. It is Mette’s. I find them everywhere. A grief-stricken thought flashes across my grief-laden mind: what would that find be like if I lost her? Tears well for no reason other than a trigger-happy psyche on red-alert for pain. I feel my shoulders tense and taste the bitterness that accompanies the tumbling stomach, spilling acid upwards. I look for salvation but find only the usual mental loop. She is fine, I have more time with her, she will always be with me no matter what, I will survive it no matter what, thank god I found her, I still feel mom so I will still feel her, breathe, breathe, breathe. I almost lost her once already, so the hypervigilance is more than justified.

I had a friend in graduate school who lost her father as a child and so her area of study was grief. She examined sudden vs. expected death for her dissertation and found no difference. NO difference in the experience of grief between knowing and “not” knowing when you will lose someone. Her finding was surprising and not surprising at the same time. Death is grief, period. It makes me wonder if anyone you love creates a subconscious effect of expected death, making “sudden” a farce. I first learned about grief in graduate school in a required course called, “Grief and Loss.” The professor, Dr. Lise Spiegel, was (and still is) a wise, spiritual, vulnerable, kind, and knowing woman who first taught me to be able to confront and then sit with grief. Her ability to tolerate grief was what took me at first, I had not seen that in my nearly thirty years. We read Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, of course, and a slew of others documenting and directing the winding path someone’s grief might take. The ability to tolerate the severity of the emotions of grief is the true challenge for anyone. It rattles you to the core and rightly so. We are emotional beings and being connected to another, actually many others, is what gives us light and love in life. The way Western culture handles grief is not so great. We fear it, loathe it, do everything we can to avoid it, and once it arrives, we fall silent—to ourselves and others, allowing it to wreak havoc on the body, mind, and spirit of all in its path.

This month marks the one-year anniversaries of losing my horse, Coriall, and my mom, Kyp. Both were sudden yet expected deaths. Coriall was twenty-five, a pretty good run for a giant horse who was “rode hard and put away wet” before I found him. He had enough physical ailments to keep me grateful for each day with him. He had this enormous body and this soft, sweet, little boy voice. He called to me every single time he saw me, almost like a song. My mom was seventy-nine, a pretty good run for as many physical ailments as she had. She was tough though, so tough, we thought she would outlive us all. Her colon perforated and because of her lack of health, she was not a candidate for surgery. Before we all knew what had happened, she was in a hospice room, receiving palliative care, heavily medicated to silence the deep pain a perforation causes, waiting for the sepsis to win.

This month, I will share my process out loud and with you for a few reasons. One, I process in writing. This medium came to me later in life and over the past few years, has become more and more important and powerful. Sometimes I write with paper and pen and sometimes I type, it simply depends upon whatever I reach for first. Either way, it helps to tap into a part of the brain and mind that seems inaccessible until the words spill out of my fingers. It is like a freeing of the trapped emotion, and while it doesn’t always feel good in the moment, the release and the relief are incredible. Find your way of processing thoughts and emotions—it makes them much less scary and allows you to grow with them. The second reason is to show an underbelly, mine specifically, but we all have a pink and vulnerable soft spot that we hide desperately. The cost of concealment is astronomical, and I think we will all be better and stronger from showing our weaknesses, which are not really weak. We are born to be connected to others and the only way home is through vulnerability (I tip my hat to Brené Brown here). Find your way to become vulnerable with another. Start small and safe and then keep stoking the fire. You will find it creates more power than you could ever imagine. And lastly, I seek to “normalize” the pain, suffering, joy, and growth the reflection and processing of grief elicits. If you live long enough, you will experience loss and the resulting grief. And loss isn’t always death, sometimes it is a breakup, sometimes it is a job, or sometimes it is a dream. To deny a process is to allow it to fester, for the pain will to continue to grow and need recognition, knowing it will eventually seep out—or explode out. But mark my words, it always gets out. Find a way to let it out, even if it terrifies you, because it will ultimately save you.

I have typed and erased this sentence six times now so I will just spill it out: death can be beautiful. The hesitation in saying this is our cultural inability to relate to it as such. Two days ago, as I was stuck in circling thoughts of grief, my neighbor texted me that the horse in the field next to her house was having a horrible colic and was dying, what should she do? Some background for this story…the horse is ancient, turns out he was thirty-six, and he looked horrible. Skin and bones and sway back that comes with age and perhaps the disconnection from source that occurs with retirement. The concern for this guy was warranted, especially for Barb, my neighbor, who has a heart bigger than Texas. Her relationship with this horse was over the fence, talking to him, giving him food and water when she thought he needed it, and mostly hurting for what looked like a painful existence. It has been hotter than usual this summer (yep) and this week had a few very tough days. When she said he was colicking, it didn’t surprise me given his conditions—both internal and external. The owner doesn’t live near the field where the horse does and was probably working so did not respond to a message right away. Horse people reading this are going bonkers right about now so if you are, please, take a deep breath and instead of jumping to a reaction, wait and see. There is always a deeper cut that we don’t immediately see and cannot possibly know until and unless we ask and want to know.

The “truth” is, it was this horse’s time. The other truth is, it is still hard to watch. I called Barb immediately and asked what I could do to help. Knowing this was much more her call than mine, we talked about alternatives and ideas without breaking any trust or laws while continuing to honor this animal. Her wisdom began pouring out and I could feel her love of all things surround us like an envelope. It was Barb who “knew” it was time for him. She probably knew him best, seeing him every day and having the kind of compassion she has. Barb held vigil for him, sitting under a tree next to the fence that maintained their relationship. As he went through the difficult process of his body dying, she sat with him, near him, talking to him, respecting him, and supporting him. It was a task of such enormity, such graciousness and generosity, I was speechless. We all prayed and sent whatever energy we could mobilize and finally, the owner and a vet arrived. The vet, young and wet behind the ears, offered alternatives to the owner for helping the horse survive. The owner walked over to Barb for consult, “Let him go,” Barb said. Probably one of the riskiest, bravest things she could have said, and she did it out of complete commitment to not only the horse, but also the owner. “Thank you,” she said and went to her horse. The owner then took the horse’s head in her lap and gently caressed his face and neck as he transitioned to the next thing. It was, truly, beautiful.

I was unnecessarily worried about Barb and so we called and said we were coming over with wine and ice cream. As we sat in her living room, Barb shared with us the experience of the past few hours of difficulty, death, and wonder. Projecting my need to process something of this magnitude, I listened intently to her describe all the things she saw and felt. She called it an honor to have witnessed and supported this majestic animal in his transition. Fear was absent, only love and honor were present, something I found almost other-worldly. Perhaps it was the distance, the once-removed relationship to a horse neither of us owned or truly “loved” as part of our family that allowed for such great perspective. Either way, it was amazing to think of death that way and made me reflect even deeper. When Coriall died, I was both devastated and relieved. I knew he suffered physically just being alive and I knew our relationship and how much we loved each other helped offset the pain. It’s the tears I cannot stop that confuse me, like they do now. As a year flashes past, I wonder how I can still miss him so. I was in his stall last night, turning out the horse who now occupies his palace and I swear I smelled him. Sometimes I walk by and look for him out of reflex. For the first months, it made me cry. Then, slowly, as time did its healing thing, I started smiling. This month, perhaps because I have put so much stake in surviving the first year, I cry again.

When the mind gets easy and the heart can take on a greater voice, I feel peace. It is the wrestling match between the two that causes the conflict. My mind hurts without him, but my heart always feels him. There is physiology to it as well. In How Emotions Are Made, researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett describes an actual chemical relationship between beings that experience emotion together. We actually come to rely on others we love to help us regulate our emotions, so when they die or leave us, the physical pain we feel is real. We have a vacancy on the other side so it creates a struggle to self-regulate…you might even see how we become “addicted” to others (my leap of mind, not hers). Missing someone or something is much more than just a poem or a song or a complaint.

Listening to Barb weave together a mixture of elements from helping this horse die made me think about the difficulties I am feeing right now and gave me space. I believe, as she does, that our spirit goes on. I don’t know how but I believe it does. I feel it when I dream of my mom or my Grammy Lill or my sweet Coriall that their spirits are visiting me from some other realm because the feelings are too real for any other explanation! I know cognitively the fear death creates in a sentient being originates in our tribal survival needs but ultimately, lives in our hearts. If only there was a better way to feel about it.

For twelve months, I have thought about this more than any other time in my life, obviously. I have worked hard to sit with my grief like a friend on a park bench and found the exercise peaceful and infuriating, simultaneously and randomly. For the first time, I felt grief ravage my physical state. After my mom died, there were days I didn’t get off the couch and just laid there and cried, void of all energy. I allowed it to wash over me and didn’t resist it when it came, but its power was surprising. “Balance, in all things there must be balance, even in grief…especially in grief,” Jim Loehr told me once. And so, I would cry and then get up, get going, find something to smile or laugh about, find someone or some horse to hug, and restore some balance. And then, rinse and repeat, cry and laugh, grieve and grow.