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Something From Everything  

For many of us, grief is the ultimate cost of love

The price of love

There he is, the magnificent beast.

He stands watch, regal and perched upon his throne, the padded dog bed inset within our living room’s bay window.

The Border Aussie (Border Collie/ Australian Shepherd) surveys his expansive kingdom. He stands at attention, his tail rhythmically striking the glass pane, as he guards his realm against oncoming Amazon delivery drivers, errant felines and any and all squirrels. He is absolutely, quantifiably and without exception, the best dog.

Except for the times that he isn’t.

That time that I left the barbequed steaks and chicken in the middle of the patio table and returned moments later to find an empty plate licked clean? He was not the best dog then.

Or the many times that I walk with him and our youngest to the school and tie him up at the edge of the playground yard (because I respect the bylaws) and he whines and howls like I’ve abandoned him forever? Not the best dog then, either.

Or that time we reluctantly joined another family's firepit when we were tobogganing and our dog marked his territory on a stranger's folding chair and picnic basket.

Or that one time he jumped onto the trampoline (that he knew he was not allowed on) and pooped in the middle of it? (Yes. That really happened. I can’t make that crap up. But he did, in the middle of our trampoline.)

Truth be told, during the times when my dog is pulling on the leash or attempting to jump up excitedly on an approaching friend, a stranger or a bylaw officer, I am keenly aware my dog is not the best dog ever. At times, I start to wonder if my dog really is a good dog, after all.

It’s occurred to me more than once my dog may, in fact, be a poor listener, a brute and a bit of a erratic.

Still, despite the steaks and chicken and the whining and peeing and even the... er…trampoline incident, he’s still my absolute favourite.

It’s a good thing I like him because he is always right there. Occasionally he will find himself on the wrong end of a closed door, stuck on the front lawn after we bring in the last bag of groceries, temporarily unaware of his absence.

He never ventures far. Eventually we will hear a polite (or impatient) bark and find him sitting at the front door, staring up at us. This is a dog that likes to be close. He curls up on the end of our youngest child’s bed, lying on sheets and making it difficult for my son to pull blankets up over himself. When we allow him up on the couch, he fancies himself a lapdog and splays his furry 60 pound body across our legs.

Whatever favourable features or faults he has, our dog is a member of our family. He gets included in group pictures. He’ll gladly go on any and every outing, even when we have no destination. When we go on weekend excursions or extended road trips, he is always the first into the van.

We pay extra to stay in the loudest, bare-boned hotel rooms on the main floor that allow pooches. And we can be sure by the end of our trip, each and every piece of clothing we own will be covered with dog hair (and maybe a bit of slobber).

It might seem like a steep price to pay—he concessions and accommodations necessary to love a dog like that but it’s really not. We’ve been doing this for nearly a decade now and honestly, it feels strange on the odd occasion when we do have to leave him behind.

I’ve gotten used to him being constantly underfoot. But I know he won’t always be.

Just a month ago we thought we might lose him.

Border Aussies are famously high-energy dogs with well-documented neurotic and obsessive behaviours. So when ours began occasionally licking his left elbow callus, we didn’t think too much of it.

In time, we noticed the licking had become habitual and the callous more inflamed. We began to wrap the leg and when that failed, brought out the dreaded cone. Soon we noticed the inflamed area had become its own distinct growth. By the time we got into the vet, it was roughly the size of a golf ball.

We knew it might be cancer. Our vet agreed and booked a date for the lump to be surgically removed and examined for pathology. The vet was hopeful that the growth was not completely embedded in the leg but said we should prepare ourselves for future surgeries or the possibility of more growths.

We would also have to tell our kids what was happening.

Suddenly, I was 16 again. Hearing the news from my dad that my childhood pet would have to be put down, driving in the car with him to the vet, saying goodbye to my best friend. I remember the heartbreak and the white-hot ignorance-infused anger I had towards my parents because they hadn’t done more.

Now it appeared it was my turn to break my children’s hearts, to shepherd them through this awful, impossible time. I had walked right into a trap that I had already seen laid bare years earlier.

Why would you get a dog for your family when you know that this conversation, and the heartache that comes with it, will inevitably follow? When you know that both you and they will love that pet unreservedly? What sort of shortsighted monster would do this to their kids? To themselves?

A few weeks later, I found out that I didn’t have to have that conversation. Not yet. The lump was excised and found to be non-cancerous.

We were only out the (not insignificant) cost of the surgery and a few weeks of watching the wound carefully as it healed. Our neurotic, barking, underfoot, steak-stealing, hair-shedding, leash-pulling dog gots to continue being the best dog ever—at least to us.

We were extremely lucky. But I know that that conversation and the grief that comes with it is still coming. And there are a lot harder conversations still to come too.

It’s tempting to want to minimize our risks, protect our heart against the grief that threatens to swallow us whole, especially when we have insight into how much it will hurt. But it’s impossible because grief is the price of love. We don’t get to experience one without the other.

We only grieve that which we have loved and everything and everyone we love now. We will all grieve one day.

This is true for whoever and whatever we are grieving. I know there are griefs both great and small, both personal and communal.

Some mourn the loss of a career, or a friendship that is no longer close. Some of us have mourned the loss of friends, spouses, or family. Some have lost hope that the future will be better than today, or that there even will be a future for our children or grandchildren.

All of us mourn some form of the world that has changed forever. Whatever we have experienced, whatever we are experiencing, we don’t need to compare our grief. There is more than enough grief to go around.

But our grief should also encourage us.

Our grief shows us that our hearts are still in it, that we have what it takes to love because we have what it takes to mourn. Despite all the troubles we face, we are not half-hearted or calloused or indifferent. We are courageous, each and every one of us who loves, knowing the price we will one day have to pay.

Those who are willing to be brokenhearted are wholehearted. And the wholehearted know that the price of love is steep. But they also know it’s worth it.



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Evil is not always a monster we see

Truly terrifying

The robotic clown towers above us, breathtaking and menacing. He is impossibly tall, maybe seven or even eight feet on top of his small stand.

The stand’s speaker spews sinister circus music as the animatronic monster reaches a hand forward to ask for a volunteer for his juggling act.

“I just need a hand... and a foot... and a head... any body part will do!”. The clown breaks out in maniacal laughter, and my seven-year-old presses in against my side, even closer than he had been before.

His gaze flits quickly between the towering monstrosity and me. I worry momentarily that we’ve come too close, that the nightmare fuel will burn each and every bedtime this week, or maybe this month. I suppress a grin and open my eyes wide at him, acknowledging my possible failure as a parent and gatekeeper of all things inappropriate for seve-year-olds. His face breaks into a giant, nervous grin.

“Dad, this is awesome”.

I couldn’t agree more. This is Halloween: the wet chill and low hanging fog in the air, the glow of orange from freshly carved and lit jack-o’-lanterns; children running reckless from doorstep to doorstep, pillow cases pregnant with candy and difficult to lift, dragged or begrudgingly carried by parents; neighbours around a propane fire, offering hot chocolate from a thermos to warm kids and parents alike; and sights and sounds that teeter on the knife’s edge of terrifying and exciting.

You have to know your audience. Not every child should be subjected to maniacally laughing animatronic clowns. I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed it at his age.

My youngest was drawn to the spectacle of it while we were still a long ways off. The rolling fog illuminated by brightly coloured light, the excited (and terrified) screams of children running to or away from the house. While we were slowly winding up an adjacent cul-de-sac, my youngest would crane his neck to see this particular house. He wanted to see it.

He comes by it naturally. At our house we have more Halloween decorations than all other holidays combined (those wooden gravestones and plastic skeletons take up more than their fair share of room under the stairs). And we much prefer setting up the Halloween ones.

When else do you get to cover the trees with cobwebs and plastic spiders, or create shallow graves out of wooden tombstones and left over planting soil?

It is, admittedly, not for everyone. Not everyone enjoys Halloween as much as I do, or even at all. But it is on offer to everyone. It demands little, but accepts much.

Want to turn all your dead summer flowers into graveyard decor? Go for it. Want to turn your entire residence into a haunted house? Have at it. Want to play “Thriller”, “Monster Mash” and “Ghostbusters” on endless repeat for all the neighbours to hear? You might get a visit from bylaw, but I won’t judge you.

If you’re feeling less in the spirit, a simply lit jack-o’-lantern and a ready supply of candy is enough buy-in to be considered a full participant. Even those that give out toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss play a needed (and completely thankless) role on Halloween.

With so many participating on Halloween, you notice the ones who don’t. The ones who don’t appear to enjoy the spectacle. The houses that are completely dark, intentionally uninviting from the street. It’s obvious that so much of the imagery of Halloween is full of grotesquery and gore, hell and hedonism, devils and darkness. Perhaps they can’t see past the pageantry, past the demon clowns and devils and pitchforks.

Perhaps all they see is evil.

It’s strange, isn’t it? How some of us see evil as real and threatening, while others see it only as a lark?

Personally, I don’t think Halloween is evil in the slightest. There’s far too much goodness there. The surface of Halloween may appear grotesque, but it’s heart is communal celebration.

That’s not to say that I don’t believe in an evil that threatens us. I just don’t think it looks anything like the imagery halloween supplies. Unfortunately, I don’t think most of us understand much about the nature of evil at all. And that’s what’s really scary.

The Franciscan friar Richard Rohr says as much in his recent book, “What Do We Do With Evil?”

Rohr argues that evil is not overt and obvious, but is subtle and insidious. It’s less the stories of demon-clowns devouring children, and more the true stories of children being devoured and traumatized by institutions of power and privilege that we esteem and trust. It’s less about the spectacle of the monstrous and inhuman and more about the devastation of dehumanizing those who are “other” from us.

While Rohr’ draws on the biblical language of “principalities and powers” of darkness, he states that these might be more familiar in our context as ideologies, organizations, corporations or institutions.

Here is a recent example from a well known corporation: A few weeks ago Frances Haugen stepped forward as a whistleblower against Facebook, stating that the company had repeatedly prioritized profits over the safety and well being of its patrons. She claims Facebook repeatedly hid or ignored information of their role in promoting misinformation, of not removing hate speech, and ignoring links between consistent use of Instagram and suicidal ideation in young girls.

If these allegations are true, what do you call decisions like that? I think we need to call those actions “evil.”

I know that evil is a loaded term, a term many of us relegate only to the religious and superstitious. Maybe some would argue that Facebook is merely self-interested, and acting in way that countless other organizations and corporations do.

But that sounds pretty evil to me. If we argue the term “evil” is antiquated and outdated, we need an appropriately weighty term to take its place. “Corporate oversight” just doesn’t do it justice.

Perhaps that is evil's greatest trick. It does not come as a devil or monster, but as something commonplace and accepted. It exists in the devious ways that a company chooses profits at the expense of people but also in ways I find myself enmeshed in, and dependent on that same company when I believe they are doing evil.

We need to think, and re-think, about evil, especially in these days when many of us no longer believe in it.

Evil doesn’t announce itself with pitchforks and horns, it hides in the places we excuse or even don’t expect it. The first step is seeing evil in all the places where we’ve learned to overlook it.

Imagine if we always expected evil to be either a hideous, monstrous demon or an unnecessary, outdated notion. Imagine if we never developed the awareness to see evil working in plain sight.

Now that would be truly terrifying.



Facing the challenges of Covid as an emergency room nurse

'The work I show up for'

The patient in front of me tells me he has been having chest pain for the past 10 hours, a sore throat, headaches and shortness of breath for the past week.

“Last night, it was really bad around 2 a.m.," he says. “I could hardly breathe”.

His skin looks terrible. He’s pale and breathing fast, beads of sweat visible across his forehead.

I am standing in front of him, at a distance. My eyes alone are barely visible as I am covered in a gown, mask, face shield and scrub cap. I am stoic and silent between pointed questions, thinking. I am already far beyond this moment. I’m weighing his risk factors. I’m thinking of the fact that we are once again short-staffed and that each room in the main department is already full.

I close the distance between us and reach for his wrist to feel his pulse through my own gloved hand. His heart is racing too fast for me to determine its rhythm. I ask him if he’s received any Covid vaccines. He shakes his head.

And at the moment I’m holding his wrist, staring at the clock beside him and attempting to count beats, he looks into my eyes and says: “I’m just really scared”.

There is something about it that jars me, wakes me up to his perspective. It feels like a plea to see him for the first time. And I do. Of course he is scared.

“Of course you are, but you’re in the right place”, I tell him. “We’ll take care of you”.

And we do.

This is the work I show up for, my work as a nurse in the emergency department, and it is as stretched and strained as I’ve ever seen it. Showing up for work in the height of a pandemic means regularly working short, missing breaks and increasingly working without some of our most experienced staff who are no longer picking up extra shifts, or have simply decided to transfer to a different hospital floor, a different focus or even a whole new career.

These are the days when I find myself in discussions with my peers about what constitutes unsafe practices and patient abandonment. These are the days when even our professional college acknowledges our shared challenges and that our previous standards of care may not always be possible now.

These are also the days of greatest frustration. Days of seeing the young and previously healthy gasping for air. These are days of protests outside of hospitals and downtown health offices. These are days of division and resentment, even among colleagues. When long friendships are strained or broken because of beliefs around Covid, vaccinations or vaccine passports and immunization records.

These are the days when it seems hardest to hang on to your humanity. It is hard to see a hundred patients presenting in the same way, and not reduce them to their decisions or disease. If you are not very careful, your anger and grief can settle into your bones, metastasizing into resentment towards the very person you are there to help.

You’ve doubtlessly read an article (or 10) recently about the widespread nursing shortage. It is real, for all the reasons I mentioned above and more. It is the same story played out in countless hospitals across health districts, provinces and even countries. I don’t blame a single colleague who has simply had enough. In the midst of a pandemic which has reached on for more than a year and a half, and is somehow getting worse, many have abandoned the career that they had previously loved.

I’m speaking about nursing, but there are many of us who are finding it harder than ever to keep showing up. There are many of us who are overwhelmed, exhausted, re-establishing boundaries and thinking about quitting right now. Some of us are quitting our careers, some of us are quitting people. Some of us are simply too tired to keep having the same arguments. I’ve never seen more people limiting or abandoning social media (perhaps not a terrible idea). I know how exhausting it is to stay in dialogue when it feels like everyone is shouting.

Perhaps this moment feels like too much, simply because it is. None of us can carry the weight of the world alone for long.

Recently I’ve been both comforted and challenged by a popular quote attributed to Rabbi Tarfon: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it”.

If you have felt overwhelmed by the impossible challenge of this moment, this truth is for you. And if you have felt like quitting everything and everyone, this truth is also for you. This is a truth that frees us, as well as binding us.

I am not obligated to complete the work. The factors that have brought us to this moment are complex and multifaceted. They will not be easily undone by any one of us. I don’t have to fix the bitterness and resentfulness I see around me, but I do have to guard my heart against it. I don’t have to have the perfect, measured opinion on every new policy announced or implemented. That is some else’ (very good and important) work to do. I don’t have to attempt to control others through any means necessary, and I don’t have to become resentful when they act in a way different than I would choose for them.

But neither am I free to abandon the work. We don’t get to quit that which we are here to do, even when we are tired. I am not free to abandon my humanity, even in the face of a pandemic. It matters that I see the patient, or friend, or stranger in front of me with compassion and curiosity, as well as (sound) judgement. It matters that I bring both my heart, and my head, to my practice. And It matters that I take care of myself so that I can keep coming into a workplace that is strained under the weight of this pandemic.

It matters that each of us keeps showing up. Wherever and whenever and however we can, we show up for the work, we show up for ourselves, and we show up for each other.

Sometimes, all you can do is just keep showing up.

And sometimes, that is enough.



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Wrong answers only

“Five minutes, that’s all I’m asking for.”

I speak the words to myself, to the air, to whatever deity or saint might be listening and willing to help me out a bit. There’s more than a note of desperation to it.

I’ve made my way to the most secluded room in the house. The desk in front of me is as clear as it ever is. The laptop is closed, the monitor pushed back and the keyboard moved aside. In their usual place sits only my phone, a large play button visible on the screen.

A few minutes ago I was listening to a podcast about meditation and contemplation. I’ve paused it and retreated to this room for the final few minutes. This is the moment where the host of the podcast is inviting the listener to become a participant, to enter into five minutes of silence and breath meditation.

“Five minutes, that’s all I’m asking for.”

It might be a lot, this day.

On any given day, this ritual might be relaxing. But not this day. On this day I feel only desperation. I’ve chosen a breath meditation because I feel like I can’t get a full breath in. I woke with my chest tight, the weight of grief and anxiety pressing down on me. Even as I stretch and move about the house, it feels like there is an elastic band around my chest. Breathing feels like a chore, rather than a birthright.

I close my eyes, and begin to focus on my breath anyway.

The meditation begins, and the silence turns out to be anything but. In the dead space after the invitation to begin, I hear the host lean back into his chair, hear the scratching of beard hairs. I hear each time he swallows, coughs or clears his throat. I can hear the distant muffled sound of his neighbours laughing.

I hear similar sounds in my silence as well. I hear my children running across the floors above me. I can hear my own chair creak and rub with my every movement. And mostly, I hear the sound of my own shallow, laboured breathing.

As soon as I start to become accustomed to the various noises and sounds, I begin to notice my anxious thoughts. The silence reveals them, as they encircle my head like a swarm of mosquitoes, buzzing and nondescript in the distance, and then alighting on me, whispering their high-pitched interruptions.

“Maybe I can’t breathe because it’s COVID.”

“I can’t breathe because of the smoke. It’s probably only going to get worse”

“The kids have hardly been biking at all this year. Is this what it’s going to be like every summer?”

“When was the last time I changed my air filter? Maybe it’s time to buy some better ones”

“Even at work it smells like smoke. I wonder how short work will be today?”

“I’m still breathing fast. How many times am I breathing in a minute? Should I count? If it’s 18, how many breaths is that in five minut...”

My interrupting thoughts break off, dissipating into the air as quickly as they came. The five minutes of silence has been anything but. The podcast host strikes his bell, a Tibetan singing bowl, signalling the end of the meditation.

Even through the tiny, tinny phone speaker, the sound immediately quiets me. I momentarily forget about my thoughts, forget about my breathing, and am at peace, feeling it’s resonance. The wavering note of it hangs in the air a long time, as the meditation host lets it fade into obscurity.

Then without invitation, my thoughts return. “I wonder if they sell those singing bowls on Amazon?”

And I start to laugh.

It really is laughable. You have to laugh, or else cry over how ridiculous it all is. Searching Amazon for enlightenment. Seeing if they have a deal on inner peace. Seeing what other shoppers who purchased tranquility also put into their virtual carts.

The whole scene is suddenly satirical. The day’s utterly failed meditation becomes comical. My constant turning to commerce to sooth me. My distractible and anxious mind. My inability to shut up for even five minutes. I’m reminded of Blaise Pascal's assertion that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” The laughter is somehow freeing. At least it is honest. My breathing starts to come a little deeper.

I can see myself in that moment from a distance. Earnest, but hopelessly lost. Overwhelmed from widespread work burnout, a crashing fourth wave of COVID, the terror of watching young healthy people struggling for breath or sent to the ICU. I’m reeling from the death of two children I briefly cared for, from the sound of their parents’ wretched cries. I’m feeling trapped by the constant smoke, and the encroaching fires. I’m feeling hopeless as climate scientists raise louder and louder alarms of a point of no return, and humanity seems incapable of responding.

This is a moment of crisis, and one I feel completely unprepared for. Whatever wisdom, beauty and hope usually inspires me or buoys my spirits, it is not working this morning. I have no right answers. I have wrong answers only.

Perhaps there is a grace to finding the wrong answers.

I have a love/hate relationship with the deepest questions we ask ourselves. I believe that spirituality and wisdom traditions are at their best when they speak to our deepest needs. But other times spirituality, religion and wisdom traditions can be shallow, superficial or even outright deceitful. Little more than self-serving posturing, posing and pretending. Sometimes, you can’t immediately tell the difference.

Maybe a Tibetan singing bowl seems like it will bring you inner peace (and look great on your Instagram feed!), until it arrives in that Amazon box and you still feel unsettled. Maybe you look to a mindfulness meditation to calm and ground you, only to realize that it is a practice, and practice includes even frustrating and failed attempts. Maybe all these practices and wisdom teachings promise to make you a more resilient and self-sufficient person, but in your most miserable moments you realize the need for a community to hold you when you fall apart.

In moments of legitimate crisis, I see the wrong answers for what they are. Sometimes these answers even reveal our deepest needs. There’s little wrong with occasional retail therapy, magical thinking or the desire for self-sufficiency, but in moments of desperation, I don’t need the superficial or deceitful. I need practices, community and wisdom that feeds me, quiets me, grounds me, and ultimately prepares me for the realities that I will continue to face. We all need those things, regardless of how we acquire them.

Real crisis separates some of the trash from the treasure, fools gold from the real stuff. Thank goodness for the wrong answers. May they lead us to better ones.



More Something From Everything articles

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About the Author

 

Matthew Rigby is a grateful husband to one, and father to three. He works as a registered nurse in emergency care, and has spent more than 15 years in healthcare. 

Matt, an avid reader and podcast enthusiast, is committed to great questions and honest discovery.

You can find his podcast "Something From Everything" wherever you listen, and find all his writing at www.somethingfromeverything.com.



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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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