Wednesday, December 29, 2010

About Grieving...

I'm going to preface this with a disclaimer. I am not quoting any authority on this. I've done no research on the literature regarding the psychology of grieving. This is based on my observations and thoughts.

Americans don't know how to grieve (and here I'm talking about mourning the death of a loved one). So we shroud it in mystery, avoid talking and thinking about  it, and muddle through with largely unhelpful behaviors. We have no idea how to help someone else grieve any more than we know how to do it ourselves.

I've had to deal with the death of 3 grandparents and this year two people that I worked closely with died (one expected, one not). I've also helped my partner through his father's death in 2001, and several friends through the death of their pets. I'm no stranger to grieving.

But the process of grieving is not magical or unknowable. It is merely painful. Here it is in a nutshell:

Grieving is the process of 
1. Respecting the past
2. Accepting the present
3. Moving forward to the future

Let me walk you through these steps. 

First, it is very important to respect the past. Remember the times you spent with the loved one, good and bad. They are all part of your memories. This does not mean you idealize the person/pet who has died. The biggest mistake people make is unloading a bunch of lies about how so-and-so was the "the nicest person" when they were actually a jerk. It is not helpful to lie about the dead. It is also not respectful. And it does not help people move on.

Second, it is important to accept that the loved one is dead. I believe in ripping the band-aid off quickly rather than prolonging the pain. It is the same with grieving. Candy-coating reality by saying someone has "moved on" or "is in a better place"* actually makes it harder for people to accept that that loved one is dead. Why would you want to prolong someone's agony by offering nice-sounding euphemisms just so you don't have to face the harsh reality that the grieving person is facing. All these euphemisms for death are is a way to psychologically distance yourself from the reality of death and the pain of loss. If you care about the person, be present in the face of their loss. Say things concretely and lovingly. Face the death of their loved one with them and they will accept it much faster and easier. Another helpful thing you can do is go out of your way to help the grieving person with everyday chores and other tasks. People tend to say "call me if you need anything." Instead, say "I'm coming over with food tonight so you don't have to cook. Is 7:00 okay?" And be there to listen to them.
*For the record, I've seen no definitive proof of a soul or an afterlife. I accept death as the end of a life and a return of that energy and matter back to the aggregate system known as nature. That is beautiful enough for me.

Finally, once acceptance of the present is achieved, you can look toward the future and living a life without the dead loved one. This does not mean that all is peachy-keen. No. You can expect to be reminded of the loved one in the littlest things and re-experience the feelings of loss rather acutely for some time. But You are able to continue functioning. Time is the key to this stage. In time, the acuteness lessens until it is a dull throb. Nostalgia sets in. And we move forward.

So now you know why I cringe when I go to creepy funerals where they talk vaguely about someone "moving on" as if they went into the next room, and only say nice-sounding things about the dead, as if they are afraid that if they tell the truth, the dead will haunt them. This is childish, and not helpful in any way.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Why Pet Ownership is Weird

I was recently asked to explain why I think pet ownership is "weird." Here was my response:

I'm going to say this without care for your feelings or beliefs on this matter. No intelligent conversation could ever occur if we spent all our time worrying about other people's feelings. I'm asking you to drop your hackles and actually think for a moment. Beliefs, by their very nature are irrational. I am not sharing my beliefs here. These are just my observations and a little of my commentary on those observations. I'm also not peddling a "truth" because those are as slippery as beliefs. So let's clear some things up:

1) I am not stating or even insinuating that everything or anything in nature or the universe is not connected.
2) There are rare instances in nature of one species "adopting" and rearing a member of another species (e.g. ducks raising a swan, or even "feral" human children being raised by wolves) but this is always seen as eccentric behavior on the part of the adopters.
3) The only reason dogs are domesticated is that humans meddled with the nature of wild dogs--hence my use of the word "unnatural"--by eugenically inbreeding them and selecting the offspring to inbreed and crossbreed further until we have all these AKC "breeds" of domesticated dogs that were originally bred for specific tasks.
4) Humans feel that eugenically breeding humans for selected traits is immoral, but we have no qualms about doing it to dogs.
5) Many of these AKC "breeds" of dogs have genetic weaknesses (i.e. negative consequences) found in other inbred populations (hip dysplasia, epilepsy, etc.) yet we keep inbreeding them. However, random cross-breeds (which we negatively label "mutts") tend to have fewer genetic weaknesses.
6) Most of the "purebred" dogs are no longer being used for the tasks they were bred for, so why are the "breeds" perpetuated?
7) Humans are responsible for this unnatural meddling with nature, so we have the responsibility to decide what to do with the situation:
  7.a) We could choose to put dogs back to work doing what they were bred for and let the other obsolete breeds fade away over time.
  7.b) We could choose to undo the whole inbreeding thing altogether by either sterilizing all domesticated dogs, or by outlawing selective breeding of dogs and asserting that it is as immoral as eugenically breeding humans.
  7.c) We could perpetuate the eugenic breeding of dogs, and create new roles (unrelated to the genetic traits selected) for the dogs, such as inviting them into our homes to be treated as surrogate family members.
8) Humans chose option 7.c. Was this a conscious choice?
9) People give their dogs human names.
10) People feed dogs diets that would never be found in nature.
11) People sleep with their dogs in the same bed.
12) People keep dogs inside human houses and apartments, sometimes only to go outside to their "natural" environment a couple times a day for a quick waste-elimination break.
13) People project human thoughts and emotions on their dogs.
14) People talk about their dogs as if the dog "chose" this inbred existence, or as if it has any "say" in determining who brings it into their house and feeds it.
15) People even dress their dogs in parodies of human clothing.
16) People talk about "owning" a dog. Does the thought of "owning" another life form in this universe not sound strange and presumptuous?
17) People get emotionally distraught when faced with the loss of the imaginary anthropomorphic personality construct they build around a dog (or other pet) when it dies and goes back to the natural system it was taken from in the first place.
18) People talk about leaving a dog in it's natural environment as if it is an act of cruelty. They conversely call it "humane" to rip a dog out of it's natural environment, force it into a life of long periods of inactivity, an unnatural diet, and training so that it can act in ways that are unnatural to dogs, but acceptable to people.

If we treated other people this way, we would call it slavery. Oh wait, we did that already. Why is it that I feel so alone when pointing out that the concept of pet "ownership" is unnatural?

And, in case you're interested, here are my beliefs on the matter: I feel deeply that what we do to dogs and other pets is immoral. As immoral as doing it to other humans.

Now, all of this aside, I may not own any pets, but I have several friends who do. They and their pets are always welcome in my house. I treat their pets with courtesy and affection. I dog-sit for my neighbors and friends. But none of that changes by observations and conclusions that the whole system is unnatural and weird.