Tidying Up

Sunday night, my dog of 12 years, Max passed away at home. I sat with him as he was dying and intermittently would get up and tidy up around the house. I would wash a few dishes, then go sit with him. Throw out the trash, then sit with him. Go through some mail, then return to sit with him. Gathered laundry, then sit with him. I had a moment in my kitchen as I was cleaning up, where I had a memory come back to me.

The memory was of me- I was 13 years old and I had just found my stepfather dead from a prescription drug overdose. Hours later, after they removed his body, my family sat around the kitchen table. I decided to go upstairs- to the bedroom he had died in. The room where I found him. I stood there in the doorway, looking at the bed he had just laid in less than an hour before. The silence of the room, the stillness. The image of him there as I found him. His face. The buzz of activity- first responders, friends, phone calls, family. I stepped into the room. Still processing, still trying to make sense in my 13 year old brain what had just transpired. I moved to the table by his bed. I picked up his glass, still half full and I picked up his donuts, still half eaten. I began to tidy up.

I am 44 and I have never stopped.

I recently read Chelsea Handler’s book, “Life Will Be the Death of Me”. In the book, she dives deep with a therapist, Dan, revealing and processing the trauma of her brother dying when she was nine. Throughout the book, there were many passages where I saw myself. I saw my trauma, my coping (or lack of), how I survived. I understood how she came to be who she was, and I understood how I came to be who I was. There are many excerpts I could share, but these four resonated with me deeply:

“I learned from Dan that being in motion was a way for me to avoid sitting still with my feelings. You can’t let anyone see you cry, so you move. Action is motion- is doing. Sitting is being. I had been a doer my entire life. I never sat still long enough to let anyone unglue my pain.”

“Dan explained that in very traumatic times, you freeze. You do the only thing you can do to survive the pain, which is to shut off and retreat to your own world, because if you were to absorb the pain from all the people around you or acknowledge your own pain, you wouldn’t be able to cope. So, you coped, just like everyone else in your family coped- each in different ways. Your coping mechanism was motion. Do something- anything other than sitting around with your feelings.”

“To know I’m going through something and not try to keep circling around it hoping to avoid going through it. Sitting and experiencing, and feeling, and not running. To understand that things take time, and to be okay sitting with my pain. To understand the only way through something is through it. Not to rush through life hopscotching over or around it. No one is fully cooked. No person is complete.”

“I learned that adventure is never bad, but the alacrity with which you go through life has an impact on the wisdom life has to offer you. That slowing down doesn’t mean you have to do less. It means you have to pay attention more and catch what the world is throwing at you. That every situation you put yourself in deserves your full attention, and that each of us has a responsibility to be more aware of ourselves and others.”

I stood in my kitchen, head in my hands crying, releasing 31 years of avoidance- of coping- of tidying up. I remembered these parts of Chelsea’s book, realized the pattern and in that moment I made a different choice. I stopped tidying up. I went to Max, brushed him as he laid there. I petted him, stroked his precious face, spoke to him and lovingly helped walk him home.