First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Embodied Grief

May 28, 2017
Rev. Sandra Fees

I recently stumbled onto the TV show “My Cat from Hell.” As many of you know, I’m a cat lover so I was instantly captivated. As its name suggests, this show features cats (and their humans) that have behavior issues that have gotten out of control. In this episode, Meeko is violent and in danger of being re-homed. His owner Alex is getting ready to move to college, and when she leaves she is worried her mother Gena will get rid of her cat. She has every reason to be worried. Her mother is fed up with Meeko’s violence and issues.

This is where cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy – who I think of as the cat whisperer – shows up. He has over 15 years of experience and arrives at their home with a guitar case filled with cat toys. Galaxy learns that Meeko has become so unmanageable that he has been confined to Alex’s room, where the stench of cat urine is overwhelming. There are also visible signs on Alex of attacks by the cat – bites and scratches. One of the things Galaxy learns in his visit is that Meeko has not always behaved this way. Since the recent death of the family’s dog, which Meeko had a special friendship with and which was the mother Gena’s dog, Meeko has developed these behavioral issues.

At this point, the cat whisperer gives the mother and daughter a few assignments before leaving. They need to rip up the carpet in Alex’s bedroom, add multiple litterboxes throughout the house, think about working on a project together, and practice a petting handoff strategy. All this is in hopes of creating a positive relationship and providing Alex with the reassurance that her mother won't get rid of her cat when she goes to college.

While Meeko’s behavior has led to this intervention, it seems that unresolved grief is at the heart of the family’s struggles. The grief has been largely ignored and denied. Anyone who lives with animals knows that we grieve deeply for the loss of our beloved companions. And they also grieve their losses, which we sometimes neglect. Maybe we are too busy denying our own pain. Most of us know from our own experience, that it is not uncommon for people to try to deny their grief and pain rather than embrace it.

Pain – whether physical, spiritual, or emotional - is a warning sign to the body. Unfortunately, that warning is too often interpreted as a sign to put up the defenses and avoid at all costs. Or to just give it time. Add to that the fear some people have that their painful experiences of loss will overwhelm them. It is not uncommon to worry that if we embrace our grief, it will swallow us up.

Instead, there is an urge to suppress the emotions. As a society, the prescription to pain is self-medicating so we do not need to hurt so much. Addictions, over-work, TV, shopping, and busyness are all used to numb the pain. But there is a price for numbing the pain of our losses. If grief is suppressed long enough, the emotions get stuck in the body. The body holds onto the trauma. Grief will eventually show up in the body as illness. Post-traumatic stress disorder is an extreme example of how grief manifests in the body.

While we often associate PTSD with veterans, other dangerous events such as shootings, bombings, and sexual assault can also cause PTSD. The sudden and unexpected death of a loved one can cause PTSD. PTSD develops in some but not all people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. In response to the fear or trauma, the body’s natural defense is triggered in order to protect the person from harm. After a trauma, people have a range of experiences but most people recover. But some people continue to experience stress or fear even when they are not in danger, and the condition becomes chronic. Those with PTSD need particular types of assistance and treatment. (www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index...)

In Meeko’s case, grief got stuck in the body. The cat whisperer was brought in to help Meeko get unstuck. When the cat whisperer returns to check in on the family, things have improved. Meeko is no longer peeing everywhere. But Meeko is still anxious, and Gena still has no bond with the cat. The family’s next assignment is to take him to the vet. The vet prescribes a mood stabilizer for the cat. Not every situation needs to be treated with medication, but medication can be beneficial for short-term and in some cases long-term struggles – even for animals. Importantly though there were many other changes and techniques that were also needed to help Meeko.

The mother and daughter learned about a handoff petting technique that allows Gena to pet Meeko and begin to build a bond between her and Meeko. The way this handoff happens is that Alex begins by petting Meeko, and then Gena places her hand on top of Alex’s. Slowly Alex removes her hand and Gena is petting Meeko. The idea is to transfer the affection and trust.

There’s another aspect to the unresolved grief in this family. The grief is not just Meeko’s. It is also Gena’s and Alex’s too. The project that Gena and Alex undertake together illustrates this. They create a memorial for Gena’s dog who died. It is a life-size papier mache likeness of the dog, placed on a raft with a candle. They go to a local lake and set it afloat to give expression to their sense of loss. Giving expression to their feelings allows the grief that has been trapped to be released and the family is finally able to begin to heal. Constructing the memorial for their dog was an important step in healing the pain of loss. That act of creating a memorial can be quite powerful. Building a bond between Gena and Meeko was another important step. Sometimes when we experience loss it can be hard to open ourselves up again to another person or another creature. When we open up that way we risk being hurt again, but we also begin to heal.

There is one more piece to this story that was never named in the episode. It can be a professional hazard for a minister to watch a show like this. I was discovering pastoral issues at every turn! The daughter Alex is getting ready to leave home for college. As exciting as it is to start off toward this new part of her life, leaving home represents a loss, a major transition. And her mother is likely grieving her soon-to-be empty nest.

By embodying their grief in a positive way, this family is able to do some healing. Creating something as they did works beautifully. So does exercise, yoga, dance, movement, reiki, meditation, and singing. Intentional ways of engaging the body can be a powerful balm. Breath work is one of the most basic and transformative practices. Author and teacher Christian de la Huerta describes breath as a diagnostic. Whatever is going on, our breath tells us first of all that we are alive.

As I was reflecting on this, I could not really go on without acknowledging the phrase - “I can’t breathe.” It has come to be a powerful statement about the diagnostic role of our breath – and it has become a moral indictment in this country. That phrase came into popular parlance after Eric Garner was killed on July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, New York. NYPD officers approached Garner on suspicion of selling single cigarettes from packs without tax stamps. Garner told the police that he was tired of being harassed and that he was not selling cigarettes. But the officers moved to arrest him anyway. 

An NYPD officer put him in a chokehold for about 15 to 19 seconds while arresting him. Repeatedly Garner said: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. 11 times he said those words. He was forced to the ground and did not receive CPR before medics arrived. He died in Staten Island. A grand jury failed to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner – even though his death was ruled a homicide resulting from “compression of the neck [chokehold], compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”

The words “I can’t breathe” get chanted now to give expression to the grief and injustice over deaths like Garner’s. Over the unnecessary taking of life, the lack of humanity, the stealing of someone’s breath. On July 13, 2015, an out-of-court settlement was announced in which the City of New York would pay the Garner family $5.9 million. But that is not justice. That is not breathing.

Our breath tells us that we are alive – and beyond that it tells us the quality of the life we are or are not having. Christian de la Huerta describes a “Correlation between how much breath we have and how much life we can take in.” When we are dealing with grief and loss, noticing our breath gives us some basic information about how open we are to the experience. When we are open, we are breathing deeply.

In stressful situations, simple reminders to breathe can be transformative. The demeanor of a whole roomful of people can be altered by simple attention to the breath. As I’ve been talking about breathing, I’m guessing that many of you have been noticing your own breathing. Just talking about grief may have impacted your breathing. Talking about Eric Garner may have affected your breathing.

When we are afraid or angry or stressed, our breathing is truncated. At times of grief, it can literally be hard to catch one’s breath. So take just a moment if you haven’t already to check in with yourself. (The power of breath: Christian de la Huerta at TEDxCoMo, TEDx Talks)

If you find you are breathing shallowly, deepen your breathing. Take a few deep breaths. (pause)

Earlier we sang, “Just as long as I have breath, I must answer ‘yes’ to life; though with pain I made my way, still with hope I meet each day.” As I think about those words to our opening hymn, I recognize the wisdom that “I must answer ‘yes’ to life as long as I have breath. I recognize the wisdom that as long as I am alive, despite any pain, I must remain hopeful in order to heal. I must embody my grief as well as my joy.

And there is another wisdom: I can only answer “yes” to life if I am breathing, if I am able to breathe. Eric Garner had that stolen from him. A question we are faced with as a society is: How can we ensure that everyone’s breathing is valued, not just some people’s?

Our breath is a gift we did nothing to earn. It is the gift and sacredness of our very being. Let us use it to embody the all of our lives. Let us use it to answer “yes” with our breath so long as there is breath, to embody our grief, and to answer “yes” to ensure another’s breathing.

Amen. Blessed be.