When the person who created you is ashes, and there’s a holiday dedicated to this, now, pile of ashes, it makes you sad. To put it simply. The absence of a lost loved one is, of course, felt most during special holidays and birthdays- but a day dedicated to the person who created you becomes the mother of them all. It’s exhausting to continuously hear, ‘oh but that pile of ashes, that’s not her, she’s moved on; she’s with you.’ But it is her. That’s all I can wrap my brain around sometimes, and especially since she was *just* here, it’s the reality I can grasp. A different reality makes me less sad, but they’re all just words, made-up. Reality is the weight and gravity of her absence.

In counseling, we’re trained to meet people where they’re at, and we learn that having empathy for someone is not trying to make them feel better. It’s being with them, where they’re at, even if it’s the deepest dark hole. This mother’s day, in order to not feel so alone in this darkness, I had to shut out the world. I made myself stay close to my animals, my partner, my son, my sister. People who don’t force me to move away from the place I have to be in right now. Whose presence and love are all I need. Who loved her as I did. Who keep me afloat, in every sense of the word. Who expect literally nothing from me and accept anything I can give. Experiencing love and support like this has made me acutely aware of how fortunate I am; how precious life is; how rare this type of love is and how I know I will get through this stronger and more alive.

To those of you reading this who want to help a loved one who is going through a thing: just be there. Expect nothing of these people. Don’t ask how you can help, don’t ask how they are, don’t send well wishes. Just be there, in every sense of the word. They need you and they love you and they will eventually be ok.

There are moments that, once they happen, completely leave our brains forever. Then, there are moments that stick in our memories like my cat’s fur on my clothes after a cuddling session. The moment, or rather the seconds, that it took for me to hear the words, “She’s gone” are sticky seconds in my brain. All of the things you hear ring true about these types of seconds- time slowed almost to a halt, all I could sense around me was my heartbeat and my face flooded with pain. My mom was gone, and I could do nothing.

Since those two words grazed my ears, reality has been a turbulent storm of wind gusts pushing me up, hail stones pelting me down and gushing downpours of tears. There are lifeboats that come now and then in the form of friends, family doing their best to comfort you and rescue you from the inevitable grief that you have to walk through, alone. But the fact remains, you are alone in this new undertaking you must carry- called grief. Unless you are with animals.

The thing about someone close to you dying is that you get to see who people in your life are. The people who have truly experienced loss and darkness are very apparent. They say just the right thing. They give you just the right amount of space. They offer their presence in just the right ways. The people who haven’t experienced exceptional loss who love you hard, but don’t know how to show you that. The people who are impatient with grief and expect you to return to exactly who you were. You must teach people how to interact with you after a loss- on top of the grief undertaking, you are now a coach for your community in how to navigate—> you.

And then there’s animals. Their presence, their attunement to your exact feelings and needs, their ability to just be- offers and teaches so much, especially in the heaviest moments of the grief process. The day I decided to look at my mom’s last texts to me was a supercell day. I walked into my house from my car and collapsed on the floor, heaving so hard between sobs I couldn’t remember how to take in oxygen. My cats found me and surrounded me. One of them rubbing against me, the other one rolling on the floor showing me his belly, inevitably getting me to smile. Then they just sat by me, until I was ready to move through the rest of my day. They needed their dinner and that need was stronger than my need to be on the floor. They got me up and moving. After feeding them I gazed absentmindedly out of my kitchen window, continuing to be lost in grief- until a black-capped chickadee landed on the birdfeeder in front of me. Delicately pecking at the seeds and fluffing his feathers- tiny feet holding his adorably plump body steady on the feeder. Another smile; another step forward through the grief.

Since that day, I’ve been more aware of the presence of the animals around me and their effortless healing powers. In tune and present with their whole environment, and magically, with my internal environment. Their non-judgemental, gentle input, comforting presence and basic needs of me alongside their almost unbearably endearing qualities has allowed me to stay steady in this storm of grief I have to walk through everyday. They have also informed my direction for my future career path as a counselor. Counselors get the benefit of helpfully using their own experiences, like loss, in their work, and this experience is particularly poignant for me in my direction. I plan to get my certification in animal assisted therapy, to not only surround myself with the healing presence and power of animals, but inviting them to assist in the healing of future clients and allow them to be my assistants as the teachers of growth, regulation and healing. They saved me like no one else possibly could and I will forever be grounded and grateful for these superheroes.

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