One year ago today, I was sitting in a large room in Canada with about 30 other individuals learning and practicing the art of mindful self-compassion (MSC). This process was one of self-discovery, healing and growth. Little did I know at that time how instrumental it would be to me only a short while later.
Name. Blame. Judge. Many in the veterinary profession, including myself as a veterinarian, are very compassionate individuals by nature; however, we are hard pressed to share that compassion with ourselves. We are our own worst critics, oftentimes beating ourselves up for treatment failures or losing patients. I did that for years. Mindful self-compassion allowed me to release my perfectionistic views and begin to see the world, and my role in it as a veterinarian, in a different light.
One afternoon, a client came in with the smallest, cutest, sweetest chihuahua I had ever seen. She had found him running in the street and, despite her best efforts, was unable to find his owner. She had fallen in love with the little guy and told us what a good boy he was, but her husband insisted they could not have another dog and could not keep him. I offered to take him for my “mother-in-law” because I just couldn’t help myself, he was that irresistible. He had a couple of health issues so we kept him with us for several weeks so he could have surgery. In that short window of time, he stole our hearts. My older daughter and I fell head over heels for him. During the day he would come to work with me and at night he would sleep with her.
The surgery he required was complex and needed to be performed by a veterinary orthopedic surgeon. My husband dropped him off that morning and I was picking him up later in the day. I was in the middle of seeing patients, when I got a phone call from the surgeon. When I answered the phone, I quickly realized that something was wrong. I sat numb as he explained how Peanut’s heart had stopped just as he was finishing the surgery. He had been doing really well the entire time until that point. They did everything they could to save him, but he was gone.
My immediate reaction was to point the finger at myself. Why did I agree to having him do two procedures at the same time? What if I would have taken him to a different surgeon? The questions flew around in my mind, unrelentless as I began to cry.
At that moment, my mindful self-compassion practice began to take hold. I realized that there is no way I could have known that would happen. I also recognized how my colleague must feel, having lost the beloved pet of a colleague and friend. Like me, I realized he must be beating himself up too. I asked him to please take care of himself and told him that I did not blame him, it was not his fault. Who knows why these things happen sometimes. I released him from further suffering the feelings of guilt and shame that were bound to plague him. As I drove home, I recall feeling the pain of loss in my chest. I recognized it and named it…this is grief…as I laid my hand over my heart and reminded myself that this was normal and I would be ok. The human-animal bond is strong and in a short span of time, I had become very attached to Peanut. His loss was a blow to my daughter and I. In hindsight, I see how this was somehow preparing me for the biggest blow of all.
Four months later, I sat in the very kitchen where I sit now writing this article. My life was changed forever in one moment, when at 10:16am I heard my husband yelling from our son’s room. My 17 year old son had taken his life in his bedroom.
I cannot begin to express in words what it is to lose a child. Truth be told, unless it has happened to you, you truly cannot begin to imagine. The shock, the disbelief, the trauma, the heavy grief…our lives have been shattered into a million pieces. The questions began running through my mind endlessly. Why would he do this? What could I have done to prevent this? Why didn’t I pay more attention? Why didn’t I do more? I spiraled down into a pit of grief, guilt and shame.
The pain was so immense in my chest that it felt as if Hercules himself was squeezing my heart with all his might and that it would burst in his mighty fist. I recall later sitting in the car and becoming aware of the sensation. This is profound grief. This is loss. This feeling is normal. Slowly, I began to recognize that the endless questions would never have an answer. That no matter how much I wished things were different, that this is how things are now…in this moment…and in this one. I felt the harsh sting of self-judgment and allowed myself the space and grace of self-forgiveness. For recognizing that I could not do more if I did not know that it was needed. That I didn’t understand and therefore was not able, not that I would not have been willing. I would have done anything possible to save my son. Now, I can see clearly what I must do to save my family from the aftermath of loss. I cannot change what happened, but I can make choices that will impact what happens next.
My mindful self-compassion practice has saved my life. It has been my saving grace. My peace and calm in the chaos of Love, life and loss. Forgiveness of myself and of others is not easy, but I recognize that any other way will only cause further suffering. As my family and I navigate this new path in life minus one, I cannot help but wonder what state I would be in had I not taken that MSC intensive exactly one year ago.
I have dedicated my life to honoring my son, to sharing the tools of resilience and coping with life’s worst challenges with mercy and grace. To this end, I have created a non-profit, Andrew’s Anthem, in my son’s name. Really…it is a beginning. More Love and kindness is needed in this world. We are all connected and need one another more than ever.
It all begins with you. May you have peace. May you find forgiveness for your imperfections. May you grow, learn and Love in the midst of chaos. May you be kind to yourself and others. May you be well.
About the author:
Laura is a proud mother of four beautiful children, they are her shining lights. She is part of the 1 Life Connected movement and founder of Andrew’s Anthem, a suicide prevention initiative focusing on the art of fully living through promotion of wellbeing. She is a veterinarian, certified health and wellness coach, registered yoga teacher and mindfulness teacher. Her passion is helping others cultivate coping skills and resilience so they can live fulfilling lives. Laura lives in Fort Myers, FL with her husband of 22 years, 3 surviving children and a plethora of pets.