The Fragility Of Life & How To Love Dangerously

“Good morning, Grendel!”

When my hubby Matt lifts my Bichon Frisé pup Grendel up on the bed first thing in the morning, she’s so excited she can hardly contain herself. Although she’s eight years old, she thinks she’s still a puppy, and she wags and bounces and barks and creates such a frenzy that nobody who might still be sleeping can stay asleep.

This morning was no different, except that this time, when Grendel bounded onto the bed she was so excited she flipped herself right off the end of our quite tall bed. I leaped to her rescue, throwing out my arms, trying to catch her, but I was one second too late.

She landed smack dab on the back of her neck, hyper-extended her neck all the way back and started shaking. She didn’t utter even a whimper even though I know it must have hurt. Her silence terrified me.

I freaked.

“Is there a doggie 911? CALL IT!”

Jumping on the ground, I sat next to Grendel, who was silent, not making a peep, and hanging out in an awkward, twisted angle, immobile. I started sobbing as Matt came running over, looking to my doctor self, saying “Is she okay? Is she okay?”

I cried, “NO! She’s not okay!” and kept crying, while my heart pounded faster than it had ever pounded since Matt once cut two fingers off his left hand with a table saw (that’s a whole other story for another blog post.)

Holding Grendel in my arms, trying not to move her neck, wishing I had a C collar and a backboard to strap her to, I rocked her, thinking, “Well, if my beloved dog is going to die right now in front of me, I want her to die feeling loved.” She looked up into my eyes, and I thought, for a second, I saw the lights come on in her eyes.

In a blink, the thought of losing her flashed through my eyes. How would I tell my daughter? Oh my God, what if this had been Siena? What if Matt was hit by a car? What if my mother got cancer? What if the Big One hits San Francisco and I lose everybody I love?

The words flashing through my mind in bright shiny lights were “LIFE IS JUST TOO DANGEROUS. YOU HAVE TOO MUCH TO LOSE. YOU SHOULDN’T LET YOURSELF LOVE SO HARD.”

And before I could control my thoughts, I was in a full tailspin, feeling those doors of my heart, the ones that pretty much live wide open, squeaking closed the tiniest bit the way I wrote about here, because this just hurts too much.

Then I pulled myself together. I know from researching my book Mind Over Medicine that when a body – I’m sure it’s the same for doggie bodies – is sick, the emotions you feel have everything to do with whether you’ll recover. When it comes to illness or injury, FEAR = EVIL.


I had to create a sense of calm for my dog. I couldn’t let her feel afraid.

In that instant, I took a breath, remembering the poem Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen had shared with our group of MDs last week – I think she said it was by Waz Thomas – and I’ll probably butcher it, but it was something like “Within every tempest there lies a hole, like a navel, through which a gull can fly in silence.”

Grendel and I were in the tempest, and I was desperately looking for the navel, that still point amidst the maelstrom, and suddenly, I found it – God, thy will be done. And then total surrender. Whatever happens, is for the highest good. But please, oh please, don’t let Grendel suffer.

And then I looked down and my motionless, silent dog was wagging her tail. Wagging her tail. If you broke your neck, you can’t wag your tail!!!! My heart leaped!

Remembering my research, I realized that poor Grendel’s body, in this moment, was in full-on “fight-or-flight” stress response. Cortisol spiking. Adrenaline pumping. Heart rate up, just like mine. Blood pressure elevated. Her body thinks she’s being chased by a lion – and in some ways she is, but when the body is in a stress state, it can’t repair itself.

Healing Grendel

I had to help Grendel induce what scientists call the “relaxation response.” I closed my eyes and visualized Grendel in a bubble of healing light. I sent light energy from my heart to hers. I petted her body and started massaging her muscles. I told her I loved her. I looked into her scared eyes with my hand on her heart. My spirit saw her spirit.

And then I lifted her off the ground, placed her on the bed as gently as I could, and then the impossible happened.

Grendel got up and walked over to her favorite pillow, where she curled up in a little ball, looking pitiful and wounded, and wagged her tail some more while she rolled over on her back and gave me her belly to pet.

I wept as I held her in my arms and whispered prayers of gratitude.

Throughout the day, friends, healers, and followers on Facebook and Twitter prayed and sent Grendel Reiki and healing juju. Siena drew her pictures and wrote her a note that says, “I love you Grendel and hope you can heal yourself.” With her two best friends, Siena spent hours sitting beside Grendel, as she perched on the throne of my Tempurpedic pillow, covered with Siena’s “Old Pinky,” her favorite baby blanket.

I can only imagine that all this love is filling Grendel’s body with oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” and dopamine, the pleasure hormone, and endorphins (nature’s morphine) and nitric oxide and serotonin and all kinds of other hormones that fight the stress response hormones and let her puppy parasympathetic nervous system take back over, because only in a state of physiologic rest can her body heal itself from a puppy concussion and some very sore muscles.

Her vet assures me there’s nothing else to do other than observe her. She has been very subdued all day. Definitely not her normal wiggly self. But tonight, after a full day in bed without food or much desire to move, when she ran down the stairs and started barking at the mailman, ate a bowlful of dog food, and got up on her hind legs to do the puppy dance because her Auntie Denise came over to see her, my heart felt lighter.

Permission To Break My Heart

And in that lightness of heart, I reminded myself that I have given Grendel permission to break my heart, just like I’ve given it to so many other people I love. And that yes, life is dangerous, and love is scary, and there’s oh so much to lose.

And yet, what’s the alternative? Building iron walls nobody can get through? Defending yourself like a fortress against love? Making yourself numb so it doesn’t hurt if your puppy dies in a freak excited-morning-ritual bed accident? Missing out on the overflowing buoyancy and bubbling joy and heart-opening experience of intimacy, connection, and unconditional love?

Nope. Not for me, thank you very much.

Instead, I’m gonna snuggle up with my pup, and thank God that she seems to be okay in this moment, and trust that all will be as it should, and appreciate her right here, right now, because I never know when I might lose her – or Siena… or Matt… or anyone else I love.

What About You?

Are willing to live dangerously and let yourself love fully, even when love – and the world – is so unsafe?

Tell me what you think.

Counting my blessings and loving every face lick,


I wrote this post five days ago, and yesterday, on Father’s Day, after steady daily improvement since the fall, Grendel woke up in respiratory distress. We rushed her to the vet ER, where the vets gave her the full court press. At first they thought she was in heart failure from chronic valvular heart disease. But treatment for heart failure didn’t help her at all. Then they found a pericardial effusion (fluid around her heart) that they thought was causing cardiac tamponade, restricting her heart from working properly. So a specialist came in and drained the fluid around her heart. But that didn’t help either. Her breathing became progressively labored.

Then they found two tumors in her liver and anemia that suggested she had been anemic for a while. Her lungs were full of what they believed to be blood. Her blood work showed that her organs were all failing. While I was with her, authorizing each step of the workup and treatment, hoping against hope that the vets would find something treatable, Grendel went into cardiac arrest. Earlier in the day, Grendel had been in her oxygen incubator, pawing at the glass door like she wanted to come home with me, but just before she coded, she gazed into my eyes and looked so tired and done, just like my father looked when he died from a brain tumor. I gave the vets permission not to resuscitate her. She died in my arms at 6:08pm last night.

They think her death had nothing to do with the fall but is the result of some chronic illness, probably cancer, that has been brewing for a while. If anything, they think the fall might have been caused by an underlying disease that led her to lose her balance. Me – I’m not sure I buy it. She seemed so healthy until the fall, but the vets can’t explain her death as the result of trauma. In the end, I just have to believe it was Grendel’s time. If she wasn’t going to go one way, she was going to exit in another. And because I gave her permission to break my heart, I just have to keep my heart open and let her go. Grief comes in waves, and all you can do is ride them…


The night Grendel died, we buried her in our backyard with the 13 tennis balls she loved (which we collected from all over the house), her teddy bear, a bunch of flowers, and the urn containing the ashes of Ariel, the 16 year old Bichon Frisé pup I lost the same week I lost my father, whose death I’ve never fully grieved. Ariel and Grendel weren’t exactly BFFs in this earthly life. Ariel ruled the roost and then this yappy, spastic whippersnapper, two pound Grendel puppy came in and tried to take her place as alpha dog (which Ariel finally conceded to her). But Grendel ADORED Ariel – absolutely worshipped the ground she walked on. So it comforts me to know her body is not alone as it returns to this earth, that Ariel is there with her, and we can visit the reminder of her any time we want in our own backyard.

The ceremony was lovely. My friend Tricia led the service, with beating drums and chiming bells and wild wailing that muffled our sobs. Siena plaintively wailed, “GRENDEL, GRENDEL, GRENDEL” as only a child can cry, without holding back or fearing that her grief will overtake her and swallow her the way I do. I have trouble leaning into it. It feels so dark and desperate and empty and painful, like the cavity in your mouth after they pull a wisdom tooth. But Siena’s wide open grief gave me the courage to fall into the black hole bravely, and because I did, I’m already beginning to see the light, knowing the only way to heal from grief is to go straight through its middle.

After the funeral, Siena wrote a note to the fairies and left it in the fairy house her 6th grade buddy at her Waldorf school made for her, where she and the fairies regularly communicate back and forth through letters. The note said, “I love you to the fairies. Grendel has died. You might find a new 8 year old dog. Her name is Grendel. She was my dog. Tell the little fairies that dog is Siena’s and her name is Grendel, and Grendel and Siena love you. Love, Siena and Grendel.”

The fairies responded with a soulful letter expressing their deep sadness for Siena’s loss but their abundant joy at the fact that they found two white dogs frolicking in the meadow with 13 tennis balls and a teddy bear, and the young fairies were blissed out, playing with the newest puppy fairies in Fairyland. (Siena knows about heaven, but she thinks Fairyland sounds even better, so she’s delighted that’s where Grendel and Ariel wound up. We’re happy to let her think so…)

That was all Siena needed. She still misses Grendel, but she’s so happy for Grendel that she seems willing to let go of her own needs and thoughts about how much she misses her. Me, on the other hand, I cry every time I walk in the door and spastic, freaky Grendel isn’t there barking, jumping, wiggling her body like she hasn’t seen me in years, (even though it’s only been 10 minutes since I walked outside) and demanding for me to drop everything to make her the center of my world, if only for a moment. Normally stoic Matt is teary too. We’re hugging a lot. Grendel was our first baby together. His tenderness and presence reminds me why we suffer the sometimes cloying experience of trying to merge our lives with a life partner, when both of you are constantly changing. When the bottom drops out, no words are needed. The love is permanent, even though life isn’t.

Even though we’re in a lot of pain, both Matt and I are finding that, in the tempest, we’re able to access the still point – the hole, the navel, where the gull can pass through in silence. We can find it in meditation and prayer, where the Universe lights my Inner Pilot Light and reminds me that life is precious and whole, even amidst loss. We can access it through the portal of gratitude, sharing happy memories of Grendel and calling upon how lucky we were to have loved her, rather than dwelling in how unfortunate it is to have lost her. We can rest in the knowing that it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved it all.

We will wait a little while, to grieve, to honor, to avoid the temptation to mask our pain with busyness and distraction, but we were already planning to find another puppy soul to love (we wanted to give Grendel a friend.) A new doggie to bring to the family will be forthcoming, when the time is right and when we find the dog that whispers to us. And when we do, we will give that dog permission to break our hearts all over again, knowing that it is guaranteed to come full circle, from the joy of new life to the pain of loss. And we will revel in the feeling of being radically alive, knowing that tears come from both because the feelings themselves are not so different – joy and pain both being access points to the divinity within us and within each other.  Both rock us out of the numbness we can fall into when we forget what it feels like to be radically ALIVE. And isn’t that what we’re here on this earth to feel – the full range of the human experience, in all its nooks and crannies and black holes and light beams?

Yes… oh yes. I’m in. Both feet. Riding the waves up and down, while trying to plant both feet on Mama Earth, whose life force sustains me and grounds me and keeps me from spinning out when tragedy strikes or bliss leaves me floating. Someone once asked me to choose – smooth sailing or choppy waters? I choose choppy waters. Not that life can’t have ease and flow, but if we all seek only smooth sailing, we’ll be too afraid to leave the safety of the harbor. Yet that’s what boats are meant to do – not to seek out safe harbors and rest with furled sails, but to glide across the ocean, waves and all, knowing that if a storm comes, you will weather it – or not – and all the while, there will be a stillness within, always yours to find.

Bless you all for your love in the comments here. You have brought forth many healing tears as I read each one, and your words sustain me.

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