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All Teachers Great and Small

Clio with her favorite toy Mr. Monkey Clio with her favorite toy Mr. Monkey

I used to joke that I would one day write a book entitled Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned from Clio: How I Figured Out My Relationship Fusion with My Dog.

I had to put down my dog, Clio. We went to the vet to find out why, over a brief few days, she was becoming increasing lethargic, wouldn’t eat and couldn’t hold anything down. I assumed she contracted giardia again. This tended to happen every year or two, as we are the outdoor kind—spending most weekends hiking, creeking...going places where we could both explore and she could run off-leash. Only this time it wasn’t that simple. She was in major kidney failure and the reason why was secondary to the fact that she was dying.

I found this out on a Thursday morning, and the rest of the day was a juggling act of weighing all the facts about the next step and dealing with my own shock / grief. And not leaving her side. She was my life’s companion for 10 years and it didn’t take a giant leap in my thinking to conclude that the quality of her death was just as important as the quality of her life. These 10 years have passed very quickly.

Clio came to live with us at 11 weeks old. She was up for adoption, having been treated for eating rat poison and being left at the hospital as a too-expensive-undertaking. The first few weeks with her was a minor challenge with getting her to take medications and everyone adjusting to each other. As she began to feel better and gain strength, her personality began to emerge. It didn’t take long for me to realize what a cosmic joke her presence was. She was a mirror image for me—someone very clear about who is in charge and someone who doesn’t like to be messed with, let alone be told what to do. I think the term is dominant female. Head of the pack status had to be decided, rules established, and behavior clearly defined. Sometimes I wondered just who was ‘training’ whom. I lost count of the number of times during any given day I decided to give her back. The pressure from my children for her to stay was heavy, and armed with the knowledge that cutoff is an art form in my family of origin in dealing with relationship conflict, I would grit my teeth and start the next day anew. There had to be a way to negotiate with someone who appeared unwilling to negotiate. (To this day I am not sure to which one of us that actually applied!) Relationships can be so effortful. Growing up is hard work.

So, training was the agenda. Luckily I’m a quick study, as Clio in no uncertain terms demonstrated that she mattered and expected to be acknowledged. It wasn’t long after this epiphany and a change in strategy that life with Clio settled down to a comfortable compromise. I talked to her all the time and in return she taught me to understand her when she talked back. When I missed certain cues, she was quick to take an I-position and let me know that my tendency to overfunction put her in the underdog (no pun intended) position and that she did not like it and that she would not tolerate it and we would hit an impasse.

Over the years, I have chuckled at witnessing the depth of my attachment / relationship fusion with Clio. She was both recruited into and volunteered for that position, allowing my kids some wiggle room, so to not bear the full weight of a long, family history of maternal anxiety and child projection. Looking back, there were times that our twosome put one or both of my kids in the outside position of the triangle. My son continues to be quite grateful to Clio for that. My daughter would buck up against it, as Clio always made sure that Emily understood where each of them stood in the pecking order and I, more often than not, sided with Clio.

My life revolved around my children, it was too automatic to not do so. Clio was no exception. Now, there are certain facts about having children and pets and there is a certain amount of orienting toward those relationships that one must do based in those facts. Because of the things that Clio depended upon me for and fueled by my relationship dependency, Clio became the orienting point in my life, becoming an extremely important and vital relationship, adding a certain amount of stability to my functioning.

The day after the diagnosis, I again cancelled all work. It was our last day together and I wanted, actually needed, to be with her the whole day; to let her know that she mattered and just how much her presence had blessed my life on many different levels. And to come to terms with my loss.

That morning we went for a short walk, as activity for her was effortful. We spent the day laying the sun -- all I wanted was to be close to her. This was major for us both. How much she understood, I have no way of knowing. What I observed was that I craved physical closeness. If I got too close for too long, she would move away just enough to create her own space. Maybe my emotionality distressed her. Maybe the constant contact caused her discomfort. Maybe I was just being a major annoyance to her. Yet, even in death, Clio was teaching me how to stay present -- how to experience this terrible sadness and profound sense of loss and yet enjoy and be very grateful for each moment with her.

We were lying on her bed, on the floor at the vet’s office. I told the doc that I wasn’t totally convinced that it was the day; however, I wasn’t totally sure that putting this off til the next day wasn’t waiting too long. Doc told me that she had been watching Clio’s responses to me and when in a moment of my breaking down, Clio would perk up, becoming very “stoic.” Doc said her experience led her to believe that Clio was aware of my feelings and was trying to make me feel better by not showing any distress.

Bowen theory, as I understand it, does not qualify fusion as good or bad – it just is. What one does with it, I think, is where the effort lies. Doc’s observation gave me an opportunity to reflect and act upon my principles—it is not other’s responsibility to make me feel better and to be mindful of my impact on other. I mustered the ability to calm myself down and laying next to Clio, I began to slowly stroke her neck and talk to her, as I always had, about the wonderful day we had together, about the joy she has been for all these years, that she has been one of my greatest teachers, and she will always be my “stinky puppy” (a nick name she got very early on because she loved rolling in horse manure, among other things). Clio passed calmly and quickly.

Dr. Bowen wrote, something to the effect, that in a family death, it is the position the individual occupied that is a critical variable for the system. How does anyone navigate around the “hole” that is left? How does the system reconfigure in relation to that hole?

It was on Saturday morning that question hit me. When I woke up it wasn’t that I was expecting her to be there, but I sure as hell wished she was. Now what do I do .... we had a routine!?!? Her absence and its ensuing silence remain somewhat deafening.

Joseph Campbell once said that the passage to fulfillment lies between the perils of fear and desire. For me, reorienting to Clio’s absence is similar to a walking meditation. Bowen theory is the roadmap guiding me to stay present and hold the greater frame, while feeling the feelings. The greater frame being that the intensity is more about me and my fusion; that is not to say I don’t miss her. I do and at times very acutely. Yet when I can relate to the fusion as such, then that frees me up to smile when I think of her, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that our time together and her passing was a complete moment. That freedom also grants me the opportunity to appreciate the many generations of my family, how I came to be, what I bring into my relationships and what it takes to evolve my own self. I don’t know how well I could have navigated that passage without Clio being who she was. And that is why I say that everything I need to know, I learned from Clio.

I am profoundly grateful for the tenderness and care both Clio and I received at Peachtree Veterinary Clinic.



Filed under Bowen family systems theory, Family

2 comments for "All Teachers Great and Small"

JoAnn says:


This is really beautiful! By your last sentence I was bawling! I appreciate both your exploration of the relationship issues around death and your poignant reminder of the complex emotional capacities and "self" of I am looking forward to the time when our culture recongizes this also in cows, pigs and chickens.

Tami says:

Hi Donna, Thank you for this. I too was "bawling" at the end, but it really spoke to me on many positive levels. Especially learning a bit about fusion and what it means to be close to someone or something but also respect that person's/animal's space. Thanks:)

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