Flawed Love

Part of what has surprised me about the loss of China has been how much my sense of grieving has been shaped by feeling guilty. Of course there’s the what-if’s surrounding her final illness: “I waited too long to take her to the vet,” “My inaction made her suffer,” “I waited too long to put her to sleep,” “I put her to sleep too soon” (ah, contradictory self-accusations! That right there should be a clue that what’s going on has more to do with me and my internal process than anything else).

But what is fascinating is that I’m also tapping into guilt feelings on a larger level — and mostly concerned with pushing her away when she would come begging for attention and I would be involved in research or writing. I mentioned this on my blog yesterday, and was curious to see if anyone would comment on it. No one did, which again suggested to me that this particular feeling was more about “my stuff” than about the universal arc of pet-loss-related grief. One of the monks yesterday reminded me that it’s okay to set boundaries with animals and that those rules don’t change just because we eventually have to grieve their passing. This was helpful, and enabled me to step back from the immediate tar-baby of the grief/guilt complex of feelings and ask myself, “Okay, so why am I feeling this, and just how ‘real’ are the thoughts beneath these feelings anyway?”

Almost as if on cue (I bet China put her up to it), as I was writing the last paragraph, Furbie came and jumped onto my chair. I stopped and petted her, and moved my laptop to the armrest (as I did recently for China) and Furb took the invitation and moved to my lap, began purring, and sits there still. In this brief exchange I’ve had two insights: first, that China was not the only cat I’ve pushed away over the months — but I’m thinking that, in my grief, my mind is imagining that it’s only been China who was so “neglected;” and second, that in reality I would accept the affectionate overtures of China on at least some occasions, just as I’ve accepted Furbie right now.

So if my feelings of guilt are, at least in some measure, a reflection of how my grief is warping my memories of China, then it seems to me the lesson here is that I have some learning to do about, well, feeling guilty. Maybe I need to brush up on my John Bradshaw. Or maybe I need to work on letting go of an overall pattern I have of being too hard on myself.

The last time I celebrated the sacrament of reconciliation, my confessor suggested to me that I’m an idealist — and while he said this gently, the point seemed to be that I set really high standards for myself and then punish myself when I fail to meet them. I think my grieving process is shining a spotlight on that reality.

I’m freaking out because I think I wasn’t the perfect pet owner for a cat I loved very dearly and who has just died. Well, news flash: I really wasn’t the perfect pet owner, and I’m still not, largely because I’m not the perfect anything. And a big piece of my imperfection is how much I loathe being imperfect. I think there’s some sin in there somewhere, and my confessor and I will work on unraveling that particular knot when I go see him this month.

What’s been especially freaky is that, several times over the past day or so, I’ve called Rhiannon “China” and China “Rhiannon.” I’ve never done this before. But herein lies an important clue to what’s going on. Another important clue comes from my childhood. I am the youngest of three boys, and my childhood experience was that my mother, my father, and my eldest brother were all demonstrative in their affection for me. But my middle brother, John, seemed distant, impossible to please, and quick to criticize. This led me, at a very young age (I was probably three or four at the time), to confide in my father that I didn’t think John loved me. I don’t remember this conversation, but my Mom and Dad recounted it to me in later years. “You really thought John didn’t love you,” Dad said. “So I explained to you that of course John loved you, but that his was a flawed love.” To this day my relationship with John is far more complex (and distant) than with anyone else in the family, but I do believe Dad was right. And I can rest in the assurance of my brother’s imperfect love for me because I know so well how imperfectly I love others.

Back to the China/Rhiannon issue. For readers who don’t know me personally, here’s the back story: my stepdaughter, Rhiannon, has polycystic kidney disease and end-stage liver disease; she was born with the PKD and, secondary to that congenital condition, at age 3 she suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. She’s now almost 25, and suffers from a variety of ailments related to her complex medical condition, including extreme mood swings, moderate intellectual disability, little to no self-care skills, and chronic fatigue. I came into Fran’s and Rhiannon’s life when Rhiannon turned 7; Fran and I got married the following year and since Rhiannon’s biological dad lives in California, I’ve been pretty much her only father for the past 17 years.

When I entered into Fran’s and Rhiannon’s life, my idealism combined with the bravado of a confident young man meant that I saw myself as just having so much to give to this handicapped little girl. What I didn’t expect was how much she would give to me, and how much she would take. I seriously underestimated the emotional toll of long-term care giving. I seriously underestimated how caring for Rhiannon so thoroughly defines Fran’s life and identity that it would unavoidably shape our marriage as well. And most of all, I seriously underestimated how petty and angry and resentful I would get over all this.

But petty and angry and resentful I became. And, truth be told, I struggle with those feelings, and the temptation to succumb to toxic bitterness they represent, every day. To this day I struggle with them, and I see no reason why that will ever change.

What does this mean? Well, for starters, If I had to grade my performance as a dad or stepdad to Rhiannon, probably the best grade I could honestly assign myself would be a C. I’m hardly above average and I most certainly am not exceptional. I have good days and bad days, and on the good days Rhiannon and I laugh and play and work together, and on the bad days we scream at each other and I get so enraged I have to walk to the other end of the house to calm down. I become furious at her behavior, I get enraged at my own, I shake my fists at God over the long slow dull burn of having to make continual sacrifices to care for a very sick young woman; or having to watch Fran make even greater sacrifices than I do — for it became evident early on in our life together that I only had a step-parent’s patience, and that Fran would pretty much shoulder most of the burden for caring for Rhiannon. This Fran does without complaint or any recrimination that I’ve ever seen, directed either at me or at Rhiannon.

Given Rhiannon’s medical condition, it is likely that we will face her mortality in the next 5 – 10 years; and for this reason Fran does not want her living anywhere but with us. On my best days I am in full agreement with Fran, and even on my average days I am serene about this arrangement. But there are those days I’d gladly consign Rhiannon to a group home; partially to give Fran a break, partially to assuage my own resentments.

So at best, I get a “C” in the business of step-fathering, especially for a special needs child. But the problem with this is that idealism I mentioned above. Basically, in my mind “C” is a failing grade. So on top of all the complex feelings I have for Rhiannon (who, just to be clear, I do love very much and have a strong and certain sense of her as “my” child and part of “my” family), I also have this complex of feelings in which I judge myself as inadequate, or worthless, or teetering on the brink of failure — just because I’m not the stepfather to Rhiannon that I wish I were.

And I think that’s why one of China’s last feline spells that she enchanted me with before I took her to the vet on Wednesday was this charm of befuddlement in which I began to confuse her with Rhiannon. China (or somebody) wanted me to see that my tendency to over-judge my own flawed love not only is robbing me of the ability to serenely accept China’s passing with gratitude, but it also over-complicates matters with Rhiannon — and, truth be told, with Fran, and my dad, and pretty much everybody.

We human beings can love fiercely or tenderly or heroically; but our love is always a flawed love. We don’t take our pets to the vet as often as we should. We push loved one away so often that they begin to wonder if we really care. We become parsimonious with our affection and lavish with our annoyance and sarcasm. We try to defend ourselves from our own inner void and we do so at the emotional expense of those closest to us. We all do it. And some of us are oblivious to it, and others are haunted by it. And something like the death of a pet, or the illness of a child, is all it takes to crack open our defenses and make this awe-full reality plain to see.

One of the graces of grieving the loss of an animal companion is, at least for me, the wounding (opening up) of the grief process leaves me open to self-examination, which hopefully can be fruitful in my life — long after the pain of the grief gives way to the quiet sense of gratitude that I will carry with me in the China-shaped hole in my heart that will never fully heal. The lessons I’m learning about myself as I walk through the valley of loss are, in a very real sense, China’s parting gifts to me. I can take those lessons back to all my relationships: whether that means resolving to be more playful with our two surviving cats, or learning to inject just a bit more gratitude and wonder into the complex dynamics of parenting Rhiannon, remembering to demonstrate in little ways to Fran just how much I appreciate her, or — most challenging and yet necessary of all — to work on the task of balancing my fierce self-directed idealism with a rich hospitality toward my own clumsy imperfection. Flawed love is all I have to give: to the memory of China, to Furbie and Clarissa, to Fran and Rhiannon, to myself. But, oh, I’ll take flawed love over no love at all, anytime.

Living with Hospice
Completing the Hospice Journey
Rhiannon's Vigil and Funeral
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

    Carl, thank you so much for this deep sharing; this is a wonderful post.

    It’s amazing, how easy it is to feel the depth of your love and your humanness at a distance. I suspect that God is not giving you a C, by the way. I know I’m not.

    But, of course, when it is my own love in my own relationships that I’m reflecting on, I can’t feel any of that sense of rightness (even amid the struggle and the flaws) that so moves me when I reflect on yours. Up close, I’m too aware of the failures and the impatience and the imperfections. I remind myself, in words at least, that the times I feel most at peace and “spiritual” are not necessarily the times I’m actually being the most spiritual, any more than the times a hiker is peacefully surveying the view are what gets him up a mountainside. It may be the very times we dislike most–the messy, sweaty ones–when we’re doing the work we’re meant to do in this life…


    I hate that this sounds like a plug. I don’t mean it that way. But something about this post reminds me of the subject I was trying to explore recently over at the Bad Quaker Bible Blog. I wonder if you would think so, too, or if perhaps my thoughts there are too obvious to be very useful to you.

    Whatever. I appreciated you sharing this part of your life, your journey. Blessed be.

  • Brother Don

    In my book, you get an A. ‘Course Fran gets an A++. One of these days I will tell you about the conversation Fran and I had that weekend I first met her LOL. And I hope someone asks you about that weekend. Have to say I would not trade it for anything.

  • Brother Don

    And while I did not comment about China looking for some lovin’, my comment this AM about EB should tell you I got the message!

  • http://cometobeasyoupassaway.blogspot.com Tomasis Marie

    Thank you Don. My wi-fi connection has been shaky here in the mountains just a few hours north of you due to the string of storms, so I am just catching up.
    I am so sorry to here about China. I can truly empathize with you and and relate to this time of introspection. Our four-legged companions are great solace and greater Teachers. When my last 4-legged pasted away she taught me the nature of sacrificial love.
    In the design world, we learn that being too perfect is the worst kind of flaw. Flowers arranged too perfectly look fake, rooms designed so perfectly to look like a designers show room become unlivable; the first matrix was too perfect. Asian artists regularly leave flaws in their work…the statue of David has one glaring flaw (or so I am told…LOL). The conclusion, it is our imperfections, our imperfect love, that make us approachable and lovable to each other and our 4-legged friends and companions. And indeed, IMO, it is what makes us so beautiful, lovable and perfect in the presence of the Divine.

  • http://raymondsigrist.wordpress.com raymondsigrist

    In my opinion unless a person realizes their innate impeccability, they are going, to various degrees, to mistreat other persons and beings. Unless I realize that I am perfect, I cannot realize that you are. If I judge myself, I am going to be resentful, and I will work out this resentment out on you.

    “When the mind is transparent and pure as if reflected on the mirror-like surface of the water, there is nothing in the world that you would dislike. When it is serene as the light breeze in the sunshine, there will be no one whom you would like to forget.”
    Pa-ta Shan-jen 17th century painter
    Translated by Chang Chung-yuan in his book “Creativity and Taoism, A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art, and Poetry.

  • http://www.monasticponderings.blogspot.com Amy

    Carl: Your past few blogs on China and the emotional turmoil of saying goodbye have stirred my own ponderings. As I tried to be more appreciative of my cat of 11 years, the thought hit me, “Sure, for now you will appreciate him more. Your consciousness has been stirred, and you are living with greater awareness. But what about next month…next year…how long will this ‘emotion’ last?”

    I think that when we are in the thick of things, our emotions do open up our hearts to greater appreciation and reflection, though sometimes heavily laden with guilt. Maybe that’s why funeral eulogies are often so lavish in praise…in the pain of sorrow, guilt flows into kind remembrances of the deceased (I had a lady-monk tell me once how much better it would be for that person to hear these words in her lifetime. She refused to partake in eulogies.).

    But, guilt aside (that’s another whole chapter), I think gratitude speaks to something very mystical…our degree of consciousness. In that regard, I think all of us can sit up and take note of your experience and ask ourselves, how conscious are we in life? Even in setting boundaries, or meeting deadlines, or just trying to live, how conscious are our decisions, our choices, our intentions? Had you consciously said to yourself when putting China to one side, “This is a boundary, not a disrespect for China.” I doubt guilt would find a way in now.

    So, walking through you and China’s last days, I’ve made my own resolve, not to be more thoughtful, but to approach life with a greater consciousness. It’s the only way I can safeguard my life from that terrible “forgetfulness” that dominates our culture and our practice of good. In consciousness, you might even be able to release the guilt you are experiencing…knowing it all played a part in the journey, both that which is behind you, and what lies ahead…

  • http://www.twitter.com/TigerLilyJlo judith jlo quinton

    Our love is and always be flawed.
    His love, alone, is perfect.

    Seems obvious…
    As Light-Followers, we’ve heard it a million times.
    It isn’t.

    If it were Obvious…
    We would relax into it.
    We would fall into it.
    We would let ourselves go.

    This is what we must do.
    Let ourselves go.
    Let go of our flawed love.
    Rest in His Perfect Love.

    Not obvious.
    Not easy.
    Yet, the easiest thing in the world to do…
    When it becomes Obvious.

    Much love,

  • http://www.twitter.com/TigerLilyJlo judith jlo quinton

    Oh, that’s weird.
    I see in the comment that it appears I was signing it as you!
    Not intentional at all!

    Meant to write:
    “Much love,


  • http://www.peran.org.uk Andy Phillips

    Hi there!

    Very interesting site – I’ll log it as a favorite.

    Don’t forget Celtic Cornwall!

    Oll an gwella/all the best

    Andy Phillips
    Tas a’n Gowethas
    Cowethas Peran Sans