My cat died recently. I should point out, first and foremost, that I am not a cat person. In fact, I’m Team Dog all the way. Dogs are fuzzy, cuddly, and brimming with unconditional love. Cats are aloof, passive-aggressive, and like nothing more than to throw up hairballs on your freshly washed duvet. And to be honest, I never thought I would feel grief at the loss of a cat.
But this cat was different.
Some of you may remember Gary George (and yes, that was his real name) from a piece I published a while back called For Love Of A Cat. In this essay, I talked about how Gary George and our other faithful cat companion, Louise, had come into our lives at just the right times and despite the fact they were cats (not a cat person, remember?), they had been exactly who and what my daughters and I had needed.
So when our little guy, GG as we affectionately called him, contracted an unnamed and fast-acting infection this summer, we spent many anxious hours at the emergency vet, we carefully administered meds, and I even sat back in awe as my daughters took over the job of administering fluids with an IV needle – a task I didn’t have the constitution to manage myself. Despite some brief moments of hope, nothing we did was enough. And so after the girls had left for a week at their dad’s house, I found myself sitting alone in the emergency vet’s office in the wee hours of a Monday morning listening to the vet say she was sorry, but there was nothing more that could be done.
The wave of grief that hit me was mind-numbing and instantaneous.
I used to watch medical dramas like ER with skeptical cynicism thinking that the scripts were dramatically overwritten when family members would begin recounting seemingly irrelevant stories about the patient’s life to a doctor, nurse, or whoever else would listen. And yet, there I sat, completely undone, spouting off anecdotal accounts of why this cat was so special – as if I somehow needed to justify to the vet and her staff why I, a non-cat person and a perfectly rational adult, was a sobbing puddle of grief.
Over the next week, I was – simply put – to pieces. Nothing I did seemed to make it better. I would find myself going about routine tasks, only to stop suddenly as the loss washed over me in waves. I kept telling myself to get a grip. After all, this was only a cat. My family was healthy, my kids were safe, I had a roof over my head, and there was food on my table. Who did I think I was to allow myself such pathetic self-indulgence when there were people elsewhere dealing with real problems? Above all else, I absolutely could not let my girls see me undone. I needed to stay strong for them…right?
When the girls returned home days later to an empty cat bed and our poor Louise, who continued to faithfully sit at the front window waiting for her friend GG to get home, I finally had to stop and think about what was going on. Somehow it made perfect sense to me that my girls were heartbroken over the loss of a pet, and yet, I couldn’t seem to allow myself the same luxury. In fact, I realized that, despite having lost various pets over the years, the last time I had felt this kind of sadness over the death of an animal was when I lost my dog as a child. So why was it ok then but not now?
What I realized is that with grief – or any sadness, really – it’s not always about the object or event itself. It’s about what it represents.
For me, this little seven-pound ball of fur had not been “just a cat.” He had come into our lives after a long period of intense struggle. He had made us laugh. He had given unconditional and fully reciprocated love. He had represented joy. And his loss seemed to dim the light that we had worked so hard to cultivate.
So, no, he was not just a cat. He was so much more.
Often, instead of trying to understand what our sadness represents and allowing that to be a real visceral reaction, we focus on getting past it. And, inadvertently, we teach our kids the same thing. While we are certainly forgiving of a young child mourning the loss of a beloved pet, we tend to encourage them “not to be sad” about any variety of other things. We shield them from grief by trying to cover our own. But in doing so, we don’t stop to understand the root of the sadness or the underlying emotions that are present, though frequently less tangible.
The thing is, it doesn’t really matter what causes us to be sad, what’s important is that our feelings are real. When we downplay an event or tell our kids that they shouldn’t be sad about something, we are, in essence, denying the reality of a myriad of other emotions and issues that are not only relevant but essential to their emotional development.
The more I thought about it, the more I understood that it was not only ok to grieve, and grieve deeply, over the loss of a cat, it was vital that I do so.
By allowing myself to delve into the intensity of the emotions I was feeling, I was also allowing myself to come to terms with what my loss represented, to acknowledge the fear that I felt with such a loss, and to recenter myself in a place of gratitude. In other words, once I validated my feelings, I was able to deal with them in a healthy way and find peace at the end of my emotional journey. And most importantly, it was ok that I let my kids see my sadness. By communicating my grief to them, I was allowing them to grieve, as well.
As parents, we want nothing more than for our kids to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted humans. But many times, when they are sad, we try to find ways to distract them. We might offer physical distractions, or we might simply say “Don’t be sad.” By doing that, however, we are in essence telling them that their feelings are not appropriate. I know that sounds harsh, and I don’t assign blame or judgment. However, I think that instead of trying to find ways to deflect sadness, we can do more for ourselves and our children by learning to sit with our feelings and talk about the splintering emotions that accompany them.
Grief is a part of life. And no matter what we do to try to shield our kids from it, there will be times when it is unavoidable.
We don’t want to raise kids that think it’s “ok to be sad” about everything (which ultimately translates to self-pity whenever things don’t go their way), but we do want kids who know how to process emotions and rationally understand the connection between our feelings, our thoughts, and our physical response.
Over the last few weeks, we have gotten used to Gary George’s absence. Louise no longer waits by the door for his return. We don’t start as often when we see movement out of the corner of our eye and our hearts don’t skip a beat when the stuffed animal left on the couch fools us momentarily. Instead, we share photos or videos taken on our phones. We laugh and, yes, sometimes cry over his memory. But we do it openly and we do it together. And we acknowledge that his loss took something important from each of us. But together we are allowing one another to heal – not just from losing a pet – but from all the other wounds both large and small that were opened by his loss.
I don’t wish sadness on anyone. But I know that tragedy, loss, and grief will visit us all on occasion. I just hope that by giving my kids permission and validation in the moments they feel sadness, I can teach them how to self-soothe and heal in healthy ways. But most importantly, I want to teach them that grief is not something to fear.
Grief, when accepted, is a fire that burns through our deflections and defenses, but leaves behind a core of acceptance and gratitude.
I still miss that darn cat. But today, my heart is filled with thankfulness for the time I had with him. And maybe, just maybe, because of him, we’ll be even more ready to love the next furry thing that stumbles into our lives when we need it the most.