Warning: If anyone says ‘kitten’ to my wife, she’s likely to punch you in the nose. Consider yourselves warned.
Fancy, my wife’s cat of 15 years, died yesterday morning. She was at least 17 years old and had been declining in health for some time but still, it hurts. Because of our many shared virtual connections, she’d asked me to “tell the people” so that she wouldn’t have to.
As we all know, there is little more risky than interacting with the world when your heart is so freshly broken. Those who do not know your loss want to talk about whatever else is going on in the world, and you don’t care. Those who do know about your loss want to comfort you, to reassure you, to let you know they are thinking about you. Being loved on at times like this can be comforting. Of course, when it goes badly, it’s like being run over by a car right after being hit by a bus.
As requested, I shared a charming picture of Fancy with a note about her transition. Almost immediately, thoughtful messages began to pour in virtually, and we sat on the couch and looked at old pictures and remembered. It was sweet and sad, the best you can hope on a day like yesterday. A few hours later, my wife said, “If anyone says ‘kitten’ to me, I’m going to punch them in the nose.” Mostly to lighten the mood on my Facebook page, I shared the warning (above).
You never know when someone might feel tempted to extend the inevitable, “Why don’t you just get a kitten?” That is the “at least you can have another child” for grieving parents, the “better now than after the baby is born” for miscarrying women, and the “at least he/she’s no longer suffering” for adult who just lost their parent/spouse/friend after a long battle with a painful disease.
My inner optimist wants to believe that everyone on this planet now recognizes that these types of condolences are inappropriate and painful, and above all else, unnecessary. I want to believe that it never, ever happens unless someone’s cognitive processing has been profoundly impaired by, say… a lightening strike. But, the truth is many people still say things that hurt you because they don’t know what to do when you’re hurting.
Naturally, within minutes of my warning, I was encouraged to get my wife a kitten. Trying (desperately) to squash the conversation early, I replied, “No, we think that dead pet replacement is selfish. We’ll just be with the sadness for a while.”
My wife then clarified, “It’s not just selfish. It doesn’t exist, any more than dead wife replacement or dead child replacement or dead parent replacement, and it’s cruel to suggest it to people who’ve just lost beloved anythings, pets or anything else.”
This kitten advocate explained that when their child’s pet died, the only thing that would make her stop crying was a new one, and that getting the new one was the only thing that made her to move on. If you’ve been reading my stuff for more than six or so seconds, then you may already know where there is headed. Forgive the repetition and here we go again…
Every tear you never cried is waiting for you… and they are heavy.
Let us take a moment to recognize our (at least) national aversion to feeling anything even remotely resembling the heavy end of the healthy emotions spectrum. We take pills for our pain. We numb our bodies in childbirth. We drink a few glasses of wine to detach from a hard day at the office. We hurl ourselves at work when we hate our spouses. We use credit cards to distance us from the hell of not having enough. We eat away our loneliness, our fear, and our rage. We are afraid to feel.
We are afraid to feel.
And it’s not just a bullshit move to run away from the feelings that we’ve deemed unsavory… it’s literally killing us. Yes, it hurts to lose a beloved pet–a trusted companion of 15 years–but th at hurt is only a fraction of what we will carry into the future if we don’t pause to grieve this loss.
It is our tendency to fly forward, too afraid to feel the hurt, piling one set of un-shed tears on top of the next. When we attempt to replace dead pets (or children, lovers, or friends, for that matter), we deny our very primal need to grieve. When we distract ourselves with something cute or shiny or numbing, we push our grief down instead of releasing it. And it’s the releasing it that allows us to move on at a natural, healthy pace.
There is an organic process that follows any loss like this and when we deny it, we suffer. And people who are suffering, hurt other people. It’s a toxic cycle of detachment and denial, and it has to stop. If we want to be the extraordinary people we are capable of being, we must choose to stay, to be in our experience, until it shifts into a new one. We must be willing to feel the way our life honestly feels. Releasing this experience properly creates space for the next beautiful experience to flow to us.
If I brought home a kitten right now, I believe I would be robbing my wife, my children, and myself of the opportunity to grieve properly. Although we might be distracted, a new kitten would do nothing to help us heal the wound. Fancy just died yesterday. That hole in our hearts, minds, and home can’t be filled. They have to heal.
Instead of bringing in a kitten–and don’t get me wrong, we love kittens–we will be here, in this house that feels different without Fancy. We’ll notice that she is gone. We’ll feel space that used to be occupied by her unconditionally loving spirit, and rather maddening aversion to personal hygiene. We will tell stories and look at pictures. We will laugh about her life, and sometimes cry because it hurts that she is gone.
Instead of running away from ourselves, we will experience this loss.
This morning, tears filled my eyes as I leaned over to distribute breakfast servings of dry food into the other three cats’ bowls, and left Fancy’s bowl empty. Sure, I feel the temptation to put that bowl away. Just like the replacement-minded crowd, all of my old programming still cycles through my consciousness. We certainly share the impulse to erase that which calls the chest to ache, the eyes to fill, and the throat to squeeze back the hurt. Whether it is by design or by our training, the tendency to push back the emotion lives in most of us. But, we are better than that. We are capable of releasing that which no longer serves us, of letting go of the past, and healing from our losses.
Let us refuse to betray ourselves by running away from emotion that we are strong enough to face.
Let us recommit to our healing, to staying with this process until we are free to move on without the weight of denial.
Right now, as I write this, tears are pouring down my cheeks. Some of them are about Fancy, and my sweet wife’s broken heart, but others are far older. Some are tears from years ago, when people and things I loved left me and I didn’t have the ability, support, courage, or whatever else to release them. It seems as if this loss, provided I am willing to stay and experience it, will carry the old tears away with it.
Every tear you never cried is waiting for you… and they are heavy.
For today, we will leave her bowl right there in the kitchen where it’s been since before the children and I moved in nearly five years ago. When we feed the other cats, our hearts will certainly ache for a while, not because the bowl is there (and not because we didn’t get a kitten) but because Fancy is gone. And that’s going to be okay.
If we want to stop hurting, we need to heal.
Until then, we will notice how her deeply obnoxious and, somehow still, terribly charming howls no longer echo in the halls. Once we have the… whatever it takes… to mop up her final round of Fancy-peed-on-her-back-paws-and-tracked-litter-box-dust-across-hardwood-floors paw prints, it will be bittersweet when they aren’t masterfully reapplied eight minutes later.
And I don’t know how long it’s going to take for Fancy’s best friend to stop rotating between watching the front door and staring out the back window at the spot where Fancy is buried… but that cat is absolutely breaking my heart. For today, I’m going to dig deep and find the courage to let it.