I have been in a state of shock since I lost my little feline companion, Pippa. She died so suddenly this week. Just over an hour after I had been holding her on my lap as I wrote, her playing with the computer keyboard as I gently held her paws back from making a mistake on my behalf, purring, nuzzling my chin, she became violently ill. I had no idea that in a matter of hours she would be taken from me.
Pippa was relatively young for a cat, and by all accounts healthy. But the vet believes she had an aneurysm and there was nothing they could do to save her. Since then I have found myself being hit with waves of grief only punctuated by numbness. How fragile life is. I worked in hospice care for 20 years, but if there is one lesson I have learned it is that the death of a loved one always feels unexpected. It is always unwelcome. It always feels as if every bit of joy has been robbed of you.
One of the ways I cope is through writing. It is one balm for the pain. But it doesn’t cover all of it. Not by a long shot. The wound is still there. And one wound leads to another, and another. I realized after our cat Memur died this past winter that I had a lot of unmet grief hiding under my skin. Grief over the deaths of family members like my father, my aunt, my sister-in-law. Grief from the deaths of former loves and longtime friends. His death made me face some of that grief, but I shrunk from much of it and was able to quickly bury it again with the business of life. Pippa made that a whole lot easier.
She grieved too, after Memur died. They were inseparable. Affectionate, comforting and playful with each other. When he died, Pippa climbed unto the bed where his body was and laid down next to it with her head against his head. She stayed like that for hours not moving. For weeks later she followed my partner and I around endlessly, never wanting to be alone. And when she sat on the couch next to us she would press her head firmly into the cushion in a clear display of sorrow.
Regardless of what any tone deaf essentialist might opine, grief is not something unique to human beings. I have observed it many times throughout my life, and in many different species. In hospice care I often observed patient’s animal companions howling in despair after they died, or refusing to leave the bedside, and then laying somber and refusing to eat. This is not an attempt to anthropomorphize, but to think grief is ours and ours alone strikes me as the height of hubris and demonstrates a fundamental lack of curiosity and imagination. Indeed, their very non-humanness can help us gain more empathy for each other and for ourselves.
As many of you know, my mother has dementia. And the only way I can describe that disease is as a reckless and sadistic thief. It robs a person of their memories, their connection to this life and, often, aspects of their personality. My mother isn’t the same person I knew. She is there, and I love that which remains. Her smile, kindness, grace and gratitude are all intact. But the disease robbed so much from her, and from us, her family. And anyone who meets her now will never know the woman I knew. The person who raised me. And that angers me. It angers me that many will only see the disease and not the human being who had a rich, long life before that disease ruthlessly stole it from her. The human being that is still there.
There is a unique, biting kind of pain when you hear your mother ask you over and over if you are her son. To ask where her mother is, even though she has been dead for over 20 years. To see her face sink in sadness to hear that her mother had died. My sister and I decided not to tell her that dreadful truth ever again. And there is the guilt from getting cross with her for not remembering or asking the same questions over and over. All of this feels like someone punching you in the chest, again and again and again.
So I found solace these past few years in the company of my cats. Those curious beings who are free from prejudices or judgements. The ones who don’t care about the conventions or confinements of human culture, or expectations, or “appropriate” conduct and communication. Who look to you as a companion without conditions except to feed and clean up after them, and provide them with some affection and a warm place to sleep. Whose fur gives our bare human skin a gentle caress like no human could match. They comforted me often when my heart was sore.
Of course, I have had immeasurable love and support from my partner, my family, and so many dear friends throughout the years, but it is hard to explain the importance of a non-human companion to anyone who hasn’t experienced that kind of relationship. Harder still to describe the intense grief one feels at their death. Some may say, “I’m sorry, but maybe you should just get another cat.” Could anyone imagine the same being said about a human being? Has our culture become so divorced from our place in the family of beings on this earth that we would think that any life is replaceable? I do hope to share my life with more of these beings, but they will inhabit their own space, not that of those who are gone.
Right now I am wrapping myself in the warmth of the memories I created with these wonderful beings that graced our human lives. Between the many tears and feelings of despair there is a glimmer of joy. And I have begun to realize that is where joy is really found. We don’t invent it or create it. It doesn’t produce itself by positive thinking or by surrounding ourselves with successful people or by attaining material riches. It is a mysterious and sacred gift to all of us that is never deserved, but always offered. And it is temporary. It comes and then it goes. Like the warm embrace of my mother, who sometimes forgets she is my mother. In the end, it is the embrace that matters most.