On Grief and Loss

A number of years ago, my grandparents sold their family home – “the cottage” – and I was devastated. That loss felt so immense, tangled up in memories of the past as well as hopes, goals, expectations for the future; the cottage was the place I felt safe, the place where I felt free and comfortable to explore, the place that felt like home. I think it hit me as hard as it did because I thought it would always be there, that some day in the future, it would be the place where I’d take my children to swim, to look for frogs, to learn tree identification, and suddenly, the physical place, and all my expectations for the future, were no more. It has taken me years to move forward, to unpack all of the complicated emotions I felt, and to feel okay. Over time, though, through written reflection and the support of fellow writers processing other losses, traumas, and transitions, I began to understand why the cottage’s absence was more than just a house no longer being there. I grew and matured in the way I viewed the world, and the way I viewed writing. Because I realized that pouring out my emotions by writing words on the page helped me to process what I was feeling.

A couple weeks ago, one of my family’s cats (whom I thought of as my cat), died of cancer.

Turtle, so named because of how incredibly shy she was as a kitten, was my baby. When I was younger and living with my parents, I used to carry her around the house wherever I went. I bought her toys, played with her, sang to her, snuck her treats… and over time, she came out of her shell. I involved her in nearly every aspect of life – she snuggled with me when I went to bed, sat on my lap when I was working on homework and, later, graded my students’ work, and was my ultimate partner for any board and card games we played during family game night, even sat in the bathroom when I was using the toilet or taking a shower. Turtle gave me love and comfort when I was sad – and all other times too. My boyfriend once said that she was more like a dog than a cat because she followed me wherever I went, came when I called her, and responded when I talked to her; when I called out “Tuuu”, she’d respond with an inquisitive “Me?” rather than a full meow which I absolutely adored. I have never felt more connected to another animal than I did with her.

On my lap during a game of “Holiday Shuffle”

And yet, when she died, the loss didn’t hit me the same way the cottage had. I loved that cat so deeply, and also somehow felt more “okay” with her passing than devastated at her loss. How could it be that a being I had felt so connected with wouldn’t break me the same way a selling of a house had? I thought – perhaps the wave of shock and sadness is just delayed, maybe it hasn’t hit me yet, but about a month later I am still feeling similarly.

I turned again to writing to help me process my emotions – this time my seeming lack of grief. I thought back to the various experiences I had shared with my kitty and noticed that they were overwhelmingly positive – pretty much all the times I had spent with her were good. She was a wonderful cat, and I think (and hope) that I was likewise a wonderful companion to her. The relationship was one in which there were no regrets. There weren’t words I wish I’d said or things I wished I’d done; I felt peace rather than turmoil. Letting go of the cottage meant that I no longer had that place of safety and security, that the family gatherings from that point forward would be significantly different, that the explorations and fun times with cousins would be things of the past… I felt like it meant I would be giving up on dreams I had for the future – the life I hoped I’d have. Its loss was like a physical, tangible manifestation of other transformations taking place in my life, and I had to come to terms with the realization that life doesn’t always go according to plan.

With Turtle, I felt only gratitude. That I was able to spend so much time with her – both when she was younger and near the end, for all of the good times we experienced, for who she was and the bond we shared. I had prepared myself to go with her to the vet because we realized she was in pain and that euthanasia might be more humane/kind than letting her suffer, even though the very prospect of euthanasia is what deterred me from becoming a vet myself, but she died in the night, sparing me from the additional heartache – and I’m grateful for that too. I think Turtle – “my precious Tutu” as I often called her – opened my eyes and heart to what a connection with an animal could be like, and rather than feel closed off and like I could never have a cat again, I am eager to become a foster home for cats and kittens from local shelters.

Both losses were like the ending of chapters in my life, but I know that one chapter must end for another to begin. No longer having the anchor of the cottage means that the future is wide open – I can sail elsewhere, explore new places, and try new things, and now that my cat is gone, I can begin to think about all the other kitties I can help in my life.

Though she was pretty dog-like, she did love playing in boxes 🙂

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