Last Friday morning, we were still on vacation in Maine. About lunchtime, my cell phone rang. It was Woody, who was obviously very distraught. Our eighteen-year-old cat, Winston, had died. Woody came home at lunchtime to check on him–as is his habit–and found Winston’s fragile body lying in the shade of the driveway. Sometime between the time Woody left for work in the morning and noon, he had just laid down, gone to sleep, and slipped away.
Winston had lived a long life, and he had a rich history (as many of our animal friends have). His original owner had not treated him well, and a local vet had botched some surgery. So Winston ended up going home from a wonderful vet’s office to live with Pat’s sister, Genie. He wasn’t a baby, but we weren’t sure how old he was. Genie died in April of 1996, at age 51, of lung cancer, and the last month of her life, as hospice came to her apartment and as we cared for her, Winnie rarely left her side. And then he went to live with Pat, where he has been babied and loved and pampered for lo all these years. In the past several years (if a cat has nine lives, Winston has had about a dozen, I think), he had to be given insulin shots twice daily, and as he has lost more weight and become more fragile, we’ve had several “insulin shock” vet visits (honey does the trick, we found out), and then Dr. Mike McAllister just wouldn’t upset him by trying to get blood out of his tiny veins. Not worth the pain or effort, he said.
Pat and Woody had been babying him for a long time. Special cat food. Half & Half cream. He had a lot of lap time with Pat, and Woody carried him gently around the house in his arms like a baby.
Last Friday morning (yes, Friday the 13th) we sat on the rocks at Otter Cliffs in Maine in the sunshine, watching the waves crash against the rocks, and wept. We imagined our young man at home, wrapping that tiny body (he could not have weighed six pounds) in a towel, digging a grave over in “Genie’s garden” that Pat had planted all those years ago in memory of her sister, and laying him to rest–all alone. But later, he told us that he’d “said some prayers from the Burial Office” over him–somehow he’d found a 1928 BCP and used some prayers from that. He weeded the little garden and mulched it, and put a big stone over Winston.
Grief is such a complex emotion. Some would say, “Oh, that’s just a cat.” But how can any of God’s creatures be “just” anything? They are our companions in our lives, and it doesn’t take long before they are as important to us as our human children–in different ways, of course. (I don’t mean to anthropomorphize our four-leggeds.) And when we have a loss–regardless of what it is–grief pours over us.
I think we Americans are particularly bad about grieving. We tend to want to cut to the chase. Get it over with. Brush it off. It’s that independent American spirit, that stiff upper lip thing. We’ll be okay. It’s nothing. She had a good long life. He’s in a better place. She’s out of pain now. He’s with Jesus. We know someone has to walk through the shadow of death, but we don’t want to go there ourselves–either in reality or in the gray shadows of grief that remind us of that reality which awaits us.
We also forget something important. Every time I have a loss, it brings back every loss I have ever had before. A death of someone close to me (in the past four years, my mother-in-law died, and I loved her dearly and still miss her) brings back the pain of my father’s death in 1988, and my separation and divorce in 1986, and Mama’s death in 1977, and other losses: having to move from one place to another during my 8th grade year, not getting a part in a play I wanted in high school, not being allowed to apply to the university I wanted to for college, moving about sixteen times in ten years from 1996 on, etc. Some of those losses were major, and some not so much. Yet as human beings, we forget that pain and loss are complicated, and our psyches may not know the difference between “major” and “minor.” In fact, I am convinced that if we do not deal with even “minor” grief head-on, it comes back to haunt us. Big time. We end up doing our grieving in misdirected anger, or holding grudges for insignificant things, or abusing someone, or any number of thing that don’t look like grief, but are.
Many years ago, a therapist confronted me by saying that I had not ever dealt with my mother’s death, and he said, “When we don’t tend to our grief, it will come back to bite us. It either surfaces as problems in your marriage, problems with money or problems with your children.” Hmmm. And here I was, doing that Scarlett O’Hara thing: “I can’t think about that tonight or I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” And then by tomorrow, I was in the light of day and busy, and. . . . .Finally, in the throes of several times of separation and then unpleasant divorce, I began to deal with some of that grief, through good therapeutic work. It wasn’t easy. It was often painful. I was plagued with days of severe depression and absentmindedness (what DID I come in this grocery store to get anyway?) and anger and bitterness and tears and the whole nine yards. But I came out on the other side, and was healthier.
The best way to deal with grief is to walk straight through it. Yes, that is the most painful way, yet it is the healthiest way. And not alone. We must get help–professional, if necessary, but at least get the support of friends. As a priest and pastor, I have often recommended not only grief counseling for folks, but accupuncture, massage therapy, long hot baths, journaling, etc. There are many books out about grief. The one that helped me a lot, years ago, was How to Survive the Loss of a Love. I have no idea if it is still in print, but it was a small book that had some very practical wisdom in it.
Now, our family is grieving the loss of the Alpha Kitty. Rosie, the next eldest, is distraught. I’m not sure how Dre-Dre is handling it. My own Lion King Baby has–once he got home to Laurel on Monday–spent most of this week in his kitty crate, acting despondent. You see, about eight years ago, Winston taught Beno how to wash his face. And Winston has been the Lion King Baby’s MENTOR ever since. They’ve been buddies. Now the Mentor has gone. We thank God for the blessing that sweet cat was to us all these years. May he rest in peace under the crabapple tree in the garden.