There is no such thing as the right way to feel grief or loss.
My cat Rumi s a 16 year old purebred white Persian that I rescued from an abusive home nine years ago. Over the years I watched him grow into his strange, curious, social self, complete with a silent meow meant, I think, to get my attention. It always works.
Because he’s a purebred cat, he’s got a mother lode of health issues and always has. His stomach is sensitive, so he needs prescription food. He’s going blind, he has had all but three teeth removed. He can’t always breathe well (smushed face) and he’s got polycystic kidney and liver disease, which means essentially that his body is slowly shutting down.
He's pretty good at his litter box for pee, though he’ll shit whenever he likes at this point. I jokingly say he’s subletting my bathroom, because that's where he needs to sleep now. But I miss the days when he slept next to my face in my bed. He can’t do that anymore because (of course) the one place outside the litter box he decided peeing was a cool option was my bed. No bueno.
I am getting ready to put him to sleep, and even writing about that loss that is yet to come makes a lump form in the base of my throat. This grief makes me feel like a monster, because it isn’t the first loss I’ve experienced.
But it's a scientific fact, we all process grief differently and we don't always do with it tears.
I’ve lost grandparents, a high school friend in a tragic accident, a college friend in a car crash, all terrible in their own way. The accidents made me cry, but I don’t know if it was from loss alone as terrible as it was. I think more than anything else I was struck by the horror of the event, that life could be snuffed out so quickly.
When my dad’s father died, I cried, but only when we all went to the funeral home to see his body before cremation. My grandmother leaned over him, brushing away fruit flies, and kissing his forehead. I cried because I was so terrified of death I couldn’t move, not because this man had been removed from my life.
Not long after he went, my grandmother passed too. I was working at a local deli and my mom called to give me the news. I was sad, of course, I adored my grandmother, but tears didn’t come, just relief. She wasn’t herself in the months leading up to her death and I know she would’ve hated being remembered that way.
I know what it is like to mourn a loss, to feel like railing at the heavens for explanations. When my friend Chip was killed driving his sports car home from school to Texas for Spring break I marched from my house to the coffee shop down the street where my dad was reading to tell him. I was soaked through and didn’t really even notice the rain. “Chip died,” I told my dad. It had felt so important to get to the cafe, to tell my dad the news. But once I had the urgency drained out of me and I was left with the reality of the loss.
People say that funerals are for the living, and while it’s a cliche I believe it. I think mourning a loss is for the living too. Of course those who go want us to remember them, but I can’t honestly believe they want us to waste our time sobbing endlessly over the space they left behind. I know my grandparents wouldn’t, and I certainly know that my lost friends wouldn’t either.
Still, it’s hard not to feel like you’re mourning a loss the wrong way. If mourning is for the living doesn’t that make us totally selfish creatures? Maybe a little, but mostly I think that mourning is proof of the impact knowing that person had on our lives and in that way, on the world at large.
That person, I should say, or that cat.
Because he is an animal, I am free to make Rumi whatever I want him to be. In my mind he’s the scruffy, weak, content little fellow who loves me desperately. But I’ll never know who he really is, because he’s a cat and they don’t work that way.
I get a lump in my throat when I think about him not being there not just because I’ll miss his pawing and his head butts and his sweetness, but because I will miss the era of my life where he reigned supreme. When I was still in my twenties and still thinking I could conquer the world. When I still smoked. Before my heart was ever really broken. When my cat dies, all of this will go too because who else around me saw it the way I did?
We mourn the loss of those we love with pure hearts, aching for them to return and fill up the empty space they left behind. But we also mourn the loss of a piece of our lives that we will never get back. I won’t be able to hear my grandfather singing Red River Valley again, or to see the tendril of smoke fly up from one of my grandmother’s Kent cigarettes. I won’t be a child again, and time will just keep moving forward with only me to mark it until even I am gone.