On Monday morning S’s cats made their final, one-way trip to the vet. They were both unwell and it had been a long time coming – there were many points in the past two years that we had thought it may happen. Despite that, of course, knowing it was just round the corner didn’t make turning it any easier.
It’s funny how animals that we can’t really communicate with or even properly understand can become such a massive part of your life. Of course, you communicate with them in your own way, and they definitely get to know what various words mean (mine are particularly fond of the words ‘dinner’ and ‘treat’) but you can’t really bond with them in the way you bond with other humans. Instead you have to bond in a more primal, basic way. You have to scope out one another and communicate silently about when you’ve accepted one another. You can’t ever sit down and have a discussion about whether you hold the same views politically, whether you both enjoyed the latest book release from Insert Author Of Choice or whether you both have a particular fascination for, say, 1950’s B Horror Movies.
Instead it’s a wordless communication, which involves you trying to work out what they’re thinking or feeling. In a slightly selfish way, perhaps the reason pets become such massive parts of our existence is because we can force on them whatever thoughts, feelings or reactions we please. Unlike other human beings we can presume that our cat/dog/turtle thinks we are wonderfully witty, incredibly intelligent or bewilderingly beautiful. If it were a human you were dealing with and rather than thinking any of the above they just thought you were a boring, pretentious and arrogant, they’d probably tell you so. Or if not tell you directly, let you know in some way or another. Perhaps because they’d avoid you at each social event you were both at in the future.
A pet who shares your home and relies on you for food can’t leave. You are their salvation and, no matter what they actually think about you, they rely on you to exist. There’s a huge part of me that believes that my own cats hold me in high distain and actually only care about me as the human slave who open doors to let them in and out and feeds them when they demand. But they can’t say that so I can push that thought aside.
Maybe in a way we push on to our pets the ideals of what we’d like people to think about us. Or perhaps, if we’re more deprecating, we push onto them the worst we think people think of us. But either way our pets are a reflection of our own minds and perhaps that’s why they form such a huge part. There’s something comforting about looking at a version of our own hopes and wishes and dreams and fears wrapped up in a cute package with just enough personality to convince us that we haven’t, in actual fact, pushed our existences on to someone else. Enough personality that if you stroke them for five minutes they regard you as the most wonderful being on earth, when what we actually get from a pet is so far beyond what they must get from us. From us they get sustenance and shelter – the necessities of existing – and from them we get life.
And when that life goes we realize the depth of our appreciation of it. And, ironically, it’s only through the loss of it that we can appreciate it.
A large percentage of the pain of grief comes from guilt, in my experience. S keeps talking about how he should have spent more time with the cats, how he should have sat with them more often. When my great grandmother died I realized how much more time I should have allocated her in my life, even with all the experiences of growing up and spending Saturdays in town with my friends – I should have made the space for the woman in my life. And I regret that I didn’t, and I felt guilty. I still feel guilty from time to time, even years later. But there’s very little point in self torture – for me the guilt is deserved and for S it’s not. I should have made more of an effort and he couldn’t have possibly ever made more of an effort – he had the most incredible bond I’ve ever seen any human hold with any animal.
So what to do? I have to take the lesson of not letting exciting things in life – like friends I won’t see after I go to university – get in the way of making the effort with someone who’s relationship to me will be much more enduring. And S? S has to let it go. Because he’s done nothing wrong. Yet he’s tearing into himself with the vigour of a judge, prosecutor and jury on a murder trial.
Perhaps it’s a masochistic part of human nature that we must abuse the fragility of its system by breaking ourselves in order to heal. Perhaps we heal by slowly picking up each fractured shard of our hearts and souls and piecing them back together. And perhaps that’s why any real tragedy leaves us irrevocably changed – because like cement walls, when we break, particles so tiny but so necessary can never be recovered and what’s left instead is a botched PVA glue job of what was once an innocent, pure, whole being.
Grief has to be felt and endured, there it little point in trying to refuse to feel and what is repressed at any stage will come back magnified at some point in the future. Grief is an unspeakable journey that has to be gone on. But perhaps grief would be more bearable if it meant grieving purely the loss of someone. Grief itself may not be such a shattering emotion if we could feel it alone without the guilt or self doubt.
There are many times in life when it would probably benefit people to see themselves through someone else’s eyes, and it’s usually when they’re down on themselves.
For me, I’m incredibly saddened to see S doubt himself when I know how much the cats relied on him and how much he did for them, that I’m not sure if I’m making the grieving process any easier. I keep trying to distract him or cheer him up rather than just letting him feel. But if I were sure that letting him feel would be a healthy catharsis to mourn the loss, I would step back and allow it. But the concept that letting him mourn his loss involves so much undeserved self judgment is something I cannot accept, something I cannot be okay with, something I cannot watch happen.
And yet, it’s probably part of the journey.
Helen Keller stated ‘The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart’. It’s very true, but it’s also something that is applicable to the worst and most terrible things in life.
The heart, as abused as it is, hopefully feels enough of the most beautiful things to even out the amount of the opposite feelings – but the suddenness and consuming nature of the negative emotions make them seem so much more vivid a lot of the time. As clichéd as it may sound I just looked at S one day and realized I was in love with him and had been for an unmeasured amount of time – it had grown in a small, unnoticed way until it became a stronghold within me. But loss hits like lightening – sudden and electric in the worst ways. And whilst being struck you’re paralysed, able to do nothing but focus on the fact you’re being as damaged as you are by the bolt.
Things will never go back to normal, but from wreckage comes salvation. Sometimes we can’t go on a journey with someone and sometimes we have to let go. For me, I need to let go of the situation and trust that his heart is strong enough that it will piece back together. And it won’t be the same heart, but it’ll be a beating, living heart. And for S, he needs to let go of his guilt and mourn a loss without blame. If only it were as easy as writing it.