She wakes up with a jolt, sits straight up in bed after just having had a vivid dream that disturbs her greatly. In the dream, she is standing in front of an opening elevator door waiting and expecting her sister to exit. The elevator doors open and instead of her sister, out walks her childhood friend. A friend who was killed in a tragic car accident 8 months earlier. A friend she had mourned and grieved and felt much regret over not getting to say goodbye to. She didn’t get to tell her friend how much she had meant to her or that she loved her. In the dream, her friend is younger and healthier looking. They embrace. There is pure warmth and love. She looks at her friend and asks her what happened? What’s going on? Why are you back? Her friend is beautiful with skin that glows and with a sort of shimmering aura about it. Her friend’s make-up is perfect and her complexion smooth and clear and healthy. Beautiful azure eye shadow adorns her lids and her lips are painted red like a china doll. Her hair is long and flowing and full of body and shine. The friend starts explaining what happened and while she is talking, her color pales, then turns ashen gray. She looks at her friend and gasps at what is happening right in front of her. Her friend’s ashen colored face then turns cyanotic. The hair no longer shines and the face begins to wrinkle and wither. Her friend visibly tires and weakens. She realizes her friend is dying before her very eyes… becoming a corpse. This wakes her up from the dream and she trembles. Her heart is pounding. She gets out of bed and she can’t get the dream out of her head.
How do you get over a friend– a childhood friend– dying so tragically and unexpected? How do you get over the fact that you didn’t get to say goodbye or tell her that you loved her and that you’ll never get to call her again or run into her at the grocery store?
She goes to prepare breakfast and she turns on the TV. She tries to distract her thoughts away from the horrid nightmare she’s just had. On TV, they’re talking about the Malaysian Airliner that disappeared several days ago with 239 people on board. They’re discussing how a monstrous Boeing 777 can just disappear into thin air seemingly without a trace. No debris has been found and there have been no signals from the jet. She thinks about the family members of those 239 passengers. She can not imagine the anguish and fear they are feeling. Was it an act of terrorism? Was it a hijacking? She can not even fathom their anxiety and their worry. She has a sister who travels a lot and who flies internationally. She puts herself in these family members shoes for just a moment and she can’t even stand the thought. The not knowing has to be tortuous for them.
How do you survive knowing your loved one has just vanished? How do you survive not knowing where they are? If they are living or dead? And if they’re living, what condition they’re in? And if they’re dead, did they suffer? How do you survive the not knowing?
The woman, now with tears in her eyes, looks out the window beside the chair she’s sitting in. She looks up towards the heavens and she says a silent prayer to God. She says a prayer for all who are grieving and mourning, for her friend who has died, and for those lost passengers and crew. Then she happens to look down, just outside that same window. She sees the bare spot in the grass and the cross that is there. And the statue of St. Francis who watches over the little grave. The grave of her 20-year-old cat she buried 6 months ago. The cat she still misses with all her heart. The cat who is no longer there to sit in her lap and give her his love. The cat whose purrs have gone silent and who has left a void and emptiness in her heart. A void she can not talk to anyone about because she fears they wouldn’t understand.
She can not tell them how she still, after 6 months, can’t sleep at night because she misses her cat who was her friend and who slept with her every night for almost 20 years. How she can hardly stand to get in bed at night because it’s too lonely and too empty now. And when she does get in that bed, how her tears flood her pillow because she misses that little warm gray and white furry body laying up against her. How it’s just an empty void now. A very cold, dark, and empty void. One that’s almost unbearable to her.
She can’t explain to people in a way that they would understand how devastated she was over the death of her cat, her profound feelings of loss and grief, how she grieved his loss just as much and maybe even more than she grieved the loss of her childhood friend and how she has felt guilt over that. She can’t explain to them how sad she felt when she witnessed his last breath, and how she even felt just a little angry at God, but at the same time, how on the night of his loss, she had also felt a profound gratefulness to that same God for giving her such a faithful friend to love for almost 20 years. She fears people would say, “It was just a cat, and he’s been gone now for 6 months and it’s time to move on!” She knows people would never understand the depth of her sadness. She ponders the fact that American society doesn’t “deal with death” of humans very well, so she somehow knows that the death of her pet will be minimized. And that would hurt.
But she vows never to feel shame over her feelings of loss for an animal she loved very deeply for 20 years– An animal who was only one year younger than her youngest son. She wonders if people have the right to tell her how long she “should” grieve. After all, they weren’t there in the morning when her cat would wake her up affectionately with his loving bunts to her face and head. They didn’t see how he would gently and lovingly lay his paw on her cheek and leave it there. Or how he would put his face right up to hers and when she would open her eyes, there he would be staring at her with his big beautiful green cat eyes. And how that would make her bust out laughing. They probably wouldn’t understand the routines that formed over that 20 years of her feeding her cat, the playtime routines, the grooming sessions, their walks outside, or how he would calm her when he would sit in her lap at night purring away without a worry in the world while she watched TV, conveying to her that all was right in the world. They probably wouldn’t understand how these rituals and routines were suddenly stripped away from her at his death, how when her loving companion was taken from her, that it left her feeling like her heart had been ripped right out of her thorax.
They wouldn’t understand how unlike most humans in her life, he had loved her unconditionally and without judgement. Nor would they understand how she just. loved. him. and appreciated his expected presence in her life. And how big of a comfort he had been to her in the days after the death of her childhood friend who died two months before he did. She remembered fondly when he was a small fluffy kitten and she would place him in her father’s bed as he lay dying of cancer and he made her father laugh and helped to take away her father’s pain, if only for a few minutes. She loved her sweet kitty for that. She also remembered what a comfort he was to her when her mother died and how he helped her in her grief, just by being present.
Is the death of an animal less important than the death of a person? Should she have felt less grief over the loss of her cat than she did for her friend? Should she feel embarrassed to admit that she has felt more grief over the loss of her cat? She feels the loss more profoundly and deeply because she was with her cat more and the relationship with him was less complicated. She loved her friend but saw her only infrequently in the years before her death, but she was with her cat every single day. Yes, common sense is telling her that since she loved her cat deeply and had a strong bond with him, that she is going to feel his loss more profoundly. If she’s learned anything by this, it’s that grief doesn’t hurt less just because the one you lose is a pet.
She realizes that the grief (of both her friend and her cat) is not the only stress in her life right now. She wonders and then comes to the realization that these other stressors are making her grief maybe a little more overwhelming for her. She makes an appointment with her doctor because she feels her grief is leaving her so drained and fatigued at times and unable to concentrate and complete regular household tasks. Nothing seems to matter anymore to her and most days she doesn’t want to get out of bed or leave the house. The smallest of tasks are monumental to her now. She is finding it near impossible to sleep even though she is exhausted. When she does fall asleep, she awakes soon after. Some days she doesn’t want to eat or drink. But the worst part is a feeling of constant impending doom. Against her will, she can’t stop feeling like life is just one big continuous loss. She doesn’t want to feel like this. She wants to be happy and positive.
She’s afraid her doctor will not understand and she feels somewhat embarrassed to go in for this. But she feels physically sick with aches and pains and there’s that nagging emptiness and hurt in her heart. She wonders if people can truly die from grief. She thinks she knows the answer to that. She tires so easily. Days go by and she realizes she hasn’t done laundry or washed the dishes and this makes her feel guilty. She wonders what her husband is thinking. She feels so abnormal. The intensity of her feelings bother her. Will her doctor understand that she lost something in her life that was so precious and irreplaceable to her? Something precious that is now gone. Just gone. What if her doctor is not an animal lover?
She’s even thought about talking to her priest. But she hesitates. She quit going to church 3 months ago. It’s nothing against the church…. a church she loves very much. She loves the priest and the people who make up the parish. But she’s embarrassed to tell the priest that she’s quit coming because she’s not handling her grief well right now and she feels so disconnected from the world. She fears people won’t understand. Not to mention that it’s the Lenten season which she knows is a busy, busy time for a priest. She doesn’t want to be a bother. So she withdraws and stays home where she tries to grieve and mourn on her own.
She knows she will never “get over” her grief, but that she will eventually (with God’s help) learn to live with her loss. She wants desperately to feel the presence of hope again in her life and feel that she can trust that she WILL heal. She wants desperately to know she is not going crazy. She is so confused and wonders why in her time of grief that she has turned AWAY from her church instead of towards it.
She knows it will get easier. She knows no one can ever take the love away from her that she felt for her childhood friend or her cat. She will cherish their love forever. Her heart tells her love doesn’t end with death. She never wants to forget…. only to remember. She believes that through tragedy, grief, and mourning, we come out on the other side changed and different, but most importantly, closer to God. She knows her trials, though difficult, will make her stronger.