Grief

The post is late today because I’m having a little trouble getting myself into coherent shape. On Sunday morning, I had to put down the second of my two cats, four months to the day after losing the first. Prou, my bonded companion and favourite furry nuisance, passed in late September when she surprised us all by hiding renal failure until she was too sick for me to do anything but make an abrupt, unexpected, and wholly unwelcome decision right there in our vet’s office. I went home to console myself with her sister (literally her litter-mate) Mia, who while very much loved had always been the more aloof of the two ladies, content to rule her portions of the house with disdain and occasional neurotic feline antics, allowing her sister to seduce and entrance the humans who fed and cared for them. Mia had been dealing for the past few years with age-related arthritis, and had recently been dealing with some new respiratory issues; the vet and I had only just been talking about the option for an invasive scoping procedure to identify the issues when Prou’s unexpected death eclipsed everything.

Many of my clients in the home practice had grown accustomed to Prou’s presence in the office; she often curled up on my lap while we worked. Many commented over the years that her presence helped keep them calm even if she didn’t interact with them directly, and her purr was loud enough to gentle many an anxious soul. Mia was rarely ever interested in visitors. Prou’s death hit the practice hard, but for me, there was still a lovely black floof to care for, who seemed suddenly interested in accepting my increased availability and attention even when it came with a strong side order of sadness or abrupt tears.

Two weeks or so after Prou died, however, Mia had what the emergency vet at our clinic could only describe as a “neurological incident” (I just call it a “stroke”) that left Mia almost completely blind, and further incapacitated in her mobility. Over the next few weeks, she seemed to make a great recovery. She never regained her sight, but she was content to explore slowly and unsteadily around the familiar household environs, and call to me for company when she wanted me. We developed entirely new routines around our time together. I discovered entirely new things about Mia, including just how much she adored face rubs and skritches along her cheeks and having the insides of her ears rubbed. I learned to move NOTHING unless I had to, though she seemed delighted when the Christmas tree went up; she and her sister had always had a great love for hanging out under the lowest branches of the artificial tree. They never climbed it, but the stiff branches made for great fur rubbing and back scratching rigs. I spent almost as much time every year cleaning off clumps of cat fur as I did taking down and packing away the ornaments and lights. It delighted me that Mia was happy to make it as far as the living room several times over the holidays.

In early January, though, the rate of oscillation between her good days and bad days began to increase. Her mobility deteriorated to the point where she finally gave up her kingdom seat on the master bed, and came out to the front of the house less often, though she would still call for me when she wanted company wherever she was. But even those calls decreased in the last few days, and there were other signs. The last three nights of her life, I was sleeping on a camp bed on the floor so she could find me, because this is just what we do. We rearrange our lives for these creatures; they are so dependent on us for everything, when all we need from them is companionship. It’s a grossly unfair system and one that devastates us badly when the inevitable ends find us. Even when we see the inexorable, inescapable end points, we’re never actually ready for them when they hit.

I suspect Mia had another stroke sometime in the wee small hours of Sunday morning. By the time I got up, she couldn’t pull herself up, couldn’t walk even with help. Her distress levels were through the roof and she couldn’t or wouldn’t focus to accept her meds. I sat on the floor in the hallway and just held her against my chest for a while, something this cat almost NEVER permitted ANYONE, not even me, to get away with; it was her lack of struggling but her obvious discomfort that made it unarguably clear that she wasn’t going to make it much further.

This wasn’t what I had wanted for her, not what I had planned. After losing Prou in the vet’s office without much warning, I had wanted beyond all else to have Mia be able to pass at home in some comfort and familiarity. But we didn’t get that luxury. My vet’s office isn’t open on Sundays, and even if it was, it wouldn’t be guaranteed that we could get a same-day house call. So I had to bundle my dying companion into a carrier, out into the cold and across town to the emergency vet hospital, where they are lovely and compassionate, gentle people… but they didn’t know us. They hadn’t already gone through one grief process with our household only four months prior. They had no history with Mia, they were just willing to accept my information, request, and payment, and do what was by then a necessity, a foregone conclusion. Once again, in spite of having months to prepare, I found myself crouched over a struggling companion in an impersonal clinical room, holding them and sobbing and apologizing for somehow failing them.

Because that’s what we do when we love these furry beasts. We absorb an exorbitant degree of responsibility for their dependent state. We build palatial spaces for them in our hearts, even when they’re being furry jerks who chew things they shouldn’t, throw up in unexpected places, shed hair on everything we own hide our socks, and find endlessly interesting and unique ways to tell us exactly how they feel about life, the universe, and everything. And yet for those of us who let them into our hearts, even knowing how heavy the grief will be somewhere down the road… we wouldn’t have it any other way. Even if it means coming home from a vet’s office twice in four months with an empty cat carrier that wasn’t empty when I left the house… we know. We do it anyway.

This time around is abysmally more difficult, though. When Prou died in September, I still had Mia. And even knowing post-stroke I might not have her for long (or more accurately, entirely BECAUSE I knew I wouldn’t have her much longer), any part of my life that wasn’t about work became about her. So with her sudden (albeit not really unexpected) absence, the past few days have been a harsh lesson in the weight of silence. It’s almost unbearable when there is nothing and no-one else in our space with us any more. The silence is deafening. I realized almost immediately how much of my attention is still focused on awaiting the call for company, or waiting for the movement of a small shadow at the edge of my peripheral vision. Every little creak or household sound triggers a kind of breathless anticipation, awaiting The Companions who… are simply gone. Wherever their next lives have taken them, they are no longer here. The letdown from every one of those moments of anticipation is crushing. I thought it was hard after Prou, and it was, for the loss of my bonded companion. But the silence left now by the absence of Mia as well is so much harder. For all that Mia and I didn’t have the same bond Prou and I had, making much of my life about the process of caring for Mia in her final months made what connection we had the stronger for both her need, and my willingness to move pretty much everything be there for her.

There is a general sense among the humans who have been companions to these marvellous creatures that there is no right or wrong way to grieve them when they go. Some say it’s proper to give time to respect and appreciate them; some prefer to find new bonds immediately. I might be better able to tolerate that absence were it not in the silence of a life and world without another living, interactive presence in my space. I don’t know what to do in this level of aloneness. It’s not a question of whether or not I am “ready” to take on another companion animal, or the process of getting to know potential companions; it’s a question of how long I can handle being alone in the silence. Moreover, I don’t *WANT* to spend any more time in this silence than I have to. It’s not the kind of silence that simply being social with other humans will fix; I know the shape of that particular feeling, and this is not that.

I don’t know what the next step will look like. There’s no negating the grief; that’s not the concern here, nor the point of taking any next steps any more than cleaning away the evidence of Mia and Prou’s existence is about negating the grief. I will never erase their presence and impact on my life, I will never fill the feline-shaped holes they leave in my heart. The grief simply is. The pain simply is. The silence simply is. None of this is welcome, and none of it is escapable. All of this grief is evidence of having *HAD* these wonderful creatures in my life, and I wouldn’t trade this pain for the world if it would mean not having had almost 17 years of their company.

We’ll see what the future holds, but ultimately, I doubt it will be long before there are new residents in the house; it’s largely just a question of finding the right matches. They will never be replacements, only additions. They cannot deflect the grief, but they might help mute it a little. Only time will perhaps dull the bulk of it.

Activism, Community, Grief, Politics

I went to my first public vigil tonight. So many times lately, as the Kitchener mayor so rightly pointed out, the city square has been used as a gathering place for mourning and sadness. It felt odd to be in the crowd, like I was crashing the funeral of someone I didn’t know (mostly true, in its own way) in some place I had at best dubious right to be. I’m not a Muslim. But I *am* Canadian, and I have been saying for almost two years that we are facing becoming victims of the same waves of hate that are sweeping the states; we’re not so far removed that the free license being granted in America to hatespeech and hatecrime, to the increasingly rapid erosion of human rights (how has it only been NINE DAYS?), isn’t beginning to show its ugly face here. We’re not immune. And as one angry white young man with a military-grade rifle showed last night to a mosque filled with Canadian citizens at prayer, we’re not safe.

Canada hasn’t had a shooting like that since the École Polytechnique massacre in 1989, and while I was shocked, I was too young and too self-absorbed to really connect with what it meant to be singled out for some kind of minority, marginalized quality (in that case, being female) and to be gunned down just for being That One Thing. Even though I was a woman at a predominantly-engineering university myself, the same age as the victims. That one didn’t hit home nearly the same way, to my recollection. The Orlando shooting did, but I couldn’t get to the vigil, given the work schedule; I lit a candle in solidarity with the vigil, though, and sat all night with my queer clients as best I could. Last night it was Muslims, in a mosque that had already been targeted with hatecrime in the past year; tonight I had the convenience of a clear schedule, but beyond that, I felt like I needed to be there in support, for whatever my presence as a nameless face in the crowd might be worth to those who need it.

Tonight showed a strong crowd in the city square, a cultural mishmash as we expect Canadian cities to produce. We’re still so blind in our privilege, so falsely secure. I caught myself turning around at one point when I realized that, while I was responding to flashes going off from the balcony above us, what I was doing was scanning the skyline. I was actively looking for something that wasn’t there, that shouldn’t have been there, but that I was suddenly terrified might be. We’re Canadian. We just plain don’t know how to deal with that. I had a very vivid recollection when I realized I was looking for rooftop shooters; in 1999, when I was living in Rotterdam, I came across posters on the metro station walls one day that made me painfully aware that I was (relatively speaking) driving distance from the ACTIVE WAR ZONE that was Kosovo. Google tells me it’s a 24 hour drive, which is considerably more than I remember it being at the time, but recognizing abruptly that one is on the same continent, even a large-ish continent, as an active conventional war, without the comforting separation of vast oceanic bodies to create a safety buffer—that’s the feeling I had tonight. Proximal terror. It happened in Quebec City. At this point, there’s zero reason to stop it from happening here. Quebec City is only eight hours away by car; I know, I’ve done that drive a few times. That’s a helluva lot closer than Kosovo to Rotterdam.

I kept waiting for someone at the podium to talk about anger; they all spoke to sadness, some spoke to the hate behind the acts, many spoke to love. It wasn’t until Brice Balmer*, speaking for some kind of Interfaith collective in Cambridge IIRC, spoke of anger that I recognized I was waiting for someone to voice, and thereby validate, my own impotent rage. And maybe that’s why none of them did; they know way more about rage right now than I do, and if it seems impotent to them too, then their purpose becomes turning all that energy into something creative and sustaining. The shooter let hate and rage consume him. That is a path of madness and bitter brutality.

That is not my Canada. That isn’t the change I want to be in the world. And confronting my own rage is… well, at least it’s familiar. It’s something I have ample practice working with, for different reasons. Being told by those much closer to this grief that I am that it’s okay to let go of the anger and redirect the energy into love and supporting “diversity not division”, to building bridges instead of walls, to getting to know my community and those vulnerable facets huddled to the outside… that helped, once I was ready to hear them. The rage has its place, but it cannot be the fuel. The energy, yes; the emotion, no.

So once I get my own house in order, metaphorically speaking, I begin the work of reaching out — no, not “out to”, not this time, but rather, “reaching into” — my community to see where I can be of service. I have energy to offer, and compassion. I can work with people to help teach them how to separate emotion from energy, intent from action, and where owning the point of their own decisions becomes paramount in understanding why we would ever want to choose hate over love. I’ll do that work on myself first, because I’m a big proponent of “Physician, heal thyself”, then extend it to anyone who wants to have that conversation with me in and out of the counselling room. Where I can take it beyond that remains to be seen.

I can only dream this may be the last time we have to gather in grief this way. There is *so much* work to be done now, but it’s this or sit back and watch the world burn, and tonight I learned that I just can’t do that. I don’t WANT to do that.

As a Canadian, as a woman, as a member of my communities… I want to be better than that.

(*—Brice was also my Addictions professor at the seminary, the catalyst behind the branch of my path that led to my working therapeutically with those who have offended sexually.)