There’s an old hymn that I remember from my childhood – it was popularized by George Beverly Shea, a soloist who toured with the famous 1950s evangelist, Billy Graham – and this was the opening line, When grief, like a river attendeth my way, when sorrow like sea-billows roll. . .
Well, once again, I find myself writing about grief because it seems to surround me right now, and I’m reminded that it may also be surrounding some of you. We face losses big and small throughout life but sometimes, they seem to galvanize our attention and fill us with a sense of sadness that can’t be set aside.
Today, the focus of my sadness is our cat, Nutmeg, because I suspect we’re not going to have her in our life much longer. Nutmeg came to our household shortly after we moved to our townhouse in 2003. So, if you do the math, that makes her somewhere around 20 years old. The average lifespan for a domesticated house cat is 12 to 18 years, so she’s certainly outlived the typical expectations.
This photo is of her at a much younger age when her coat was shiny and soft, unlike the sad, clumpy mess it is today. She’s never been one to enjoy or appreciate being brushed, and now even touching her seems to cause discomfort, so I leave her coat alone even though the look (and feel) of it disturbs me!
A few years ago, the vet alerted me that her lab-work indicated progressive kidney disease. We went through all the dietary recommendations but, no matter how expensive the cat food was, her willingness to eat it was the determining factor. So, for the last two years, I’ve been feeding her whatever she’ll actually eat. Her canned food is modestly priced and available at most grocery stores; her dry food is gourmet and ordered online, delivered to the house only when needed (she’s not a big eater, especially lately) which isn’t very often these days. I suspect the next delivery may be unnecessary, but it remains “on-order” anyway.
Having to make the decision about when to euthanize a pet is torturous! I was hoping she’d give me some distinct sign that would make the decision easier, but so far, she’s being very coy about her wishes. For several days, she retreated to the bedroom and wasn’t eating at all, so I became convinced that the end was near – probably I should reach out to the vet for some assistance.
Then, on Thursday morning, she pranced into the kitchen and seemed to be looking for breakfast – so, of course, I accommodated her request. Go figure! What’s a pet-owner to do? Why does it have to be so confusing? Why does it have to be so sad?
How can such a tiny creature (and truly, she’s even tinier than ever, weighing probably less than five pounds today) pull at my heart the way she does? I keep hoping that nature will take its course and I won’t have to be the one who decides when it is “right” for her life to end – I’m afraid I won’t get my wish!
I write all this, not so that you’ll be sad along with me, but so that you’ll reflect on how emotions, especially like those of grief and sadness, can hit us in waves. I see her toy, dangling over the edge of the bookcase, it’s a multi-colored, chasing toy that she once loved to pounce on and was always ready to prove her swift reflexes in an effort to pin down its rainbow of tentacles; now, it sits idle. There’s no one playing with it anymore. And, suddenly, I’m weeping – sad over the certain loss of a small, sentient being who’s played a major role in our everyday lives for two decades. While technically, she’s still here!
We know (from research) that pets can actually make us healthier people. Those who have pets tend to have lower rates of heart disease and lower blood pressure. Some studies have found that they are also less likely to experience loneliness or depression, and more likely to say they are satisfied with their life. So it may be no surprise that when we lose this relationship, our health is affected in a negative way.
Research also shows that when we experience grief, our brains undergo physical changes. These changes can affect our thought processes and emotions. For many people, grief results in feelings of sadness, depression, guilt, anger, anxiety, relief, loneliness, or feeling irritable.
Some people even experience mental symptoms of grief, which may include confusion, trouble focusing, constant dwelling on the pet, or thinking we see or hear the pet. Loss of an animal companion can also lead to anxiety and depression for some people. I’m not planning to be one of them if I can avoid it!
However, learning to sit with sadness is not my favorite life-lesson.I want this to be over, I want to move on and not be reminded that this tiny creature whom I clearly love is making her way to the end of her life right in front of me – I don’t want it to be this way, but it is.
Sooner or later, either Nutmeg will die of natural causes, or I will need to intervene on her behalf (I hope she’ll make that time clear to me, when it arrives) but regardless of how the end may come, I must admit that I don’t like this on-going anticipation.
Maybe you are sitting with sadness (or some similarly painful emotion) and there’s no avoiding it, no way to distract yourself from it, and no explanation that can soften its blow. Here are three things I’ve found can help, especially when I’m sitting with pain. . .
- Self-compassion & kindness – acknowledging the hurt, sitting with it and being gentle on myself, rather than trying to pretend it isn’t surrounding me.
- Sharing with community – for me, that includes writing to all of you. But there may be other outreach that becomes necessary, especially when the house is actually cat-less and I need to move through the loss.
- Being mindful – of both the sadness and the joys this beautiful animal brought into our lives. Noticing with gratitude the years of blessing she provided and welcoming the memories of those experiences with her.
Wishing you a season of discovery, about your own emotional soup (that can sometimes overwhelm, and sometimes surprise us) and hoping that you, like me, will experience the healing that comes with moving through the events that change our lives and remind us of our rich and connected humanity.