My cat died and I feel blinded

I can't believe the pain of seeing him dead

Published April 11, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

Just yesterday, my cat died. I know that will probably not sound like a big deal to many of your readers, but it is monumental in my world. He was not just any cat. He was the kitten I was tasked with caring for when he was less than a week old. His eyes weren't even open yet, and he had been abandoned in the dog toy aisle of a PetSmart. I was working at the vet clinic next door, and was planning on adopting another dog. I was allergic to cats. I said I'd foster him for two weeks ... and up until yesterday, I would follow that sentence by saying, "and almost eight years later, I have a cat." Now there is nothing but hurt.

I bottle-fed him every two hours, and I made him pee and poo. He had no mother, and I have never been anyone's mother ... nor will I ever be. Except his. I taught him how to use a litter box, and I taught him and my dog to get along. On his own, he learned to sit in response to both voice and hand signals, just by watching the dog. He would come when called, and one day he decided to walk on a leash because he simply didn't want to be left behind when we took the dog out.

He had a urinary blockage that almost killed him when he was 3, and then another a few days later. He had to have surgery to save his life, but we did it. All told, he made it through 14 different houses and moves to and from Australia. He was my rock. He helped me appreciate everything that much more.

We made it through the ends of two terrible boyfriends and one terrible ex-husband, and we were finally part of a happy, loving, functional family. My now-husband loved my wonderful cat, and he loves my dog and my horse. We added another cat and dog to the family, and my cat now had a little brother to play with and sometimes pick on.

Two days ago, I stepped out for a breath of fresh air late at night after completing a major project. The dogs went out, and I called them back in. I was out for no longer than 30 seconds, but he must have slipped out the door. He has never been outside unaccompanied for more than a few minutes. I'm sure he was surprised that I didn't come back to open the door for him. We noticed his absence the next morning at feeding time, and we began searching. After a day of postering the neighborhood, our friends arrived for a dusk search. I had had a bad feeling for a few hours, as there are coyotes and eagles even in our Los Angeles neighborhood.

My husband and his cousin went to the top of the undeveloped hill near our house. They returned and told me that they had likely found him, without his identifying tags and harness. I asked if he was dead, and they said yes. I thought they were joking. I prayed they were joking. We went to the top of the hill, and I saw him. It was my beautiful, wonderful, perfect kitten man. And he was very, very dead. He was twisted into a pose of agony, and he was biting his own tongue. I screamed and cried. I now understand what the ancients used to refer to as "keening" with grief. I did not stop for some time ... in fact, 22 hours later I am still crying.

I am writing to ask you what I can do. I feel hopeless now. I do not want to live another day on earth without him. He was the culmination of everything good and selfless I had ever done. He was my pride and joy. He was a piece of my soul. I have had many pets throughout my life, but they have all died of old age. I have never seen one murdered, and have never lost one so suddenly. We were supposed to have another ~10 years together. Now he is waiting in a freezer at the vet clinic for me to make the call to either cremate or bury him.

I am useless. I cannot stop crying and looking at pictures of him. He was just here! He was just on my lap, he was just sleeping next to me while I worked, he was just mewing at me when I talked to him.

Cary, I'm losing my mind as well as a chunk of my soul. How can I help this process? How can I not forget my Mewling, who was and is so much a part of my existence? How can I face every day without him?


Dear Sorrowful,

Grief is not fatal. It is awful but after its weight lifts there comes a new kind of life. The new kind of life that comes is perforated, aerated, wrung out and less rigid, more patient, more devout. Strangely so but true.

Knowing that doesn't make it feel any better. But it's good to know. We mainly know it afterward. We say, when affected by a sunset or a child, we notice a new gentleness and a new warmth, and new patience; it is as though grief has opened up another room like we're borne through it into a softer acceptance and a wider range of feeling.

The actual trauma of seeing the body of the dead pet is different from the grief. That can become a problem; it can harden and travel in the blood, or it can soften in the salt of our tears -- metaphorically speaking, that is; soften it with your tears, that awful trauma that like a rock falls on you now and then and knocks the breath out of you, that awful shocking memory of the dead pet, biting his tongue. There are methods in psychology for lessening and softening and integrating such traumatic memories by going over them, desensitizing the patient to them. If after a period of months you are still having visceral flashbacks you might look into ways to break up the hard, sharp-edge, calcified stones of grief into particles that can flow in the blood, again metaphorically speaking.

But the sadness and the anguish, there is nothing wrong or pathological about that. That is good. It is our howling truth that those we love pass on and often with animals much sooner than people and thus we feel these things. It is a foretaste; the gift the animals give us is a foretaste of the grief we will feel when our human counterparts also begin to pass away. So learn from this. Learn to bear it and contain it because it will happen again.

Whenever you are in grief, especially in L.A., there will always be someone -- at a coffee shop or at a dinner party -- who will suggest with maddening high-mindedness that you strive for non-attachment and acceptance. And of course they are right though in moments of grief such suggestions can sound rude. We want to say, Let go of this, you happy nitwit! Perhaps over time we do learn to lose others lightly, we learn to let those we love pass out of our lives without the anguished, stunned grasping after them. Perhaps we learn to have some grace and some peace at the natural and even unnatural passing of lives. But it is not helpful to be told these things at the wrong moments. Acceptance has to happen in its time, and in our time, no one else's.

That's enough said  about the fact that grief is good -- that it is survivable and that it deepens us and makes us more human, that it is an exercise of the spirit; that it extends our reach and shakes us out of complacency and reminds us that life is fleeting and fragile and priceless. A soulless, deadening routine can sometimes take over our lives until grief explodes, until we realize we've been sleepwalking through the carnage and catastrophe that surround us daily. Then we look around and see that loss is happening every day, and we realize that that blank-faced man in line at the grocery store with a can of beans who does not see that the line has moved on, or that woman sitting on a bench staring dumbly into space may also have just lost someone and may be locked into that same sharp, keening sadness that you feel.

So it binds us to others; it reminds us of the net in which we are all caught; it reminds us that we are all being hauled in the night into the same strange, dark boat.

By Cary Tennis

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