“We run from grief because loss scares us, yet our hearts reach toward grief because the broken parts want to mend.” ~ Brene Brown, Rising Strong
As a licensed mental health counselor, I am no stranger to grief and loss. I confront it every day that I sit with my clients, holding their hearts as they process their pain. Over the last six years that I’ve sat with people, I’ve discovered that the grief process is exponentially greater during the holidays. The holidays have a way of showing us what we’ve lost – what we have and don’t have, and both can be equally painful. When the holidays end, it can be easy to believe that the loss fades more to the background…maybe it’s not quite as stark, maybe there are not quite as many in your face reminders. But does loss ever leave us?
In just about one week, on January 14th, I will be reminded that it would have been my 12th wedding anniversary this year. I was only married for a year, and it was for the most part the worst year of my life. I don’t miss the man; I have no desire to go back and be married to him. And yet, I still remember the date. I think I always will. Some moments in our lives will never be forgotten. And while the year that followed was hell, I actually truly loved my wedding day. I remember vividly what it was like to be the bride – to enter into that holy and sacred space of promising forever.
In what is too long a story to share here, my marriage abruptly ended when my husband walked out the door a year after we were married. Both leading up to his departure and the year prior leading up to our wedding were filled with drama and pain and fear and sorrow. Needless to say, the holidays have not been my favorite time of the year since, as they often trigger memories and tough feelings.
In spite of not knowing a lot, I intuitively recognized when my husband left that I would have to fight for me. I would have to figure out who I was and what I wanted and how I wanted life to look. I’m a bit stubborn, and I refused to allow him to ruin a time of year I have always loved. To that end, to this day I generally put up my Christmas decorations super early – sometime around Halloween. I watch my favorite Christmas movies. I try to do fun activities during the holidays. I fight to make the time special for me.
But in the late night or early morning hours, it’s still really hard. It’s still super lonely. It sucks to wake up alone on Christmas morning. Even knowing I am welcome in multiple places with multiple people and am blessed with loving friends and family, my little “family unit” is just me. And that is really really hard.
For the last 13 ½ years, my family unit has also included my cat Ellie. I rescued her as a kitten, and we had a glorious adventure together. She was there for the hard parts, the dark nights, and she was there for amazing and fun times. She was my family, and she was always there on the Christmas mornings when I woke up alone.
On December 15th, she left this world for heaven, and the process was and is one of the hardest things I have ever been through. Her death made all the lonely feel that much lonelier. I loved her greatly – she filled more holes than I knew until she was gone – and I grieve her greatly as well. She was seriously one of the best cats I have ever known and I will miss her always.
Coupled with the triggers and pain the holidays already contained, losing my cat ten days before Christmas made everything worse. I knew she was special to me, but I had no idea how horribly empty and lonely my apartment and my heart would feel without her around. Not having a living creature with me in my apartment was just really not okay with me and so despite thinking I’d need a super long time before I brought in any other pets, two weeks after her death I found myself with two five month old rescue kittens.
Lest you think they have suddenly cured my grief, let me assure you that in many ways they have made it worse. They are not Ellie. They are super different than her. They are brothers, and they are crazy. They poop a lot and it smells. They require much more attention and effort to manage than she did. They are amazing and adorable and funny, and they bring life back to my apartment. But they are not her.
I’ve had a couple of moments of buyer’s remorse since bringing them home, through no fault of their own. Mostly, it’s times when they are doing something that makes it so evident that Ellie isn’t here. But I’ve also found myself struggling to attach to them. It’s not because something is wrong with them. It’s because I am afraid of feeling this way again. The pain of Ellie is still so great, and let’s be honest – it’s not really something I’m jumping at the chance to experience anytime soon. And if I attach to these guys, I open myself up to the possibility of more loss and grief and pain.
I can’t speak to anyone’s journey but my own, and granted, in these eleven years, I have gone through a demanding master’s program to get my counseling degree and spent years in therapy. But I am beginning to slowly grasp this piece of understanding: we will find the truest parts of ourselves when we face our grief.
I didn’t know that ten years ago, but I hope I’m a little wiser this time around. I am discovering all over again that accepting and feeling my grief allows me to tap into all the parts of who I am. I cannot know joy without pain. And the sad parts don’t have to be scary to face. They are me too. They mean something or someone matters. They mean I care. I love. I am capable of much. I have deep feelings and the expression of those is important. The things I care about – including a simple cat – are okay. It is okay to be me. I am awesome. 😊
Grief also reminds us that life is fleeting. When I took Ellie to the vet the first time, I had no idea she would be dead five days later. It happened unexpectedly. I didn’t know I was experiencing “lasts” with her until it was all over. I think so often we try to avoid the vulnerability of opening ourselves up and truly loving another because we don’t want to feel how I feel now. But I wouldn’t trade my pain for any of the 13 ½ years of memories that I have. Even though I struggle now to allow myself to open back up, the desire is still there to connect. To know and be known. To love. Because I know once again that love is worth the pain of loss.
I’ve told you who my new kitties are not, but let me tell you about who they are. Even after spending less than 2 weeks with them so far, their little personalities are coming out strong.
Charlie was the runt of the litter. He is a fun mixture of standing on the sidelines and trying to prove he’s just as strong as anyone else. He eats his wet cat food at night like someone is going to take it from him. He is more tentative. He looks like it hurts his feelings when I play with his brother and not him. He loves to carry toy mice around in his mouth. He snuggles – on his terms – and purrs super loud. He listens and wants to please and when he can finally relax and know he’s loved without having to prove anything, he will have a great kitty life.
Rizzo is the explorer, and he is not afraid to look for adventures. He loves playing with all of his toys and racing around rooms and leaping off furniture. He also really loves to get on the kitchen counter, even though he knows he is not supposed to be there. He is deliberate, he likes attention, and he wants to be in the middle of all the things. He also purrs super loud, and he loves to snuggle. He likes to knead his paws on everything, and he licks his brother and cares for him when he is not attacking him.
This is a tough season. I am sad, I really and truly miss my cat, I am depressed, everything feels heavy, and it’s hard to be around people and be engaged. But by allowing myself the space to feel all of those things, my broken parts have a place to mend. I am meeting myself in a deeper way. I want to live 2018 with more intention and to be the most myself I’ve ever been. I want to love deeper and not live in fear of the losses that will at some point come.