Six months ago my beloved cat Cashmere died. I had given him his epilepsy medicine three times a day and for more than six years I set an alarm for 4 AM every morning to be there with his first pill of the day. Now he is gone.
I live surrounded by compassionate people, most of whom have put service and the easing of pain at the center of their lives. Many people knew of my cat and his problems; a great many also knew him personally and over the years had brought him toys and treats and enjoyed a snuggle or two. In the week after he died, people expressed their regret that Cashmere was gone, usually in a single sentence. Hearing my “thank you” they then went on to business as usual. It was clear to me that I was expected to do the same.
Somehow this seemed familiar to me. As a doctor I was not expected to grieve the loss of my patients or any of the many disappointments I had experienced in the course of my career. A cancer recurred? Sorry to hear it. A surgery failed? Gee that’s too bad. The way I was trained, John Wayne could have been the Father of Medicine. I kept my sadness in my heart for years. Keeping my sadness in my heart had almost caused me to abandon my soul’s work.
Many doctors carry their sadness in secret and so do many of us who have lost a beloved pet. When the cat or the dog dies we are expected to simply go on even though the relationship we have lost is not an ordinary relationship. I cannot recall anyone stopping to grieve the loss of unconditional love or even to talk about it. But grief is the only way that loss heals. People who do not grieve may carry their wounds unhealed for many years. This may make us cautious about loving again.
When Cashmere died I stopped writing and posting on Facebook. I was struck dumb. I had wrapped him in an embroidered pillowcase and put him under a stunted olive tree in my back yard. After a few months, I planted a little garden under the tree; white and yellow poppies, white and yellow pansies. White for his beautiful fur, yellow for his golden heart. I live on the side of a mountain near San Francisco and fog surrounds my house almost every afternoon. I did not expect the garden to do well. But the flowers are still blooming. And for the first time since it was planted 8 years ago the little tree is growing.
After three or four months, I began to talk to people about the silence that surrounded my cat and me. About the blessing of being loved unconditionally in a very conditional world. About the many ways a cat reminds you of what matters. About the space a cat can leave in your life when they are gone. At first this seemed to require a sort of courage. But not now. Almost everyone I spoke to shared a story of their own about the loss of a dog or a cat or a rabbit or a hamster; about the silence. Some people had carried this silence with them for many years, ever since they were very small. Almost everyone had a story they had never told anyone. Almost everyone cried.
The people I shared stories with seem closer to me now. More real. We have allowed each other a glimpse of our capacity to deeply care, and shown each other the openness that is covered over by the masks we usually wear. Turns out that everyone is wearing a mask. Telling our stories to each other has been important and intimate and deeply healing.
Do you have a story to share about the love and the loss of a beloved pet? I would love to hear it. Perhaps unconditional love is the thing our pets are here to teach us. Perhaps it is the thing that really matters.
If you would like to share, you can add a comment below or if you are on Facebook, you can share your story on my wall here.