With so many people experiencing loss and hardship at the moment its not easy to admit the depth of grief I have been experiencing over the last month. I’m sure I’ve glibly told many people over the years how ‘grief is a normal human experience,’ but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear. It may simply be an everyday kind of emotional pain, but it washes over me in waves of acute sadness and despair. One moment I’m fine, the next I’m in tears; and it hurts physically too. There is a pain my chest right above my heart. But this grief is not for a human being, but for an animal companion, my cat Sophie.
I’ve seen that wry smile on a colleague’s face when I tell them how it feels to lose a pet . Not that Soph was a ‘pet’, she was a fiercely beautiful but barely tamed Maine Coon cat who viewed the human race if not quite the enemy, certainly as all potential vivisectionists. But those who don’t understand how attached you can become to an animal are simply embarrassed by our tears; they don’t know what to say. Statements like ‘well you can always get another one can’t you?’ are unhelpful. Yes, I have another cat, but he isn’t her. He is different. I will probably have a few more in my life (or rather they will have me) but each one I have lost has left a unique shaped space behind in my heart that another will eventually fill- but not in quite the same way. Some colleagues of mine have written about the important part that animals play in providing support for people with long-term conditions. But we live in a society where older (and younger) people with mental health problems are regularly separated from their companions when they have to move into new rented accommodation due to the desperate state of our housing policy. I cannot imagine the pain of having to give up my companion animal. Perhaps I will have to one day.
Grief is something I know about. I treated many people in my career who were failing to grieve for someone, or something they had lost. It doesn’t have to be a person, it can be a career, a person, your health, or even your hopes for the future. The list is endless. The process IS normal but it can be frightening if you have never felt it before. It isn’t the same as depression although if a person fails to grieve properly depression may follow, and in the vulnerable, loss may trigger it. But it should not be medicalised as it has been in DSM-5 where two weeks of depressed mood following loss is taken to indicate depression. Two weeks? That’s crazy. Grief can take years, a lifetime to resolve. The key thing is the trajectory of the process and the severity of the symptoms. Is it gradually getting easier over time or unchanged in intensity? How low are you feeling? Have you had thoughts of suicide or wanting to join the dead person? I failed to grieve successfully once when I lost someone very important. I didn’t talk about it. I tried to work my way out of it at the hospital rather than go through it. You cannot shut it out. You have to talk, remember …and weep.
Sophie was killed by a fox one night in August. She loved going out at night to hunt. She began her life as a pedigree puss and then heard the call of the wild. She escaped when she got very frightened as were taking her to a cattery and wriggled out of her harness. She would never travel in a cage. I missed her terribly but I always hoped she come back to us, and she did. She spent two years living rough before she finally trusted a lady enough to accept help, and was returned to us (due to her microchip) by the RSPCA. She would sit next to me on the sofa and purr loudly, demanding her share of my love. Her coat was soft and silky before she disappeared, but woolly and thick when she returned after two winters outside in Yorkshire. But she knew she was home and she embraced it with enthusiasm. She was a happy, healthy cat and she was only seven years old. It’s really hard to accept she could have survived so long on her own and then die now. But I couldn’t have kept her inside. That would have been unbelievably cruel. Yet I still feel I should have been there to protect her. Grief isn’t just about sadness, but guilt and anger. And remembering.
I have some of her fur, and a library of pictures to remember her by. I can look at them now. It was very painful at first.
It’s getting a little easier each day. That I’ve been able to write this is a sign I’m coming through it.
But I’ll always miss her.