I dreamed about Ella last night. I knew I hadn’t seen her lately, and I felt vaguely guilty, wondering if I had been neglecting her. She hopped onto my lap and I ran my fingers over her white, satiny fur. She lifted her face, nose and ears the color of pink ballet slippers, and wild amber eyes half-closed in joy. She butted her fuzzy head against my hand.
When I woke up, I remembered. We buried her one year ago. At the end of May, on the cusp of summer. My children and I found flowers from the garden to put on her grave. Irises, lilies, columbine, pansies. The same flowers blooming right now. My daughter laid some on Ella’s small still body. She wanted her to have something nice to smell. After we buried her with earth, I sprinkled seeds from spent forget-me-nots, hoping they would bloom for her, clothe her naked grave with humble beauty.
Ella was nine when she died. My husband Matt and I adopted her and her orange tabby brother as kittens. We named them Armstrong and Ella, after Louis and Fitzgerald: jazz cats. We loved our cats like children, the way people do with pets before they have kids. They flew with us to Maine for a ten month residency. We brought them to apartment after apartment and finally to our first home: a third of an acre with grass to eat and bugs to hunt.
When the babies came, the cats were reduced for awhile to yet another thing to wake us up at ungodly hours to be fed. Armstrong has only now begun to tolerate the children, but Ella patiently allowed them to bury their chubby fists in her soft soft fur. She and my son developed a connection. She would follow his toddling steps around the yard and sit purring beside him on the couch.
That night in May, she’d been outside playing in the deep dusk. Armstrong was the one who had wanted out, and I let her go too, as an afterthought. When I put my head out the front door later to call them in, she didn’t come, but a couple standing a little way up the sidewalk holding a cardboard box called, “Are you looking for a white cat?”
I said yes, already knowing, not wanting to know.
“We’re so sorry,” they said, as I walked out to them, Matt close behind me. “We stopped when we saw her in the road. A beautiful white kitty, like this, she had to have an owner…”
I was afraid to look into that box. I didn’t want to see, so I choked out, “Are you sure?” They nodded sadly. They handed Matt the box and said their condolences. I followed Matt to the porch in anguish. He set down the box, and I looked at her. She was whole, a little blood coming from her mouth, but her eyes were clouded, like frost, and it was clear that she had left her body. Her essential self just wasn’t there anymore. I understood what people meant when they say that dead bodies are like empty houses.
That night, I couldn’t sleep for weeping. I couldn’t eat the next day. In the morning we told the children. Armstrong watched from a distance until we finished burying her. Cats don’t cry, and I don’t know what he was thinking, but I know she was the last companion he’ll ever have of his own kind. He doesn’t like other cats, but he and Ella were a bonded pair from birth. She would seek him out and I’d find her with her arms around him or making a pillow of his rump.
In the daylight, I looked for the place in the road where she had lain. It was inches from the curb. Milliseconds between life and death. That dark red stain on the concrete felt sacred, its slow erasure by rain and wheels like losing her by fractions.
I’ve never buried anyone before. Even though Ella was “just an animal,” she was also a member of our family, and she died suddenly and violently, and her death was my first real experience of mourning.
For the first six months, I couldn’t think about her without weeping. It was like a tidal wave of sorrow, breaking over me and pulling me away with it. I didn’t want to be crying all the time, so I would try not to think about it. But at night before bed, when I was tired and my guard was down and my busy thoughts grew quiet, the ocean of grief would engulf me again.
As I grieved, I began to notice how others mourn, and despite several deaths in my extended family and social circles, I saw very little public grief. In every instance, the families decided not to hold a funeral in favor of a celebration of life. No black clothes, no tearful remembrances, no grave. “They wouldn’t have wanted us to cry over them,” some said.
I think this impulse is understandable. We want to believe that life is more powerful than death. But I also think it says something about our culture—that we have become disconnected from death and grieving. We outsource end-of-life care and burial. It all happens somewhere off-stage. Even when there’s an open casket at a funeral, the body has been embalmed to appear as it did in life. Most of us have never seen a dead body in its natural state.
I think we’re as uncomfortable with grieving as we are with death. Emotional pain is unpleasant and messy, so we look away, or try to clothe its nakedness with something more acceptable. We focus on fond memories and don’t acknowledge that something precious has been lost. This doesn’t honor the emotional reality of those who are suffering that loss. We even deny and dishonor our own pain as the bereaved.
A friend shared a story a seven-year-old boy whose beloved aunt died. The family resolved not to cry in front of the child, to protect him from their pain. One day, the child said to his mother, “So I guess no one loved Aunt Jenny that much.” His mom, who had loved her sister immensely, was shocked. “Why would you think such a thing?” she asked. The child answered, “No one is sad that she’s dead.” By protecting this child from the perceived trauma of grief, his family inadvertently communicated they didn’t care what had happened. Children don’t censor their emotions like adults. They intuitively know that loss is sad. If we don’t grieve, we teach them that their sadness isn’t ok, and thus diminish their loss, and their love.
I understand not wanting to involve others in my pain. I’ve been embarrassed by my tears, and I haven’t wanted to burden others. My grief is for a pet. I feel like I don’t have as much of a right to mourn as those who have lost more, like a spouse, child, or parent. Privately, I don’t want to wallow. I suffered from postpartum depression and fought so hard to resurface from it. I’m afraid if I welcome the sea wave, this time I might drown in it.
The more grief happens off-stage, though, we no longer have a culture around grieving. Funerals do give us a chance to send flowers, donate to a charity, or make a meal for the grieving family. But after that, we don’t know what to do with the person who must begin a new life without their loved one. We fear their grief and avoid it.
Matt’s friend Gavin lost his wife Emily tragically in an accident just a few months after they married. We had gone to a small university together and the social circle was large. Gavin became acutely aware of who was willing to enter his grief with him and who wasn’t, cutting out everyone who didn’t reach out to him in the months after Emily’s death. Our own friendship with him nearly didn’t survive. He expressed his disappointment to Matt that he had been too distant. It mattered to him deeply how people handled him in that season, and it altered the course of his friendships so that his circle became small and intimate, made only of those willing to witness his pain.
Our culture’s lack of tools for processing grief struck me when my friend Dorothy told me about an experience she had after her father died. Her husband Calvin is from Uganda and they travel frequently between Africa and the States. They made the trip shortly after her father’s death, and her grief was still fresh. Calvin’s tribe instigated their tradition for grieving with her. They sat in a circle and invited Dorothy to talk about her father. There was no time limit. They had all day. She was given space to say everything she wanted, to remember. When she finished, everyone in the tribe spoke about her father as well, those who had met him and those who only knew him through Dorothy’s memories. In this way, the whole community shares in the grief of the bereaved.
The experience was cathartic for Dorothy. She said the tribe repeats this ritual again one month, six months, and one year after the person’s death. Not until that final gathering is the corporate grieving process complete. The focus is on the chief mourners, giving their souls space to unfold their grief with others. The community understands that the soul needs this experience more than once. It needs it again and again. And this process needs a beginning and an end.
Catharsis is the relief we feel after journeying through a strong emotion from start to finish. It’s the emotional equivalent of being truly hungry and sitting down to eat the whole sandwich so you feel full when you’re done. It’s not what we Westerners tend to do with grief: wait till we’re starving and then eat a few bites standing just to take the edge off.
Entering a period of mourning with a marked end is not the same thing as prescribing an end-date on sorrow. I believe grief changes a person and becomes a part of them for the rest of their life. But the season of sadness and mourning is a landscape we move through as sojourners. If we are to be emotionally healthy, we don’t make it our permanent dwelling place. The intensity of the emotions subside and other aspects of life resume center stage. Ironically, it is our refusal to set out on this journey that keeps us from moving to the other side of it and prolongs the season of mourning, sometimes indefinitely.
So then how are we to honor the bereaved person’s journey through sorrow? I’m not against celebrating someone’s life, but we also need to give space for people to grieve publicly. I think we forget that funerals are for mourners, not for the dead. It hurts to think of the people I love suffering emotionally when I die. But I won’t be there. And to restrict others to celebrating my life, but not mourning its loss is unfair to their emotional process. To prevent my children from mourning seems like a kind of emotional violence. To deprive our loved ones of their grief doesn’t make it go away. It simply gives it nowhere to go, which sentences them to a kind of endless suffering, with no beginning and no end.
And though funerals are a starting point, that’s all they are. We need to find a way within our own tribes to fully unpack our grief in the midst of others. We need to acknowledge the season of grieving in some way, and mark it, and give it a process for traveling from one side to the other. We need to check in with people again and again and offer a sacred space for them to air their pain for as long as they need to.
Gavin, who lost Emily, is remarried with children now. But for a long time, he would have his small circle over on the anniversary of her death. They would smoke cigars (because she would have hated it, and Gavin and Emily loved to tease each other) and eat good food and talk about her. It was his way to honor his loss, her life.
The grief now comes at unexpected moments, but it’s like aftershocks of an earthquake. Strong shadows of a force diminishing in power every day. I can now think of Ella without poring over the details of her death. I hadn’t cried in awhile until the other night when Matt and I were talking before going to bed. Here’s that end of the day danger zone again. Matt mentioned that he sometimes finds Armstrong sitting beside Ella’s grave, as if in vigil. I lost it, dissolving into tears I couldn’t stop. Armstrong can’t tell me what he feels or thinks about Ella, but this act seems like a statement of longing and loyalty and love. My heart broke for him, and for myself all over again.
Sharing this is my one year tribal remembrance of Ella, and I hope it is also the end of a season of tidal sadness. Not the end of grief, though. Grief is a baptism of pain from which we rise indelibly changed.
J.M. Roddy is a freelance writer, a children’s author, and a pursuer of whole-hearted living. And she loves dogs, hedgehogs, and rabbits just as much as cats.