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Losing a friend

This weekend we had to say goodbye to our beloved cat of almost 12 years. Her name was Petunia (but she went by a variety of nicknames: Tuna, Bean, and Fish to name a few). She had been with us through so much: medical school, residency, five moves, some serious illnesses in the family, and our daughter's birth. She was such a special cat- super loving, chatty, full of purrs, and a total cuddle bug who was always there with a little love-nibble when you needed it most. And she was a great big sister to Cora. We will miss her so much. I wasn’t sure whether to write about what I've been feeling or take the week off. But I’ve ultimately decided that I want to write about what I know about grief because I think it will help me process her loss and hopefully help others with theirs.


Cora and Petunia watching the birds

1. Other people’s grief does not invalidate your own. Part of the reason I was hesitant to write this was because of all that is going on in the world right now. With the pandemic, I know that so many people have lost loved ones: parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses, friends, and even children. I’m so thankful that my family has been safe so far, and I almost started to wonder if I had any right to grieve the loss of a pet when others were experiencing these losses. But then I remembered the metaphor I sometimes tell my patients: it doesn’t matter if you are drowning in two or ten feet of water. Either way, you are drowning, and you deserve compassion. Neither grief nor compassion is a finite resource. The expression of your grief and the compassion you receive do not take anything from anyone else. This not only goes for losing a loved one but any loss. I’ve heard people say that they shouldn’t feel sad about missing their graduation because of the pandemic, losing their jobs, or missing out on time with loved ones because others had it worse. But any loss can cause you to feel grief, and your grief is valid.


2. There is no right way to feel after a loss. We all process grief differently. I tend to cry. Someone else may feel angry in the same situation. Someone else may sleep or eat more than usual whereas I tend to have trouble eating and sleeping. People may want to sit and look at their loved one's photos and smile while thinking about their memories, while others may find the photos too much to bear and may avoid them for a while. Any feeling is normal, and it is also normal for feelings to change dramatically from moment to moment. No matter what you are feeling, do your best to allow it to be there. Acceptance of your feelings allows them to move through you, unencumbered by resistance. I find that thinking of these feelings as a memory of my loved one makes it a little bit easier to accept them.


3. Grief is personal, but don’t let it be isolating. While our grief experience will be unique, that doesn’t mean that we have to move through it alone. Grief often stems from the loss of a connection with someone or something you loved. Forging stronger connections with others can help you wade through the loss. This is part of the reason I ultimately decided to write this post despite my hesitation. Grief doesn’t go away when we share it, but when we express our pain and allow ourselves to be vulnerable we can find a sort of strength in the sadness.


4. It is normal for grief to make you anxious about your own mortality. Humans are experts at tucking away their death anxiety. If you ask most people, they know at a cognitive level that we will all die someday. But if we didn’t compartmentalize that knowledge, it may be hard for us to function in our everyday lives while constantly fearing the end. When we lose a loved one, whether a pet, friend, family member, or even just hear about the death of someone who has something in common with us, it thrusts our mortality front and center again. It is normal to be anxious about this, but talking about it and leaning on sources of support can help keep death anxiety from becoming overwhelming.


5. Be gentle with yourself. The pain never goes away, but you will find that you will have more space to live again with time. The “Ball In a Box” metaphor illustrates this beautifully (I believe this was originally shared by Twitter user @LaurenHerschel a few years ago). In this metaphor, a ball sits inside a box with a red button on one of the inner walls. The button represents the pain of grief. When the grief is fresh, the ball is huge: it takes up almost all of the space inside the box. The ball hits the pain button over and over again. You can’t move the box even a little without the pain button being hit, and it hurts almost constantly. Over time the ball shrinks. There is more room for it to move around in the box without hitting the pain button. But the pain button never goes away. As time goes on, you may be able to go longer without feeling the pain. But then, often unexpectedly, something causes the ball to hit the pain button. Maybe it’s a photo. Maybe coming across an item that your loved one treasured. Or in my case, maybe it’s seeing Tuna’s favorite cat food when I go to the grocery store. Or seeing some laundry on the floor out of the corner of my eye and thinking it's my little cat curled into a fluffy ball. Whatever the trigger may be, the ball slams into the pain button, and it hurts just as much as it did when you first experienced the loss. It may happen many years later and very unexpectedly, but it can be very normal.


I'll certainly miss my Tuna. But I try to remind myself that the grief is only so painful because she was such a good friend for so many years. As Queen Elizabeth II said: "Grief is the price we pay for love."

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©2020 by Melissa Shepard, MD