Grief and Guilt

I have only ever lost one human that was close to me. It was pretty brutal. Six months from prognosis to death from terminal lung cancer. It was my first experience with serious human grief. I think I’ve been pretty fortunate that I’m 34 years old and that’s only happened to me once.

That was when I learned that grief didn’t follow the precise, linear pattern I had always been taught to expect by popular culture. I learned that when it hit, it hit hard, and everything stopped, and it was difficult to find your breath. I learned that there were good days, and in their own way, that was awful.

What I didn’t expect was the guilt. I expected some guilt, of course – I felt so guilty that I hadn’t visited more often, that I hadn’t made the time, that I’d taken so long to warm up to her in the first place (I actually take a lot of time to really get close to people. We’re talking years), that I spent more time being shy and wary in her presence than I had being open and genuine. I felt guilty that I didn’t know what to say. “So you’re going to die! Wow. That’s… really shit.” That sort of guilt, the guilt based on awkwardness and regret? It was dreadful but I sort of expected it.

The surprise was the guilt I felt about how I was feeling. On bad days, I felt guilty that I felt so bad. I hadn’t been close to her for a particularly long time; I barely visited; she wasn’t my wife or my mother; I felt like feeling such intense grief was unfair, like I was stealing the feeling somehow from people who had a real right to it. I felt like I was a fraud, an imposter wearing a cloak of pain.

On good days, I felt guilty that I didn’t feel worse. What sort of cold-hearted monster was I that I was able to go about my business, keep troubleshooting my constant PhD lab issues, keep going out with friends, when this monumental thing had happened? Surely, there was something wrong with me. Was I some sort of robot, lacking all human feeling?

It turns out that’s just how grief works.

Grief, of course, isn’t just restricted to the loss of beloved humans. The magnitude and intensity and impact is different with pets, but it’s still real grief. I’m going through this with Jabba, even though it’s only been two days, and of course the guilt takes a different shape. I should have picked a more aggressive chemo protocol, even though we couldn’t really afford it. I should have got the MRI sooner. I should have put him to sleep sooner rather than letting him suffer for three days in the hopes that the recommended shot would have helped him (vet staff were very surprised when it didn’t work. Apparently, it usually does). I should have spent more time with him before he got sick, rather than constantly juggling the demands of cats and dogs and work and family and friends and exercise. Again, that guilt? I was sort of prepared for it.

The guilt I wasn’t prepared for – again – was the guilt about how I was feeling – again. In bad moments, I feel guilty that I’m feeling such things for a cat. I adore my pets, and most of my friends are animal lovers, and no-one has dared to say to me or even imply that it’s just a cat. Most of the people in my life – whether close friends or online friends in forums – know what it’s like to connect with an animal. They get it. But I’ve internalised a lot of the bullshit about how people should feel, how they’re supposed to feel when things happen, and I feel guilty that the loss of a cat – an old, sick cat – is affecting my work output. My diet. My motivation to exercise and take care of myself. At the same time, and perversely, I feel guilty that I dare to feel grief when I spent so much time frustrated that he peed on my things, yowled for attention, kept me up at night demanding affection (as adorable as it was). I don’t deserve to work through grief when I didn’t appreciate him.

In good moments, again, I feel guilty that I’m coping. Because I’m a cold-hearted monster and I shouldn’t let him go so easily in those good moments.

I look back, and I’ve felt the same for the loss of my other pets. I felt guilty about our dogs, Meg and Max, who died when I was in high school and early uni, because I wasn’t there, and I didn’t spend enough time with them, and I didn’t get to say goodbye. I felt guilty about my budgie, Bobby, who was only two years old when he died, because I was fourteen and I didn’t pay enough attention to him either.

Going back to the first time: I felt guilty about Baron, who died when I was seven years old. I didn’t recognise it at the time, the squirmy uncomfortable feeling when I thought about him, the fact that for over a year I cried whenever he was mentioned to the consternation of friends and family. But I did feel guilty. He had just always been there, this big black comforting shadow who followed me around in the yard and made sure I didn’t do anything I shouldn’t (he used to block my path to the fernery when I was too small to get down the steps safely, just by sitting there). I was a little kid, and I assumed he always would be there, until he wasn’t, and then I felt like I hadn’t got to say goodbye; and if I’d known that some day he wouldn’t be there, maybe I would have patted him more and thrown his ball for him more. I cried for over a year because I missed him, and because I wasn’t prepared for his death, and also because I didn’t have a name for the guilt that I felt and I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Grief isn’t even just about death.

Grief is about relationships, and the loss of them. We expect a certain amount of guilt in those situations, the feeling that we could have or should have done more (whether or not that’s rational or fair), so maybe we don’t analyse it quite as much, or feel so uncomfortable looking at it. But again, after I ended my first serious relationship (five years), I felt guilty. I didn’t have a right to be bawling my eyes out, feeling like my heart had been ripped out, because I was the one who ended it, and I ended it because I wasn’t in love any more. How dare I grieve the loss of a relationship! How dare I miss his friendship! How presumptuous of me! And then on good days, when I went out with friends and had a good time, I felt a little guilty then too – did this mean it hadn’t meant so much to me? That it wasn’t a big deal?

I feel guilty about my relationship with Abusive Parent (or lack thereof). I grieve for the relationship that it isn’t, the relationship that it should have been; I feel guilty that I haven’t tried harder, been more compassionate, cut more slack; I feel like a cold-hearted monster for drawing such a hard line in the sand to protect myself, for saying that “If you continue to hurt me, I won’t talk to you. Ever.”

Grief is a vicious thing, and it’s not at all linear, and it takes different forms. We have to wear it, and feel it, and work through little pieces of it, and in some cases it never completely goes away.

The guilt, though.

I think we need to knock that on the fucking head.

The Jabbanese Empire: Saying Goodbye

The appointment is for 5pm, and it’s 1:30pm now.

He’s sitting next to me in the little heated dome my husband bought for our other cat (and promptly had to buy a second one, because Jabba kept kicking Lestat out and taking it for himself). Occasionally, he purrs. He has once crawled out, half-heartedly, to sit in my lap. Sometimes I put him there and he lies there limply for a bit. I pet him, and he purrs a little bit more.

He smells like cat piss, because it’s reached that point.

He’s 13 years old, maybe 14. I forget exactly. People tell me that’s a good run for a cat. It doesn’t feel like enough, not when Lestat is over eighteen years old and – notwithstanding some arthritis and early cataracts – still in robust health. Sure, Lestat has slowed down a lot. He needs help to get off the bed as well as get back on it. He cuddles under the doona more now because he feels the cold in his joints more and more as the years go by and the winters up here in the ranges just kick him in the teeth – but he’s healthy. He doesn’t have aggressive lymphoma the way Jabba does.

The dome is right next to me, a fluffy little covered cat bed that Jabba hasn’t emerged from since we brought him home from our friend’s place. We were on holiday. He was losing weight, but the chemo seemed to be helping. He was mostly symptom free.

Apparently the drug we chose wasn’t aggressive enough. We came back, and in spite of my friend’s best efforts, he still wasn’t eating much, and his face was swollen. I panicked. Took him to the vet that day; then the specialist the next day.

The lymphoma had spread to his neck. There was a shot we could try, that could make him feel a bit better. Improve his quality of life for a couple of months. It was horrible to see him so miserable, burrowing into my belly for comfort, so I said yes.

As sometimes happens, it didn’t work.

Sometimes I look across at him, and he just looks like he’s sleeping normally instead of lying still, too sick to move. Sometimes I look, and he’s purring again, and I can’t quite grasp that he’s beyond help. He jumped off the couch before, and looked around in confusion before falling over, and starting to crawl. Then he just stopped moving, one paw splayed out sideways. I picked him up, and gently put him back in his fluffy dome.

Those moments are both awful and a relief. They’re awful because he’s so sick, and he got so sick so quickly. It seemed like one minute he was alright, just a bit skinny, and then he was uncomfortable, and obviously miserable, but he was still sort of okay – and now he’s pissing himself and he can’t move.

But those awful moments are a relief because I’m making the right decision. I haven’t known whether I’m making the right decision since we first found out he was sick and we didn’t know what was wrong. I can look back and see moments where I feel like I made the wrong call – we should have done the MRI earlier, and not worried about the general anaesthetic. Maybe we should have tried a more aggressive protocol for chemo. It might not have worked. Maybe it would have.

But we didn’t do those things.

What do I do now? How do I say goodbye? My last dogs died when I was in high school and early uni, and I wasn’t around for either of them. I didn’t learn until afterwards, and the last one – Max – died of natural causes, old age, all by himself. When Baron, our first dog, was put to sleep, I was seven years old, and again I didn’t know about it until it was done. I didn’t even know he was sick. In fact, when Dad said “I had to put the old boy down,” I didn’t know what he meant. My brother started crying, but I just looked at Dad and said “Down? Down where?”

I hate euphemisms sometimes.

My budgie died when I was in year eight, but I wasn’t anywhere near as attached to him as I am to Jabba. I know that people can have a very strong bond with their birds, and I certainly liked him, and I cried when he died, but there wasn’t this same sort of ache.

Jabba just stuck his head out of the dome, resting on the side of it (he can’t really raise his head. He could yesterday), and looked at me. I pulled him out to lie on my lap and he seems content. I do expect him to piss on me at some point, but that’s okay. I think on your last day in the world you’re allowed to lose control of your bladder and no-one’s going to hold it against you.

It’s 1:46pm. Husband is coming home, and we will probably leave for the vet at about 4:45pm. So I have three hours with my cat, in the house. What do I do? I’ve put the dogs outside so I can just sit quietly with him on the couch. It sucks for them – it’s raining and it’s been raining all day – but they’ll have all the tomorrows to be inside and be cuddled and walked and played with, and Jabba won’t, so I’m just shouldering the guilt and moving on with it.

I’m petting him, and watching TV half-heartedly. I can’t quite find it in myself to do anything else. Occasionally I pause the show to pet him, get that rewarding little purr that he has always been so generous with, and wonder how I let it get this bad before I decided to let him go. I wonder how I could have let him go without it getting this bad first, without being sure it wouldn’t get better.

I was never a cat person. I like cats, but I’ve always been a dog person at heart. I don’t quite understand how cats work, even though I find them fascinating. Jabba was the first cat I completely loved. He attached himself to me so thoroughly that I couldn’t help but love him back.

There will never be another cat like Jabba. Not one so sweet and needy and talkative exactly like he was. I’m so glad I got to have a cat who killed a toy mouse and brought it to me (I threw it, thinking it was a game, but apparently it was a present), who pounced on the mattress when I turned it while making the bed, who loved to play with dried spaghetti and crawl all over me in pursuit of my breakfast bowl; who let Amos know that there was a Zone of Clearance beyond which dogs would not be permitted, but tolerated him from a distance of greater then three feet; who even in the last few weeks would sit at the little baby gate separating Dog Territory from Cat Territory and sing the song of his people until I gave him yoghurt; who would cuddle onto my lap in forty degree heat, debunking the myth that “Cats are aloof and don’t care about affection; it’s just your body heat that they’re after,” while I sweated profusely but didn’t kick him off.

They’re all different. I know I’ll have to go through this at least three more times, and the thought is so awful, but for now, it gets to be all about Jabba.

Who, for the next few hours, is still my little fluff elemental; and always will be.

Addendum: Jabba died in my lap about twenty minutes after I wrote this. At least it’s over now.