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.