Lessons of Love and Life I Learned From Grief

On a sunny May afternoon, with the windows open and the finches singing and the branches of the old oak tree slowly swaying in the breeze outside, my husband and I sat beside each other on our living room couch, with Tabs, our beloved cat of 12 years, between us. I cradled him in my arms with his head draped over my right shoulder (always the right, never the left), while El Hub held his paws.

For most of the creatures in the world, that afternoon was business as usual, but for us, time slowed as we said our final goodbyes and thank yous to our furry friend.

As it sometimes does, the cancer won.

I’ve experienced the loss of pets before, but never like this. Tabs was my constant companion and sounding board throughout the entire decade of my thirties, and with him by my side, I crossed major adult milestones — marriage, moving into our first home, exciting career changes, family emergencies, serious illnesses, pregnancy, child birth. He saw me at my best and my worst, and through it all, he was there with head boops, whisker kisses and brute force lap snuggles (did I mention he was 18 pounds?). His love was fierce yet sweet, and he will always be my big kitty love.

But this post isn’t about Tabs (well, not entirely). It’s about grief and how it changes us.

A thread that binds us all

I think that most people understand that grief is very personal, and that no two people grieve in the exact same way. There is one thing, though, that binds us all together, and of all the lessons I’ve learned from my cat’s passing, this reminder was the most sobering: Everyone we love will eventually die.

It’s a harsh reality. Even though I understood this truth deep down inside, I think I wrapped myself in a cozy blanket of denial.

This was partly because I’ve been lucky to have lived almost 44 years on this earth without having to survive the loss of a close loved one. Losing Tabs was my first real grown-up experience with death, and MAN — it was a vortex of raw, visceral emotion.

The bittersweet juxtaposition

There are many moments of happy sadness — both at the same time. After we’d gotten the news of his terminal diagnosis and Tabs came home from the vet, we were given a time frame of three to six weeks.

That’s how much time we thought we’d have with him, but it only turned out to be two… They were peppered with so many joyous moments, but each one was tinged with the pain of knowing he’d be gone soon.

During our last few days with him, I tried to brace myself for what was to come. I watched Ted talks on grief, listened to podcasts on dying, read articles and talked to friends, hoping to prepare myself for the inevitable, but…

You’ll never be the same again

Nothing prepared me for the fissure I felt when his breath slowed down and his heart finally stopped. The moment I could no longer feel the fluttery beat inside his chest, my heart cracked.

In that split second, I knew: I would never be the same person again. I would carry a small scar on my heart for the rest of my life.

Yet, swirling in a sea of sadness, I also felt joy, hope and relief. Happy that he was no longer in the pain I didn’t think he was in at the time, but now think he may have been. Full of hope that I’d see him again.

Before he left, I whispered into his ear that he didn’t have to be scared or worried because he wouldn’t be alone, and we would see him again.

Seeing everything through a different filter

I think I have. This will seem silly to some people, but since Tabs passed, I swear, he’s sent me signs. I feel his soul with me when the leaves in the oak trees that dot his favorite hill suddenly stand still on a windy day, or when a single beam of sunlight dances on a hot pink patch of flowers, or when I look outside my office window in the morning and see the sunrise filtering through the moss on the tree trunks, or in the purplish pink hues on the horizon at sunset.



I see the world differently now and notice more of the small things I would’ve missed before. All of us are surrounded by small, beautiful moments all day long, and all we have to do is look for them…

A basic lesson of life, but I didn’t really grasp it before. They were just nice words, but now I understand what it means to appreciate the little things, and I have my cat to thank for that.

I miss the mundane things the most

None of it has stopped me from missing him like crazy, though, and the funny thing is… The things I miss the most about him are things that drove me nuts while he was here. I miss him walking across the top of my pillow at night (ah, paws in my hair!). I miss him running into the kitchen to beg for food whenever he heard a can open. I miss seeing him dive onto a fresh pile of clean laundry…

For whatever it’s worth, I think love resides in the tiny spaces. Many movies and books tie love to big life events and grand gestures, but they’ve got it wrong IMO. Love is the everyday rituals. So cherish them.

The last collar Tabs wore was this simple gray one.

Have courage

To add insult to injury, grief will leave you feeling like total crap on a stick, and then it will require that you be courageous. It will not ask this of you politely, either. It will straight-up demand it.

I realized this on that same May afternoon, the one when we said goodbye to our Tabs. Right after the veterinarian tenderly wrapped his tiny, lifeless body in a blanket and carried him out of our house one last time, my husband and I had to pick up our daughter from preschool. We got in the car, both stunned and still in shock, and as we drove into the school parking lot, we could hear the kids laughing and playing.

That joyful singsong sound reminded us that the world was still turning. Life was still happening. Yes, we were heartbroken, but someone still had to make dinner, get children ready for bed, pay the bills that were due.

It’s a courage borne of necessity.

And so, every morning, I get up, I make my bed, wash my face, drink a vat of coffee, sit down at the keyboard, and I keep on keepin’ on. Even though it seems extremely unfair that the sun continues to rise and set, and the birds keep singing, all while someone carries a hole in their heart, life marches onward.

Lastly, to my beautiful kitty baby, thank you again. Thank you for being so selfless and giving. I miss you, your ear tufts, your low-hanging belly, and your ability to wake me up to feed you at the most obscene times in the morning. I miss your big and caring heart. Thank you for teaching me these lessons of life and love. You will forever be cherished.

Your friendly neighborhood beauty addict,

Karen

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