On Sunday 26th October 2014, I got a phone call informing me of the sudden death of someone I loved. We raced to her bedside where she lay, still warm. She had been hit by a car and died in the arms of our neighbours, who through sheer coincidence happened to drive past and see her laying there – albeit this taking place half a mile from our home. She didn’t have a scratch on her.
I should mention here, that she was our beloved 18-month-old cat, Echo. People sometimes struggle to understand the impact of losing an animal that has become a loved one. Some people have never and will never experience the wonder of connecting with a non-human – and I feel for them, because it can be truly beautiful.
When they die, particularly in such sudden circumstances, it is every bit as devastating as losing a human being you have formed a close connection with. I loved her, I laughed with her, we hugged, we kissed, we had in-jokes, she brought me immeasurable joy every single day of her short life. And now, she is gone.
I made the choice to put my grief out there. Partly because pretending I am fine when I am not is an approach to life I have never found any solace in. To suffer alone, hidden from view, behind a mask of superficial normalcy is about the loneliest experience a human being can go through. But I also realised it could be a service to others.
We struggle with grief, which is all the more strange because death is such an inescapable part of life. Everything living dies. You will die, I will die, and so will everyone we love and care for. This is it. That’s a little too much reality for most of us to withstand on a daily basis, so we wrap it up and bury it from view – thinking about it only when death strikes.
In our sanitised western culture where many people may never have even seen a dead body, and where we rarely, if ever, discuss death in a personal and vulnerable way – being hit by grief can be an isolating experience. You are thrown out of the fairytale of permanence, and you’re adrift with a weight you cannot shift.
What does grief feel like? For me, the news was like being physically hit. I collapsed in a heap on the floor and cried ‘No!’ repeatedly, while tears streamed down by face, like a scene from a tragic movie. When I went to her, I held her body and called her name, I whispered in her ear for her to wake up, I looked around as if in search for some authority figure to whom to bring this issue:
‘Look, there’s been a terrible mistake. Somebody in the Life and Death department has really fucked up here. Just bring her back and we’ll speak no more of it’
And then, while matters of cremation were sorted, life had to go on. I wrote a poem which captures my lived experience since then:
Everywhere You’re Not
You’re not wrapped heart-shaped on the bed.
You’re not tip-tapping round my head.
That room, empty and full of you, hurts.
The absence of your staccato pizzicato across the headboard, hurts.
You’re not arched lapping, right paw steeped.
You’re not curled in your seat asleep.
That chair, empty and full of you, hurts.
The thought: ‘How did the water in that bowl outlast you?’ – hurts.
You’re not akimbo in the hall.
You’re not love-squawking at my call.
This house, empty and full of you, hurts.
The anticipatory breath, held futile and determined, hurts.
The void, the part of me that opened to share this mighty love, hurts.
It was the frame of the house we made, the struts and the beams
A place where our love lived; vital, expanding, love.
Now it aches, creeks, our dead laughter echoes in hallways
Our home must become a museum;
Our toys become relics,
Our jokes become anecdotes.
We cannot make anything new, you and I.
You are gone, and I am here
Everywhere you’re not.
And that is grief to me: the absence, the weight in my chest that literally aches, the sense of acute unfairness, and the incessant noticing of everywhere they are not.
It is really OK to grieve. In fact, we can do grief better together. We can let ourselves be vulnerable, and sad, and acknowledge our loss and our love. We can let those wonderful people around us in, let them hold us while we cry, let them share with us their past and present grief, we can deepen our living relationships in these moments.
I’ve been overwhelmed by the love and care not only of my family and closest friends, but by so many people who got to know Echo through my pretty constant Facebook sharing of her hilarious escapades. To know that people were out there, crying for her too, meant the world. It meant the opportunity for shared grief, and grief is an experience best made communal.
Your grief will be personal, and unique. No one can tell you how long or how deep you will feel it. Only you know the value to you of the life lost. But by avoiding the urge to be tough, invulnerable, and resistant, you can open a channel between your personal grief and the experience and love of others – the same channel that will bring you back into the world.
The acute period of grief is passing for me now. In the last 24 hours I have started to accept she is gone, and she is never coming back. The tears are still never far from my eyes, but I can see a glimmer of normal life without her in it. I know I will miss her forever, and I am starting to be able to smile at the memories as well as cry. I am going to be alright.
So I wanted to share this with you, because you will have experienced, or you will experience this too – and you may not know where to put the feelings which come at you from all angles – be them external or internal, explosive or quiet, public or private. If you love, you grieve. Love is a gift, grief is an acknowledgement.
So here is my tribute to Echo, my friend, who died. Feel free to use the comments section to share your own stories and do grief better together.