I know- the title is a bit obnoxious. Still, I feel obligated to give due credit to the creature who taught me an important lesson while simultaneously poking fun at the ridiculous insults about my gender being weak. We all know how untrue that is!
Sixteen months ago, my life was suddenly divided into two parts in a split second. Anytime I think about something in the past, my brain forces me to determine if the event was BC- Before Caleb died or AD, After his Death. It’s a permanent geographical feature of my life as if a volcano erupted and split my property into two parts, with a rocky lava flow right outside my front door that I am forced to navigate every time I step outside. This divide also distorted my sense of time; it feels like the story I’m about to tell you is from a long, long time ago. In reality, it happened a short seven years ago.
While we were building our little farm in South Carolina, we were adopted by a feral cat. The neighbors said she had been wandering around those parts for a couple of years, but she decided it was time to settle for whatever reason, and we would be her people. She was incredibly affectionate and full of personality, the kind of cat that made cat haters say, “Well, I still hate cats, but this one is pretty special,” as she fell asleep purring on their laps. We spent months deciding on a name and creatively landed on “Kitty.”
Kitty just had one problem. Well, three, as we had three dogs on the farm, and they all wanted to chase her. One of the dogs had a strong prey drive and tried to eat her. We were terrified she was going to get hurt or killed and did all we could to calm the dogs down and keep her safe (I would not have chosen to put a cat in this situation, but please remember, she was the one who moved in). After a few days of this stress and worry, I was at my wit’s end, and then I witnessed Kitty’s incredible, instinctual wisdom. I saw our tuxedo kitty streak down the driveway from my kitchen window with the crazy killer dog behind her. As I bolted out to try and save her, she stopped, dropped to the ground, and calmly faced the hyper-fixated dog. To my amazement, the dog stopped, sniffed her a bit, and sat down. The other dogs came over excited, and Kitty calmly lay there, letting them get used to her. It took a few weeks for the dogs to adjust to her presence; every time they chased, she would lie down, let them sniff and bark, and eventually get bored and walk away. Soon, they regularly lounged together in the shade, watching the crazy humans sweat buckets while laboring in the sweltering heat.
I’ve shared this story several times over the years, bragging about the brilliance and bravery of our beloved barn cat. Then tragedy struck, and I experienced the instinct to run from the awful monster that had just hijacked my life. The moment I locked eyes with grief, I was utterly undone and sure it was going to destroy me. This terrible creature took over my entire house, efficiently sucking out all the air and light. With every breath, I smelled its stench and struggled against the crushing weight of its presence. It didn’t take long to realize I couldn’t outrun this beast of grief. I’d seen many people try and fail, as the coping mechanisms used to fuel their running just multiplied their pain and tripped them up. I decided to be brave and take a lesson from Kitty. I sat down, reluctantly acknowledged its presence, and fell silent.
Initially, I feared and resented grief and concurrently understood the necessity of hosting it. As my acceptance of our cohabitation increased, it demanded less space. Grief slowly became less of a monster in my perception. Surprisingly, I found its company refreshingly authentic and comforting, and my curiosity developed. I began asking questions and found grief to be non-judgmental, gentle, and wise. Although I would have never chosen to know it, let alone live with it for the rest of my life, I no longer feel like a hostage held against my will. It still feels strange to admit this, but I think we have become friends. I realize this may sound like a twisted Stockholm Syndrome situation, but it’s not. I have the freedom to kick grief out or make it live in the basement or the garage, but I realize this would be to my detriment. Its presence has increased my humanity, capacity for love, and pleasure and appreciation of all the good still in my life. I’ve decided I want to keep my heart open and alive, and I can only do that by giving grief its rightful space. Grief still sometimes takes over the whole house, but most of the time, it just sits in the room with me and reminds me of the great love that brought it to me in the first place.