Bearing Witness to Grief
March 19, 2021, my husband, Judah, and I lost our beloved kitty, Max. He was thirteen years old, barely a teenager, and we’d had him since we adopted him at just a few weeks old.
I am a cat lady through and through. They are my children, my confidantes, my comfort.
We lost Max very suddenly, without warning. In the wake of losing him, I experienced a whiplash of emotions from disbelief to deep, aching sadness.
I have experienced similar grief two other times over the past ten years. In 2012 when my father died suddenly, without warning. And in 2019 when I had a miscarriage suddenly, without warning.
In 2012, my dad had a heart attack and was gone six hours later. I was in New York; he was in Oklahoma. I reached out to a handful of friends via text to let them know. A family member posted the news on Facebook.
I have found that putting the stark reality into words helps me combat the disbelief. To tell someone “my dad died” starts the internal process of coming to grips with the crushing reality of my circumstances.
I received several texts and Facebook messages filled with compassion and support, friends acknowledging how sad and unbelievable it all was.
My friend, Sue, called me, “I’m so sorry that you have joined the club no one wants to be a part of: The Dead Dad Club.”
I would have been so overwhelmed had every person called me, but this phone conversation changed how I respond to others in grief. I felt seen and known and validated. It felt like she was right there with me, giving words to aching ideas deep within me that I didn’t even know were there.
My friend, Dan, who had lost both of his parents and a sibling, texted, “Losing a parent is the worst. You’ll think you’re doing okay and then find yourself crying in the shower.”
His frank honesty has stuck with me all these years. Knowing other people had gone through the horrific pain of losing a parent was oddly comforting. The acknowledgment of the ebb and flow of the grief process gave me permission to allow my grief to be what it would be.
At the end of 2019, I found out I was pregnant. We hadn’t been trying, and the news came as a total surprise. Ten days later, I had a painful miscarriage, which came as just as much of a surprise.
Judah was with me through the whole process in the ER. I laid in a bed for four hours before a doctor was able to see me. No blanket. No pain meds. No one checking on me. My body was going through labor, so I had waves of intense pain.
Judah offered to play music or rub my shoulders. My body was so overwhelmed with sensation, I couldn’t handle anything extra. No one offered him a chair, so he stood the whole four hours and then some, as I was taken to have procedures done.
He was allowed to be with me for most of the exams and procedures, watching, helplessly, as I was poked and prodded. As I cried and my body was ravaged with emotional and physical pain.
When we came home, he was with me. When I had to go back to have blood tests, to see a gynecologist, when the nurse missed my vein with the needle, when I had an allergic reaction to the antibiotic. When we laid on the couch and grieved the child that would never be, he was with me.
The experience was horrific. My body felt violated. My heart ripped apart. The things I saw and felt and had to flush down the toilet were damaging.
But I wasn’t alone.
Judah bore witness to it all. Simply having him there made a profound impact. I was acutely aware that telling the story after the fact would not have been as meaningful or healing. He saw everything.
I was seen and known and validated.
Then came March 19. We went to sleep the night before with two healthy, loving cats. In the middle of the night, we heard a strange noise and a thud. The best understanding we could come up with was that Max was sleeping on the back of a chair. He got up and stretched, which put too much pressure on his heart, in just the wrong way. In the blink of an eye, he was gone.
Our other cat, Oliver, had been sick in 2020, and we were afraid we were going to lose him. Some part of us had assumed that Oliver would be the first to go. We were in total shock and disbelief when Max died. We had no advanced warning. I think Max was just as surprised as we were.
Having learned the importance of sharing my grief, I texted a handful of friends. With each text, explaining what had happened and that our sweet Max had unexpectedly died, my heart ached, but the reality also sunk in a little more.
I am lucky to have several friends who love their pets as much as I do and understand that “a cat” didn’t just die, but my buddy and part of my family did. To some people, my attachment to my cats may seem over-the-top. To these friends, it is completely understood. In our shared love of animals, I feel seen and known and validated
A couple friends shared memories they had with Max. Others texted over the course of the next week, checking in, knowing that the sadness lasts beyond a couple days. One friend offered to come over. We didn’t take her up on it but met up with her two days later to talk about Max and process what we were going through. Yet another friend sent a book of cat poems.
I am so fortunate to have a group of friends who show up for me in the midst of deep pain and sadness. They are willing to sit in the discomfort of not knowing what to say. They reach out and hold space for the messiness of my emotions.
I find it so important to be able to tell the story of my pain. Reliving the hours from the moment I knew my dad had a heart attack through coming back to NY after his funeral. Sharing the pain and confusion of my miscarriage. Talking through what we heard and what we think happened with Max. These have been invaluable to my healing. It is so painful to revisit the images, the physical and psychological discomfort, but I believe it is necessary.
Each time I share my lived experience in grief, I feel an internal shift on a cellular level. It’s as if the impact of the trauma shook my internal system loose and the pieces are scattered everywhere. Sharing the details, my feelings, my emotions, allows me to pick up those pieces and find where they belong.
It is painful, like putting alcohol on an open wound. But as I slowly place each piece in its place, I take one step toward healing. My inner world is repaired. A sense of calm and restoration return.
Just like a broken vase, I will never be the same. There are cracks in my foundation as a result of my grief. But having people bear witness to my suffering, by being seen in my deepest pain, by having friends hold space while I gently piece myself back together, I am closer to being whole.