Grief is such a fucked up emotion. My first taste of it was when my Pappap died in 1996 and I honestly felt like there was an icy fist squeezing my heart—for months. It was this sickening, cold sensation inside my ribs, a constant reminder of loss. But even though I was grieving, and crying, and puking, and wallowing…I wanted to talk about it. I needed to, really. But my family isn’t like that. No one wanted to talk about it, but luckily I had friends…and the high school social worker.
It always made me wonder how I turned out differently. Talking about it has always been how I process, make sense, cope, and heal. I will talk about the same thing over and over until I’m blue in the face, and maybe it’s annoying for everyone else (i.e. Henry), but it helps me understand and heal so that I can go back to living my life.
On my 21st birthday, I went to visit my grandma. It had been 5 and a half years since my Pappap’s death at that point, and this particular birthday was difficult for me. I sat with my grandma on her bed and tried to talk about it. She shot me down immediately and became visibly upset at my audacity to speak of such verboten subjects. I explained that I really needed to talk about it, though, that his death had really affected me too.
She looked at me and said, “You were just the granddaughter.”
I don’t know what I thought was going to happen. Those people are just absolutely allergic to feelings, and here I am, the emo black sheep.
Am I completely over my Pappap’s death? FUCK NO. Maybe I’m not curled up in the fetal position, sobbing about it every night, but I do have those moments every now and then, on my birthday, on his birthday, at a damn Mike + the Mechanics show. But mostly, I smile when I see pictures of him, or hear songs that remind me of pool parties at his house, or post-church grilled cheese at Blue Flame. I like to talk about him and write about him because it keeps his memory alive. I try to honor him any chance I get, because he was the greatest man I have ever known. There is not a single day that goes by that I don’t think of him.
I have been grieving Marcy in this same fashion. It fucking hurts. I cry a lot when I’m alone, because that’s when her absence feels the heaviest. But…I am also able to tell stories about her at work (Glenn and Todd* are thrilled about this) while SMILING. I’m not 100% ready to let go yet. There are still some things I need to do, like the dinner we’re having with some of our friends tonight in her memory, the actual burial next month (the pet cemetery doesn’t start burying pets until May), and the tattoo that is already being drawn up. And then on Monday, Amber1
*(Yesterday, I thrust my phone in Todd’s face and said LOOK AT THIS PICTURE OF MARCY FROM ONE DAY LAST SUMMER WHEN I WAS LOCKED OUT OF THE HOUSE AND SHE DIDN’T CARE. Todd was like, “OK. Wow.” Also, Todd is terrified of cats, so my Marcy stories don’t really do much for him.)
Completely befitting of Marcy’s volatile nature, it was thunder storming pretty savagely on Thursday evening when we arrived at Animal Friends. I half-expected to be struck down by lightning, one last act of Marcy-controlled physical infliction.
We were a little bit early, so we spent some time looking at the shelter animals. Mistake, mistake, mistake. I was crying before the vigil even started.
At 7, we gathered in a small room with seven others. Two were the volunteers in charge of the vigil, and one was a Methodist minister who was there to provide the spiritual portion of the evening. There was an older woman who lost her dog, an older couple who lost their dog, and an old lady who lost her rabbit. (And when I say “older,” I mean “older than Henry.”) To start off the vigil, one of the volunteers stood up and read the Rainbow Bridge poem, and I just sat there, box of Kleenex on my lap, openly weeping. It was OK — the older woman who lost her dog was sobbing too so that was comforting. Kind of.
The minister told us a story about her childhood dog, and I briefly considered converting to Methodist and joining her church, because she was pretty awesome. I started to feel better listening to her homily. She talked a lot about grief and how losing a pet hurts just as much as losing a person, and the worst thing that anyone can say to us during this time is, “Get over it” or “It’s just an animal.” She made me feel less crazy.
After the homily, the main volunteer—Jannie—read each story that we were asked to submit ahead of time, and as she read for each pet, the other volunteer lit a candle and presented us with a rose, a copy of the Rainbow Bridge rolled up like a scroll and tied with ribbon. Attached to the ribbon was a paper heart with a seed inside of it, for us to plant in our pet’s honor. I cried so hard listening to the story’s of the other pets being read. Everyone else there wrote about their pet’s death, but I didn’t include that part in Marcy’s story. I just wrote about what she was like, and Jannie interrupted herself when reading it to say, “Geez, she sounds like Grumpy Cat!” It was nice to laugh with everyone. But at the end of the story, Speck was mentioned and Chooch started crying when he heard her name. He is still so upset about her death, three years later, and it breaks my heart. When we came home from putting Marcy to sleep, Chooch took a picture of Speck off the wall and carried it around with him the rest of the day. Totally heartbreaking.
After the vigil, Jannie invited everyone to stick around and share more stories about their pets. “You know who I’m dying to hear from? Riley!”
I kind of thought he was going to pass, but he sat up straight and said thoughtfully, “Well…Marcy only ever scratched me twice, but she didn’t have her claws out so it didn’t hurt. I guess she was just warning me. Um…every time Mommy’s friend Janna came over, Marcy would attack her and then Mommy would laugh and post about it on her blog.” Everyone was laughing, and I thought that was all he was going to say, but then he burst into tears and, a la Chunk being interrogated by the Fratellis, went on to say, “I liked Marcy, but I was the most upset when Speck died. She was my favorite cat.” And you guys, he was crying so hard that he was shuddering in his seat. I felt so terrible and kept squeezing his knee and patting his back, and the volunteers and the minister were so quick to offer wisdom and words of comfort to him.
But it was good for him to cry and important for him to know that it was OK to cry. It was good for all of us to cry together, with strangers who are going through the same thing, rather than keep it all bottled up and act like nothing happened, like my family always does. I honestly believe that not properly dealing with their father’s death is what made my mom and aunt crazy.
My favorite part though was when I got to show everyone a picture of Marcy. Everyone was like, “Oh wow! Those eyes! What a beauty!” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s how she got you! She lured you in with her looks and then attacked.” That was the funniest thing about her: for as much as she “hated” humans, she was ALWAYS FRONT AND CENTER. Any time I had a party, and I used to have a lot of crazy parties back in the day, she was always present, stalking around the floors or glaring down from tabletops, just waiting for some idiot to stick their hand out. She was fucking smart as shit. Scary smart, really.
Before we left, one of the volunteers said, “I just want to tell Riley that I think it’s awesome he loves cats. Men who love cats are so rare and special. One day, you’re going to meet a girl, and she’s going to say, ‘Here, meet my cat!’ and when she sees that you’re a cat lover, she’s never going to want to let you go!” Chooch was still quietly crying, but this made him smile (and blush) a little.
I felt OK when we left. A little less heart-achey. Not completely “cured,” but I think that was a really helpful and important part in the process for me. I’m the type of person who needs to DO SOMETHING about it. I can only lay in bed and cry for so long. I need to talk and be with people and laugh and remember. (If Barb was there, she would have for sure quoted the “laughter through tears” line from Steel Magnolias*. I think it’s her favorite thing to quote.) And this night of grieving with strangers helped put some light back into me.
And, I think it helped Chooch even more than any of us imagined.