Sunday, July 13, 2008

Opening Up

My sweet and gentle cat, Tucker, died in the wee hours of June 27 this year. He had been a constant in my life for almost 14 years, and his death was sudden. One night at home, he suddenly went into severe respiratory distress. Five hours later, I was at the emergency vet clinic and holding him as he was being humanely euthanized.

The profound sadness I felt was debilitating. It brought me to my knees---both literally and figuratively. I cried myself to sleep that night, and the next morning I left a tearful voicemail to my supervisor and explained I was unable to come to work that day. I curled up into a ball on the sofa and cried for the remainder of the day. I ignored phone calls, and I completely isolated myself from the outside world. As time wore on, I felt an overwhelming need to purge myself of all this sadness. I desperately wanted to talk about it, yet I did not want to have any contact with another human being. I needed to process (as I always do) my feelings. Ordinarily, I am not comfortable with expressing "negative" emotions, such as anger and sadness, in front of other people. So I let them fester. I'll insist that "I'm okay" or "I'm fine" until the people who love me finally feel so exasperated by my reluctance to share that they finally stop asking, even though they know good and well that I am neither okay nor fine.

This time, I thought I'd try something different. I knew that my family and friends were going to know that something was troubling me because it was quite evident. There was no denying it this time---my sadness was so deep that I could not conceal it. I decided that I would write an e-mail describing what happened with Tucker, and I would do a mass mailing of it to all my family and friends. I wanted to tell the story, but I did not have the energy to tell it more than once. I was going to be fully open and honest about my feelings. I felt like I owed them that.

I sat down at my computer, and I had one of the most therapeutic experiences of my life. I wrote a long letter that shared the entire ordeal in great detail. I graphically described my sadness and my grief. It took about three hours to complete it, because I was sobbing while I was writing. As I read over the finished product, I was surprised at how exhausted I had become. My eyes were swollen, red, and raw. The knot in my stomach was gone. The tightness in my chest and throat was no longer there. I was purged.

I clicked the "send" button with just a little bit of doubt. I began to feel some anxiety about making myself so vulnerable...exposing my soft underbelly, as it were. I don't pretend to believe that each person in my life understands the grief associated with the death of an pet. There are a few animal lovers in my inner circle whom I knew would "get it" right away. However, there are also those who do not own a pet or form the same attachments with theirs as I do with mine. I felt sure that those people would feel sad for me, but they would not fully grasp how I could feel devastated about losing something that was "just" a cat. I was worried that their responses, while well-intended, would fall short of what I needed.

I could not have been more wrong.

The outpouring of love and support that I received was staggering! Everyone responded in exactly the manner that I needed. They offered words of love and sympathy but gave me space at the same time. Not once did anyone ever discount my feelings. They were encouraging while also acknowledging my sadness and the necessity of grief. Without exception, each person in my inner circle "got" it, even the ones who weren't particularly animal lovers. I was touched, and I have never felt more loved in my entire life.

So I thought about this. I thought about it a lot. Why are people now so open and free in consoling me during my sadness and grief? In my previous experiences, people have seemed rather uncomfortable when I was sad. They wanted to help, but they had no idea what to say or to do, so they took the path of least resistance---they did and said nothing. Why were their responses so vastly different this time?

I was chatting with a close friend, and she mentioned that she had felt very comfortable reaching out to me in my time of grief. She said that this surprised her because she usually approaches the bereaved with trepidation. According to her, I made it "easy and comfortable" by letting her know precisely how I was feeling and what I needed from her.

Another good friend said to me, "I wish I could do or say something that would cheer you up." My response to her was "Short of resurrecting a healthy Tucker, there is absolutely nothing right now that is going to make me feel better. But I really appreciate the fact that you want to." She smiled at me and hugged me, and she seemed visibily more at ease.

And then I had my epiphany...other people's responses weren't different. Mine were.

In the past, I had always kept people at arm's length during times of sadness. I refused to open up. I would then expect them to figure out on their own why I was sad and to subsequently know what I needed from them. When they understandably failed to achieve this, I was hurt and wounded. I realize now how remarkably unfair that is! I set them up for failure while also setting myself up for disappointment. By being brutally honest with my loved ones, I equipped them with what they needed to reach out to me and help. And they needed to help me, for their sakes as well as mine. To paraphrase Mr. Rogers, "The nicest thing you can do for someone is to let them do something nice for you."

I thought that opening myself up to people would make me too might weaken me in other people's eyes. Ironically, it has actually empowered me and lifted me up. I am now entering into my third week without Tucker following me around my apartment and snuggling up against me as I sleep. I miss him terribly, and I still have my moments when I "remember" he's gone, and I cry. But overall, I feel peace and I feel closure. I would not have gotten here without the gift of love and support from family and close friends.

I wish I had figured this out a long time ago.

No comments: