Loving and protecting an animal enriches the human experience. To grow up with a family pet is to learn patience, kindness and dedication. The loss of a family pet is also full of lessons.
My family’s 14-year-old calico cat, Twix, recently passed away. Twix found our family’s trailer one summer in the campground that we call our home away from home. I was 14. She was a year old and eight months pregnant with five kittens. Skinny, alone and hungry in the middle of the woods, she found us right when she needed us.
We took her into our home, and her kittens – each of which we found a family for – were born shortly after. I’m grateful that we enriched her life as much as she had ours.
I’ve known, loved and lost several family pets throughout my life. As a child, when a pet passed away, I could only muster a brief, underdeveloped sadness. As a young adult, this experience reminds me of life’s value in a way that I hadn’t previously grown enough to comprehend. It enables me to see the unbelievable speed at which life passes.
Her death seemed to press a rewind button in my memory bank, and I was suddenly watching highlights of my life in surreal speed – backward – unsuccessfully trying to keep up with the passing of time. Twix’s memory was woven through 14 years of life’s milestones, and I realized how much the animals with which we bond help to shape our identities, just as much as we do theirs.
I have been lucky enough to lack significant experience in loss – the loss of human loved ones, specifically – which I’m grateful for. The thought terrifies me.
Twix’s death reminded me of the importance of unconditional love, nurturing others and being nurtured, pausing to take inventory of what enters into and exits from my life, setting work aside to let the cat cuddle on my lap, making my best effort to visit with those I miss but rarely see, and eliminating any room for “I wish I had.”
I will savor the presence of my loved ones while I am able, so that when I face the inevitable loss of life, regret will not amplify the pain of absence.
One line from Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” replays in my head: “The art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like – write it! – like disaster.” From misplacing small possessions to more significant valuables, Bishop pushes herself through the pain to reconcile meaning from this universal experience, which is essential to her healing.
As Bishop demonstrates, the written word, like loss, is an art. When the pain of writing the truth of her experience nearly prevented Bishop from doing so, she forced herself. At the poem’s conclusion, it’s evident that she masters the art of losing through the art of writing.
I know that my heart will heal, and that animals, like people, cannot live forever the way we think we want them to. I can accept this loss, learn from it and use the lesson to aid my growth. What worsens my grief and prolongs my healing, however, is the reality that each loss in life so far has been in preparation for the greater losses that are sure to come, and that the pain I feel now will not compare to that which these ultimate losses will create.
Losing this beloved pet taught me that the pain of each loss gradually increases over time, so that in doing so, it can strengthen the heart’s endurance.