On Grief at Three 

Many of you know that a few weeks ago, my fat, old, beloved tabby cat crossed the rainbow bridge.  The loss was – is – very, very difficult.  I adopted Pookie just two weeks after moving to this coast; I was 19 years old, on my own, and when I passed him during an adoption drive at PetsMart, I couldn’t resist.
Pookie was three years old when I adopted him (although our vet placed his age at 3-5 years, Pookie was always young at heart) and the last 14 years of life together has been the absolute best.  He was by my side through not only all of life’s happiest moments, like marriage, buying our first home, and the birth of both our sons, but also through life’s most difficult, like the loss of friendships and the passing on of my sweet grandmother.  And so, to say that I was sad when Pookie began growing old, slowing down – that’s an understatement.  To say I was upset when Pookie was called home – it doesn’t do justice to the enormous grief I felt (and still feel).
And that’s just me, an adult, processing grief and sadness and loss and pain, knowing that all things grow old and eventually pass on – a time for everything, right?

And it’s hard; it’s damn hard, processing those feelings.
Yet I’ve found the most difficult part of this came not my own acceptance and understanding, but in the need to tell Miles what had happened. I spent a brief time wallowing in my own tears, and they quickly vanished once I realized I must also tell my oldest son.  How does one, at three years old, understand and process such a thing?  How long could I put it off, telling Miles where Pookie was?  Could he just forget about Pookie, and I’d never even need to broach the subject?  Of course not; he’s an exceptionally bright kid, and honesty (in all its sometimes-difficult glory) is a key pillar of our home.
I waited a full day, hoping I could be calm and peaceful in our discussion.  I had Hallmark movie-worthy conversations in my mind, and I knew exactly how this would go.  I was super-prepared, even if I was only semi-ready.
After bathtime, before we read our bedtime stories, I sat down with Miles and told him that I needed to share something very important with him.  He knew Pookie was getting older, winding down, so I thought that understanding would lay the foundation.  Here’s where we have the Hallmark conversation, with mild tears and large smiles, and we hug at the end while sharing banana splits. Right?
Ha.
As soon as I said the words, “We need to talk about Pookie…” the waterworks began.  And then, because Miles is truly his mother’s child, his reaction to the awkward outpouring of emotion was to laugh.  Not in a spiteful way; not in a “mom looks silly when she cries” way, but in a way of coping.  I do this, too.  I remember when Evan and I were saying our vows during our wedding, and I was so overcome with emotion that when our pastor got to, “For richer or for poorer…” I just laughed.  LAUGHED.  (although sometimes I tell God that I totally get the joke, now)  So, I get it.
Sometimes your mind’s defense mechanism is unique and inappropriate; we are weird creatures.
But, his laughter broke my tears.  It gave me the bittersweet feeling I needed to carry on with the very difficult (to me) conversation.  I explained to Miles that as things grow old – animals, people, plants, everything – they may begin to feel tired.  They may move a bit slower, seem a bit quieter.  And when things have reached what is usually a very old age, they may grow so tired that they can no longer be here on earth.  This is what happened to Pookie.  He was very old, and very tired, and just not feeling his best, and because of this God said, “Pookie, I know you would love to stay with your family forever and ever, but I do think it’s time you came home to me, to stay in Heaven.”  And Pookie said, “God, my family will be sad that I am gone, but they will also be happy that I am with you, that I can run and play and jump and roll in all the catnip I want.  So, if my time here is finished, then I will come home to you, God.” (I like to think he also had a Fancy Feast clause in his agreement to go heavenward)
I explained to Miles that Pookie was very happy here, but also ready to feel good again, and so it was time for him to go to heaven.  I told Miles that he will most likely (scratch: absolutely) see me cry from time to time, but that it’s nothing for him to worry about; I will feel sad, because I miss Pookie so very much.  But I will also feel happy, because Pookie can run and play again, and one day, we will see him again.  I told Miles that we would plant a flower bush for Pookie, something that would let us think of him every time we saw it.
“Mama, I will pick a beautiful pink raspberry flower bush for you, because you love raspberries and flowers, and that will make you smile!”
And there were more tears, of course, because I feel so very, very blessed to be the mama to a boy as kind and sweet as Miles.
We buried Pookie in the front yard (the boys don’t know this – while we are incredibly honest in our home, the thought of a cat buried in your front yard might be a bit much for a three year old to comprehend) and we planted a gardenia bush; our “Pookie Bush.”
Occasionally, Miles will ask about Pookie, usually if something happens that stirs a memory.  If it thunders, Miles might ask where Pookie is because he remembers he was afraid of thunderstorms.  We’ll have the heaven talk again, and he’ll carry on with what he was doing.  Sometimes Miles will mention that he misses Pookie, and we’ll talk about some of our favorite moments together, or I’ll show Miles pictures of Pookie laying on his playmat with him, when he was just a little baby, and we’ll laugh and smile and get misty-eyed together.
Then, this past Saturday, Miles asked a question that stopped me in my tracks: “Mama, when can Pookie come back from Heaven?  I think I’m ready for him to come home to us again.”
The minds of children are in constant motion; even if they’ve stopped mentioning something, it can be guaranteed that they still think of it often.  After two weeks of little conversation about Pookie, this was an unexpected question for me.  We talked about how Heaven is your forever home, and that Pookie would not come here, but that one day, a very long time from now, we would be there with him.  My answer satisfied Miles, but it brought a new river of grief through my heart.
When you are a parent, your minutes, hours and days are spent caring for others.  It is a part of life that is joyfully exhausting; there is nothing else I love more than being mama to my boys (wine is a close second, followed by chocolate) but there is no level of tired like that of a parent.  It’s not just a physical sense of tired; it’s mental, and it’s emotional.  When something tragic happens in your life, like the loss of your most beloved cat, your own grief is placed on hold while you tend to the grief, tears and needs of others.
And so, day after day, I find myself in a quiet moment of solitude sobbing endlessly over the loss of my cat, because as a mom I’ve learned that much like shaving my legs, ironing a pair of pants, or cleaning out the produce drawer, the time to grieve comes when it’s least expected and sporadically.
I remember when each of the boys were just tiny babies, swaddled safe and snug in the crib, with big blue eyes looking out at the world, and I thought to myself, “God, let them always feel safe.  Always feel warm, loved, protected, cared for, wanted.  Help us be their fierce protectors and endless huggers.  Let us follow your desire for our home; let our boys know a love like no other.”  Because it’s a bit scary, having such great responsibility for these tiny people.  They are little for such a brief period of time, and then suddenly they’re aware and conversational and they must learn about things in life that are difficult, and you lose just a bit more innocence each passing year.
It was hard to lose Pookie.  Really, really hard.  He was not just a pet; he was my friend and companion, a constant source of joy, a member of our family.  Having to tell Miles about this loss was equally hard, because it meant we were reaching a new place in life, where he needed to know about death, although not in those exact words.  But hearing my sweet boy console me, I know we’re doing something right.  I know we’re teaching him love and empathy and caring, and even though this has been a difficult time, I find the bittersweet moments to be perfectly comforting.
Like a pink raspberry flower bush.

 

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