Monday, February 28, 2011

Beauty Breathes: Grief, Privacy, and the Fine Art of Giving Up

Beauty Breathes: Grief, Privacy, and the Fine Art of Giving Up

In spite of the fact that I’m an almost entirely emotionally-driven person, I find that I still have certain ingrained convictions around privacy as it pertains to grief. I don’t know if this comes from growing up in a stoic, blue-collar Catholic family, or if it’s just that something in my personality has an innate and overblown sense of propriety, but I find public displays of raw grief gaudy and distasteful.

Maybe I’m a poet exactly because of this weird tension between the shame that my intense, ever-present emotions cause me, and the need to control those emotions, to use the alchemy of words to transform their ugliness into something structured and useful; to create organization around unbearable chaos. In spite of the reputation of artists as being sloppy and unorganized, I find that most of them are actually obsessed with organization—it’s the nature of an artist to give voice to the chaos of emotion and spirituality; to make sense of the insensible, to build meaning from the meaningless.

Right now, I’m experiencing an amazing, wrenching, horrid and godly grief around my missing cat, Zooey. Tonight, I drove to where I thought she might be hiding and walked around fruitlessly calling her name, tapping a can of this certain stinky, cheap-o cat food that for some reason she thinks is the most delectable thing on the planet. In the midst of this, I had a sudden realization that the can of food was not a magical tailsman; that it was not going to flush her out, and I just lost it, right there in that benign Ballard suburb. I stood there in the rain, clutching this disgusting food, tears streaming down my face, and realized that I had no control over whether or not I will ever find her; that I was only doing this as an act of love towards her; as a homage; as a ritual. As a fruitless and final “I love you." See, I know what food you like. I love you.

We live in a culture of endless optimism; of “never give up”, of “if you can dream it, you can be it.” There is a constant push to keep going in the face of hopeless circumstances, after all, there’s always a solution just around the bend; there’s always a great, shining Hope, we must have faith; we must go on. I understand the value of this sort of thinking; I have a love-hate relationship with the ever-present American specter of the Can-Do Narrative. It has led us to enormous heights, and I admire people who can integrate this sort of thinking into their lives and continue on. But I’m not a continue-on-er. I read somewhere once that those who tend towards depression actually have a far more clear-headed and realistic view of circumstances than those who don’t. And now, I need to let Zooey go. I am acutely aware of the futility of any more action in this search. Whether or not she comes home is no longer contingent—and probably never has been—on any action I take or don’t take. I have no control. I can only hold her in my heart and hope that she isn’t suffering.

I’ve been worried that my intense grief is somehow out of proportion to my loss; that it’s neurotic and unbalanced; that I’m projecting something onto this loss that goes deeper than the loss itself. But the fact is, I have been with that cat longer than I've been married. She has been my steady, grouchy, selfish, thuggish, nosy, gluttonous and insistent companion for eleven years, and I really fucking miss her.

And I’m grateful that loss of a little animal can weaken me to this extent; can bring me to my knees, helpless and open and raw. It means that I’m still alive after all.


Jo-Ann said...

Thank you, Kristen, for putting words to your grief. It is helping me through a loss of my own ... and that is, as you suggest, what artists do.

Carolyn said...

Yeah, I can totally relate. An animal can allow us to open up in places we wouldn't otherwise. Heck, our cat just recently died and I cried, not for the cat ( because, let's face it, she was old, tired, and toothless, and seemed to only exist for her can of crappy cat food) but for all the time we had shared...17 years. We've had our cat longer than we've had our kids. Two months later, I still get caught up at the grocery store in the cat food aisle. I still see her dart under the couch from the corner of my eyes. Allow yourself to be sad. Who is it hurting? No one! Thanks for your honest post, cuz.

Kristen McHenry said...

Jo-Ann, I'm glad that my words of some help to you.

Carolyn, thank you for your kind comments. I totally understand where you are coming from with grieving the loss of your companion. That is a long time together! Everything you describe seems perfectly natural to me.

I always knew that Zooey and I had a tight bond, but even I didn't realize how deep those bonds can be. I've been reading up on pet grief the internet, and it is helping a bit; I feel a bit less crazy.

Rallentanda said...

You have lost a member of your immediate family so it is perfectly natural for you to grieve.You can love a cat as much as a human, sometimes more so.
There are no short cuts for grief just have to ride the long wave till you hit the shore.
It's a hard time for you...I know.
It helps if you have someone to be kind and comfort you. And even if you don't, there are some readers who feel your pain and this must count for a little something.

Robin said...

Hurting with you, Kristen. The not knowing is so tough and the letting go wrenching. But I'm grateful too that you are someone who can be brought to her knees by the loss of an animal companion. That open-heartedness is one of the reasons your writing resonates, keeps me coming back to read.

Sandy said...

Thank you Kristen for sharing all your wonderful writings! So far we've had two kitties that were put to sleep due to life threatening illness's and now we have a Granny kitty that's showing so many signs of age it's tough to watch. She has a tough time walking but, seems to muster up some strength for a fight or a chase around the house when one of our other 2 cats offers a challenge.