MOURNING THROUGH THE AGES
The recent death of my twenty-two year old kitty, Molly, and people's reactions to her death had me taking a look at how we mourn the loss of a loved one, be it human or animal. As a therapist, I'm no stranger to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' stages of grief – denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance. As a person who has lost loved ones I have felt the stages intimately. Of all the things our world of 140 characters seem to have taken away, i.e., having a lengthy conversation, writing in full words, breezing through life without truly feeling, it seems grief is the one thing that slows us down and allows us to reflect. And not only our own grief, but that of those around us. Grief seems to open the door to connect with people we never knew or weren't that close to. In the past month I've seen reaction range from the need to run away from the grieving person to coming to terms with a loss in the other person's life to everything in between. It is a common human bond. And it is a bond I have found is shared by other animals in the home.
In the animal community we have what we call the long goodbye. This is a death that comes about not because of an accident or sudden passing, but one where the animal is ill, we know it, we do what we can to treat the illness, yet we know the time will come when we have to say goodbye. While one may think the long goodbye doesn't hurt quite as much, it has its own unique pain – it is a battle we go into knowing we will lose but still hope to win. It is one where we question over and over again, what did we miss? What more could we have done?
In the days after Molly's death there were no two reactions alike. Her vet cried, openly, as did a few members of the staff who had known her. One co-worker came up to me the first day and held on to me, crying over the loss of her own dog several years before. For her it was a loss so devastating she couldn’t bring herself to adopt another. Another co-worker was so upset the avoided me for a day and then came to be sobbing because of all the emotions that arose from memories of her own cat who died a few years before. And, there was the one, the one we all dread, whose "sage" advice was, "well you can adopt another cat, right?"
In an attempt to make sense of my own grief and loss I picked up several books on death, dying and what is left for those who live on. That, in turn, led me to reflect on grief through the ages.
The earliest civilization we have really anything concrete to look at were the Egyptians. To some of us they had an almost morbid fascination with death. From the time of their birth, the upper classes made preparations for their death and rebirth. Grand pyramids were designed, treasures to bring with them into the afterlife accumulated, paintings completed showing them in their greatness. Every step of their lives focused around Ma'at and how Anubis would weigh their hearts against a single white feather. In a morbid sort of way I wondered, given the pre-occupation of transcending into the afterlife, those left behind mourned or felt a prick of jealousy that they had not yet reached that pinnacle. Michelle Moran's book, Nefertiti, takes her readers into the world of the ancient Egyptian death rituals and one I recommend as an excellent read for more than the preparation for death.
We know little of the common man's death, dying and rebirth hopes, but we know quite a bit of the pharaoh's and other near royalty. Organs were removed and placed in Coptic jars, the bodies were mummified, a multi-week process, then placed in elaborate sarcophagi to launch them into the afterlife. They were carried to their final resting places, adorned with their treasures, surrounded by paintings of depicting their greatest deeds and often their slaves were sealed within to serve them in the great beyond. I questioned whether or not those left behind would mourn as we do today.
At the turn of the 19th to 20th century, society decreed a period of one year as proper for a widow to mourn. She had to dress in black, refuse most visitors and comply with other societal constraints. After a year she might add gray and perhaps a bit of color to her wardrobe.
In the 1950's or thereabouts society decreed grief be allocated three days and then it was time to move on. My sister, Dorothy, died when I was eleven and she just turned four. I was fascinated with the process; the somberness of the family and the things they said and did. The Catholics blamed the protestant side of the family; the protestant side blamed the catholic side and they both blamed the metaphysical elements. I didn't see what a deity had to do with Dorothy's death; but at that time I hadn't read much about the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and how jealous they could be. We sat in the viewing room for the requisite three days, all of us dressed in black, speaking low, crying and whispering when I was near. What stunned me was after the burial, instead of returning to our home with my parents so we could reflect on what happened, come to terms with my sister's passing, all of those people who had sat weeping showed up to a dining room laden with food. Coats were removed, dishes picked up and filled and the house reverberated with laughter. My head spun. We'd just buried my sister – what did these people have to be happy about. After they all finally left my mother took me shopping to buy me two new dresses. She wouldn't talk about the three days before except to tell me we had three days to grieve.
It wasn't until my cat, Toby, died and I went to visit my parents decades later that my mother broke down and cried about my sister's death. It took her over twenty years to cry for her loss. All I had told her was how, because Toby was quite ill, I would leave him at the vet each morning so they could care for him and how after work I would stop and bring him home if I could, or visit till they closed and brought him home with them. It was when I spoke of driving over a hill in the fog my mother broke down and cried, weeping uncontrollably for a long, long time. When the tears subsided I asked if she cried about Dorothy and she said no, we had our three days when she passed. Clearly she still grieved.
Today we theoretically still have three days to mourn, but in fact we don't. Most companies give you a day for bereavement. In passing one might hope their loved one dies on a Thursday so they can have their mourning done by Monday morning. People express their condolences and then move on; not wanting to talk about a life event that will at some point, touch all of us.
Some people said nothing more than a cursory, "I'm sorry" when they heard Molly died. Others, bit by bit, came to talk or write me about their own pet losses. One friend has come by and shed tears almost daily for several weeks about her own special cat. Molly's death didn't necessarily open up a closed wound; rather it gave her permission to express my friend's own sense of loss. When I went to pick up Molly's ashes to bring her home for the last time, her vet sat with me for a long while and cried her own tears for her cat who died several years before. The loss of a pet seems to open up a place in people's hearts that they normally would never expose.
Looking at my own reactions, my own sleepless nights, my own bargaining for just a few more hours if not days, I don't see how there can ever be a time limit on grief. How much smarter our 19th – 20th century ancestors were allowing for a year to mourn. I wouldn't agree with a forced period of a year; but to have that time if I needed it, would have been a gift. Of course I realize society, our society, would not condone a year of mourning for a pet. How much more sensitive the early Egyptians were in their reverence for the pet cats with families mourning their passing.
I don't recall many books, fiction books, set in our modern times that acknowledge what we feel with death. People die in books, particularly in mystery and romantic suspenses, but the story moves on, not delving into the emotions the fictional survivor might have, how grief may contribute to the heroine's decisions or how the hero may strive to hide his reactions. It is a reminder to me when I give my characters emotions that these too are part of our human experience and should be included in some fashion in our stories.