Loss: my greatest teacher.

We are settling more deeply into autumn with each day which is a season particularly associated with grief and awe in Chinese medicine. These two expressions are energetic matches as it is our capacity to know something is valuable that leads to our expression of grief when something is lost.

In loss, the preciousness of what we value is illuminated and can inspire us to move forward after the loss with greater intention and respect for what we value. This balance between the two – grief and awe – is a vital part of living in health.

Sometimes loss is necessary in order to preserve some other aspect of life – not unlike the trees letting go of their leaves in order to consolidate vitality within the interior of the trunk in order to survive the winter.

In all of the experiences I’ve had surrounding loss, grief, and death, never have I experienced as much around it nor learned as much from it as I did when my beloved cat Storm passed away this summer.

Loss: my greatest teacher.When he passed I realized all of the other moments in time where I had disallowed a full expression of my grief. And I am not saying this as a judgment – not at all. In fact, this has been a necessary part of my journey. Had I known how to grieve more fully and gracefully before, I would have.

So, when Storm’s life became less of an expected “is” and more of an “any day now he could be gone” situation I started to unhook and unhinge all of the other “is’s” in my life realizing more and more that each moment of passing time is a gift and not a given and that my held-in emotions or herky-jerky frustrations are not serving my wellbeing nor anyone else around me.

In hindsight I realize it has not only been Storm’s death which served my learning so deeply, it has been his entire life. And, I could only truly reflect on this after he was no longer with me. He is a daily reminder for me about how I want to be, do and act.

Here are some of the biggies, simple as they may actually be:

Be patient, calm and grounded – it works. Only few moments in life call for intolerance, really.

Storm hated to have his nails clipped. And when he was younger we would get into brawls with each other just so I could clip the sharp nails on his little paws to prevent slipping on floors, tearing up furniture, and accidental injury to himself and others. We’d both walk away wounded – me with scratches, a racing heart and furrowed brow – him with some sense of defeat, a smacked nose and sense of fear from being pinned down to receive an unwanted manicure. It was terrorizing for us both and all he had to do was sniff the nail clippers to run like hell and find a safe hiding spot.

Later in our years together I learned to approach softly, ask him for permission and sit with him gently and safely between my knees while I crouched over and cooed to him. He still didn’t like it, though he did let me take care of it. And more importantly I had learned that force does not work, is not called for and hurts everyone. In my grief I’ve had to bear my moments of regret wondering if these earlier spats created the kind of imbalance for him that later led to his becoming sick. I’m still working on forgiveness and letting go about this.

Be present, the regular rhythms of life are sweet and special. If I move too fast I will miss them. These are to be savored.
All of the little cuddle moments, the times where he (or Tiger, our other amazing cat) would find interesting and hilarious ways to ask for or steel the food I was preparing… all of the times where I was too busy checking email to accept his kitty high-five which is like a little fist bump except that it’s delivered from his head to mine. Other times where he’d ask for my attention, for love or play, and I was too rushed… those moments are now gone. I can’t have them back.

After Storm presented with symptoms that I knew were pretty serious, I became more present and so did my husband. This was a reminder that time is limited, and I do not get to control it. I’ve become more thoughtful about how I’d like to spend it. I began making time for the kitty high-fives, the cat sitting on my laptop and letting these little fur-balls have whatever they wanted from our plates (that was safe for them). Life is happening all of the time, and it’s not in my email, text messages, television or Candy Crush.

Let go of as much as possible. Rules are helpful and not always necessary. Stuff is just stuff – it’s replaceable. Living beings are not.

For years I yelled, squawked, clapped and squirted water bottles only to keep a cat off the counter, table, from eating my food or scratching at some material good. All this did was over engage my hyper vigilance of what my cats were up to and create large-eyed “uh-oh, run!” fear in my two cats. These creatures that depend on me for food, water and companionship were also coming to depend on me to freak-out at them when all they seemed to want to do was connect and be loved.

It took me a long time to realize that none of it mattered; so I might have to clean my counters more often or something gets broken… so what? I’m still careful about furniture though much kinder about it. When we don’t have a table full of guests, the cats’ (now just Tiger’s) meals are served with ours, sometimes that means we are all eating together at the table, literally. I reserve the yelling for special moments like a cat is actually in danger because of a hot stove or something falling on them, and even now it’s softer and without blame. I realize now that things like scratched up carpet, while expensive to repair, is replaceable. But my little Storm is no longer here and that I cannot fix.

We all need nature. No breathing creature is intended to sit inside of a house all day, every day.

When they were younger, they tried to sneak outside often. I lived in the city and didn’t want my tiny kittens to get overrun by cars or rats. I never felt comfortable letting them go outside on their own; they are “indoor cats” and I didn’t give them credit otherwise.

All too late I realized that Storm especially longed to go outside in the breeze and sunshine. Tiger, more timid about being outdoors, was still curious. We started to take them out, to hang out in the garden, play with the grass and sit in the sun. It became a sacred time we could spend together doing nothing. By the time this became regular Storm was too sick to be out on his own and we feared he’d get hurt or lost – we did not want him to endure more suffering.

Again with regret I wish I had let them learn to be outdoors and independent when they were younger. The fresh air breathed life into Storm that he didn’t exhibit indoors. His mood was better, his appetite more satiated and he seemed lighter and more comfortable overall if we had spent some time in the fresh air. Looking back I cannot quite reconcile how I had ever thought that two creatures that were born outside could thrive inside for all of their lives. Furthermore it has given me some important insight about us human folk who barely receive the sunshine on a daily basis. How could we possibly thrive sitting inside all day staring at a computer screen?

We all need a little help from our friends. Letting people in isn’t as scary as I thought it was.

On the night that Storm took his last breath I could do nothing but allow my grief to move and to let people support me. Notoriously awesome at handling things like this by myself, I now needed support and I knew it. My husband was out of town though ever present with me as much as anyone can be on a cell phone. I called my parents, I texted Joy and Sam in the middle of the night asking for help. I told some close girlfriends how much of a mess I felt like and that I’d still come to brunch, messy and all. I was honest with my patients whose appointments I needed to cancel so I could cry for a few days. I answered honestly with my neighbors when they asked causally how I was doing. I practiced vulnerability even though it was excruciating and amazingly I am still here to tell you about it.

I did not die from showing vulnerability. It’s been all too easy for me to buck up and hold it together over many years and as it turns out letting my loved ones show up for me was quite healing. And my patients, who I learn from every day and am honored to support, gave me the most heart-warming support I could have ever asked for. It turns out that it’s not necessary to stand on my own rock stubbornly believing I can do it all myself and keep my feelings secret. I’ve been practicing sharing more and more and letting myself be loved back by other people. It’s quite rewarding.

I could continue with all of the little and big things I learned from my snuggly 9 lb. gray cat with the softest fur, strongest little body and most wonderful sprit, though these are some of the key and most easy to communicate to you at this time. He will forever be my teacher about living a life that matters.

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