The Power of Giving (or, Why Tuna is a Gift Book)

The Power of Giving (or, Why Tuna is a Gift Book)

The Tuna book grew out of a gift from Francis to me. I’d known Francis (and admired his art) for 15 years, though until a few years ago, I’d known him mostly as ‘Dianna’s husband.’

Three days after Hedda died, Francis sent me a sketch of Hedda with a note that read: Dear Sarah, Hedda is telling you: Our love is giving you strength to go forward. That is what love is about, right?!”

Then he wrote, still in Hedda’s voice, “p.s. I love you more than tuna.”

I cried, of course, and in the midst of my tears, the writerly part of my brain thought, “That would be a great book title…”

When I received this heartfelt gift from Francis, I felt seen. In the gesture, I implicitly understood that he was saying, “I know how much you loved this being. I know this relationship meant a great deal to you, and I understand how sad you are.” He validated my grief, which is something that bereaved pet guardians often need after an animal’s death.
 

The power of being witnessed when grieving a pet

I was extremely fortunate, in that when Hedda died, I had multiple friends offering support of all kinds. I never once felt misunderstood or judged for my grief. This allowed me to accept that the loss had happened, which was key in my ability to process my feelings and continue living my life, even with sadness and without Hedda.

Pet loss is often considered disenfranchised grief, meaning that our culture does not recognize it as a major life loss. This can contribute to prolonged grief and even complicated grief, a form of grief that doesn’t ease up over time. Over the past several years, I’ve seen just how many people have had absolutely no one validate their grief, no one to talk to or cry with. And often, that does seem to make grief interminable.

Being witnessed in grief, having another recognize our very personal loss, goes a long way towards healing. Or at least, towards the first step of healing: Accepting that the loss happened.

Experience the joy of giving

Back in 2011, I had been off all daily mood medication for a year and was working intently to rewire my brain for inner peace.

I discovered a community called 29 Gifts, based on book by the late Cami Walker, 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life. The premise was to give something away every day for 29 days. A “gift” doesn’t have to be material. A gift could be giving someone patience, or directions (or forgiving the person who cuts in front of you at the grocery store). Over the course of 29 days, something shifted profoundly in me. So much so that I continued to do “rounds” of giving for four years, until the original community was dismantled. Over the course of those years (and ever since), I’ve continued to “practice” on my own.

I’ve maintained this giving practice (which Buddhists might call a “generosity practice”) because giving was, and is, the best antidepressant I’ve ever found. When I can stay present enough to recognize someone else’s need and then meet that need in the moment, I feel so expensive. Truly joyous.

As I write in the essay linked above, I grew up with a father who asked me every night, “What have you done today to justify your existence?” I was taught that I wasn’t deserving of others’ attention, and my early life experience bore that out—so much so that I believed it to be fact. So for a long, long time, I didn’t want to give gifts. I wanted somebody to take care of me, and if my parents or other caretakers weren’t going to do that, I would do it myself. Discovering the joy of giving was an absolute revelation.

And it continues to be.
 

Tuna as a gift book

I want people to experience the joy of giving something meaningful to someone else, because simply reading about it doesn’t confer the experience.

Ultimately, Tuna has a couple of different purposes. The first is to help people heal from their cat’s death. Anyone is (of course!) welcome to purchase it for themselves. Yet I really, really hope all of you reading this will gift the book to friends, family members, colleagues or clients. Because then you will fulfill my second vision for Tuna: To help people discover the joy of giving.

I see the “gift book” aspect of Tuna as a positive for both giver and recipient—even in the midst of a very difficult situation. Or—thanks, 2020—two, three, ??? difficult situations: The first, that someone is grieving their cat; the second, that right now, chances are that we can’t offer that person a hug. As Ingrid King of The Conscious Cat wrote when she first read Tuna, “This little book is like a warm hug from a friend who understands how much your cat meant to you.”

There are so many ways I hope that Tuna will bring healing to the world: For bereaved cat-lovers, comfort. For their friends, the book buyers, I wish the expansiveness that comes from meeting another person’s need. For Best Friends Animal Society, to which I’m donating 10% of my share, hopefully enough to contribute to one part of their work: helping to match low-income pet owners with resources that allow them to keep the pet in the home. And for Sounds True, the book’s publisher, hopefully enough to contribute to the Sounds True Foundation, which donates their books and audio programs to people living on low incomes and those who are incarcerated.

And, of course, I hope some will flow back to Francis and me! But if I’ve learned anything over the past seven years, it’s the truth of the phrase, “It has to flow out before it flows in.” 

The Fragility of Life

The Fragility of Life

We are all such fragile beings. From the vast perspective of space, our lives appear shorter than that of a cherry blossom. We live on a planet that spins 1040 miles per hour and hurtles through space at 67 times that rate—yet we share the illusion that we are standing still (or driving, or walking). We really have no idea what this planet, this life, is all about—and the bond we form with companion animals is a portal to that mystery.

These are beings with whom we don’t share spoken language, who have no concept of human constructs, yet they can hear, see and smell things humans can’t. Cats don’t know what “time” is, yet they’re more reliable than any alarm clock. They can’t use GPS, yet stories of cats walking hundreds of miles to an old home aren’t uncommon. They don’t understand our specifically human challenges, like breakups, yet every one of us has experienced a cat’s extraordinary compassion—a word more often attributed to dogs and horses.

The feline lifespan, and that of most non-human mammals, is shorter than that of most humans, which means that most of us will outlive our animal friends. Yet even when we accept that inevitability, we still grieve the being and the relationship.

We grieve because we are here as fellow journeyers on the planet; we know the joy of embodiment—the scent of pine (or catnip), the feel of the earth beneath our feet. We grieve the unconditional love they gave us (and if they gave us semi-conditional love, we grieve that, too.) Losing a member of the household, of the family, is a significant disruption to our inner and outer lives. We call out, “I’m home” when there’s nobody to hear; we wake up with a start at 7am, afraid we forgot to put out breakfast. There’s a bittersweet moment of amnesia, and then we remember… and we grieve.

Learning to Surf

Learning to Surf

Grieving a cat—or any kind of grief—is not a one-size-fits-all experience (as though any experience or emotion were?). Some people can’t stop sobbing, while others reflect quietly. Some are comforted by hugs and rituals; others need solitude to process their loss.

There’s no “right” way to grieve, and there’s no “right” length of time. In fact, I don’t see a loss as something we “get over,” but rather something that becomes a part of our life experience. When our skin is gravely injured, it doesn’t go back to looking the way it did before; it heals, and we have a scar. .

Loss changes the fabric of our lives; it changes the way we perceive and interact with the world. And like a scar, walking through grief (not trying to circumvent it) makes something in us stronger, more resilient. Grief is something to be healed, not to transcend.

Grief is nonlinear, too. Our human minds would love to make grief into a process that has a distinct beginning, middle and end…but in my experience, that’s just not true. Grief, like life, is messy and unpredictable. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

We all grieve, and for each of us, our grief is as unique as a fingerprint. If we try to avoid grief, it will redouble its strength and burst forth anyway. However you need to grieve, that’s the right way for you.

Grieving a Kitten

Grieving a Kitten

If you are grieving the loss of a foster kitten, please read this excellent post by Hannah Shaw (Kitten Lady). If you are grieving a “resident” kitten (one you had planned to live with through their full lifespan)), I hope you’ll find comfort in this post.

When a kitten dies, it’s particularly painful, because as a species, humans are hardwired to care for vulnerable babies (of any species). We expect them to live a full and long life, rescued from the perils of fending for themselves, and surrounded by comfort. It feels to us as though their lives were cut short.

There are wide-ranging estimates of mortality rates for kittens younger than 12 weeks, but few are lower than 15% (some are as high as 70%). There are many reasons for this: maternal health problems, developmental issues (especially with kittens who were conceived later than their littermates), blood-type incompatibility, umbilical site infection…the list goes on.

Even in circumstances where a mama cat is healthy and well cared for throughout her pregnancy, deaths happen. Rescue cats are often far from healthy when they come into foster care, which means a higher percentage of their kittens are likely to have some of the issues above.

When a kitten dies, we want to know why. Our human minds like to figure things out. It gives us the illusion of control. But sometimes, we can’t know. And allowing that space of uncertainty is harder than coming up with theories. It’s easier to blame, attack or theorize than to sit with the pain of loss.

Everything that is born, dies. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later. It’s an irrefutable fact of nature. Some species have a lifespan of only a few hours. When we cling to ideas of how it “should” be, we suffer—and that compounds the pain of grief.

Nearly every experienced foster I know has endured kittens dying in their care, and it’s especially painful for them. They do everything right, staying up around the clock, tube feeding, racing to the emergency vet at 3am—but still, sometimes kittens are just here for a short visit. Or, as Shelly Roche of Tinykittens said of one recently, “He was just passing through.”

This is the most heartbreaking part of “kitten season.” It’s the reason those of us involved in rescue advocate for spaying and neutering, to prevent this unnecessary suffering. Veterinary care is advancing every day, and people like Hannah Shaw (Kitten Lady) are doing an amazing job of educating as many people as possible on neonatal kitten care (the highest mortality rate is among orphaned kittens). But even with the absolute best care in the world, not every kitten can be saved.

We can find solace in the knowledge that kittens in foster care inevitably lived longer than they would have in the wild, and that they knew comfort, love and safety while they were here.

 

 

Photo by Kote Puerto on Unsplash

One Breath at a Time

One Breath at a Time

After my cat Hedda died, one of the things that helped me was a practice of focusing on my breath. The way air felt, flowing in through my nostrils, following its path into my lungs, feeling my chest and abdomen expand and then release. It didn’t change the situation, and it didn’t stop me from being in a fugue state, but for one brief moment, I could reconnect with my body. And if I could get through one breath, then I could get through another.

When we’re stressed (and especially when we’re crying), we tend to take short, shallow breaths (into the chest, rather than the abdomen). Breathing into the abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve, which calms anxiety and reduces stress.

What are some of the things that helped you get through the first few months after saying goodbye to your cat?

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