Reflecting on loss, from this side of the Rainbow Bridge

Tuesday, July 14, 2020 - 3:08pm

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Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

In a little over a month, it’ll be the anniversary of my childhood cat and dog’s death. It may sound morbid and depressing, and that’s because it is. I was an emotional wreck for months after they crossed the Rainbow Bridge. I arguably still am —  especially when I see a photo of either of them. But that’s not to say I didn’t grow tremendously following my first, real experience with death. And to commemorate one trip around the sun with my grief, I thought I’d reflect on the grim reality that touches each and every one of us at some point: loss.

My family adopted my dog, Bingo, and my cat, Angel, in 2005 and 2006 respectively. In those days, I was a rambunctious toddler who spent her days disguising Angel in American Girl Doll clothes (she hated it) and roleplaying “school” with Bingo, of whom I called Brandon during “class.” He wasn’t the brightest student, as he would only look at the chalkboard if a treat was in front of it. 

As I got older, I became extremely attached to Angel. Although I wouldn’t admit it back then, I’m a cat person (everyone hates us, what’s up with that?), and our bond became unbreakable. Every night, Angel would gently bump open my bedroom door with her head and leap onto my twin-sized mattress. She’d unwind her small but lengthy body onto the folded, fuzzy blanket I laid out for her. 

In middle school, during the peak of friend drama and cringe-worthy crushes, I’d spend hours talking to her about whatever was troubling me. I’d vent, cry, and tell her all of the unnecessary details. She always took my side, no matter the situation, and was there whenever I needed it. At the end of my vent session, I’d ultimately thank her for being such an amazing listener. As I phased out of that period, I relied on her more for unspoken comfort and serenity. I can’t remember a single moment when her adorable paws or precious face didn’t immediately bring me happiness and peace — even when I felt at my lowest.

She was my furry best friend, and everybody knew it. “I’m sorry, but I won’t ever love you as much as Angel. Don’t take it personally!” is a phrase I found myself repeating to both my high-school ex and my current boyfriend, as the sentiment still holds true.

Throughout my entire childhood, Angel was a safe harbor for my thoughts and emotions, especially when no one else felt trustworthy enough to hear them. Of course, I know I’m talking about a cat, but the friendship we had was unmatched. There’s a ton of psychological and scientific evidence for why humans willingly provide their pets a luxurious life and endless love, from our primal instinct to companionship. My favorite explanation is from Gwen Cooper in an article titled “Why Do We Love Our Pets?” from Psychology Today:

“Despite all the seeming effort involved, the truth is that it’s so easy to make an animal happy — so much easier than it seems to be to make other people happy. When my cats have their favorite food, their favorite toys, and their favorite lap to cuddle in, they’re so deeply happy they practically radiate it. Their happiness isn’t complicated the way human happiness is.”

We don’t worry about their love ever leaving, or if there’s a healthy give-and-take between us and them. We just love — purely and unconditionally. 

Angel was hit by my dad’s car in our driveway. I was at Target picking up last-minute room decor before I left for my second year of college, and came home to my dad spraying down the pavement with a hose. She was already buried in the backyard, with an uneven cross made of rocks resting in on top of the dirt. That night, next to her grave, I returned to what I used to do nightly as a pre-teen: talk to her as if she could hear and understand every word. 

From that point on, I slept in my parent’s room. I left my bed unmade and untouched for over a week, which was still frozen in place from where Angel laid the day she died. The fuzzy blanket had a fresh coating of her fur, which I promised myself to never wash (I did, eventually). 

I took her loss extremely hard. I retreated from my friends and my boyfriend, and delayed coming back to school as much as I could. Although I didn’t realize it then, I associated Angel with my entire childhood. Without her, it felt like everything else that reminded me of being a kid was slipping through my fingers. I became even more attached to Bingo, my family, and actively distanced myself from the thought of college. I wanted to transport myself back to laying on my bed in middle school, where those things I loved about my childhood felt stable, and always within reach.

We put Bingo to sleep a week after we lost Angel. He was an old dog, and his pain began heavily outweighing his happy moments. On my solo drive to the animal clinic, Frank Ocean’s rendition of “Moon River” came up on shuffle. I imagined Bingo’s head resting on the back seat (which was his signature on long drives), and Angel curled up next to me on the passenger seat. 

Wherever you’re going, I’m going the same.

Life’s just around the bend, my friend

Moon river and me.

I envisioned the three of us driving together on a road trip, content to be in each other's company— completely untroubled. I didn’t have a destination in mind, but the comfort of them accompanying me on my spontaneous journey was enough.

Losing my two best friends felt like my own loss of childhood innocence: experiencing real, true grief. Unfortunately, in some way, we’ll all experience this emotion. We’ll probably all cycle through those infamous five stages of grief, whether we notice it or not. But with every heartbreak, there’s a lesson or two we learn about ourselves. Here’s mine.

After I left for college, I avoided returning home for months, even though I only live thirty minutes away. My mom and dad would try to get me to join them for family dinners, but I associated my childhood home with the trauma of losing Angel. From that experience, I learned I have a tendency to heavily associate my pain with the surroundings it took place in — a truth I’m actively striving to overcome.

I also learned that in times of grief and loss, I’m comforted by those who have experienced similar emotions — especially those who I don’t necessarily know personally. When Angel passed away, I sought support in the Rainbow Bridge Cats Facebook group, which was filled with over 16,000 other cat lovers all across the world. I posted my story, along with a few pictures of the two of us, and received an overwhelming amount of loving comments. It taught me that in times of trouble, community is key for me. 

As my grief has subsided, I’ve learned to appreciate all my childhood pets have taught me, from independence to unconditional love. Most importantly, I’ve been able to grow. In times of loss, we must find what helps us as individuals for our recovery. And remember: there’s not one “right,” universal way to heal, and the process is not linear. The important thing is that we learn to mend ourselves in a way that makes us feel safe, and simultaneously allows us to grow.

Additionally, moving forward does not mean forgetting. After my loss, I felt guilty every time I found myself not thinking about them, or when I finally washed Angel’s favorite blanket, or contemplated adopting another pet one day. Instead of surrendering to those intrusive thoughts or totally pushing them away, I simply allowed myself to feel. I acknowledged that I’m still grieving, and in order to progress, I couldn’t squash any negative emotion associated with it. When we accept and enable our feelings to be as they are in this process, we flourish— as loving owners, forever best friends, and humans.