My beloved 20 year-old kitty passed away this week. It was heartbreaking for me, and interesting for the three of us as a family. In the midst of my grief, I noted a few things that I thought I'd record here, to do with traumatized kids, grief and loss.
When T. was a young child, he lived in a chaotic home. He and his cousins had a kitten, and the kitten died while they were giving it a bath. The kids were very young at the time - probably ranging from 3 to 7 - and they were left unsupervised and told to bathe the kitten in the sink. He blames himself for what happened.
This is one of the first stories that T. told me about himself when we were getting to know each other. He told me more than once, which is very unusual for him. I understood in a visceral way that one does with a child that this story functions for him as evidence that he is "bad". I have always had the sense that this is his "origins" story, the original fall from grace that, in his mind, brought about his subsequent very bad luck.
Ironically, I met him at an event where we were volunteering to wash shelter dogs. I was struck by his extreme tenderness and careful attention to the animals. I realized only many months later when I heard the kitten story that he must have been terrified and traumatized, reminded of the kitten story and afraid that he'd drown the dogs. I recall that his hands were shaking.
When T move in with us he was, at first, very gentle and attentive to my cat. Over time, as he grew more comfortable, she began to annoy him and he let his annoyance show more freely, but he was still generally tender toward her. As she neared the end of her life, and I became more sensitive about her impending passing, he stopped grumbling about her mess and distraction. In the last days of her life, he build a little fort for her out of couch pillows, and monitored her heating pad to keep her as comfortable as possible. He did all of this quietly, with natural authority, when we were not in the room. His goal was to ease her suffering, not to impress us.
I rarely cry but I sobbed the night before she died. T. told me some time ago that he hates to see people cry and it makes him angry. I said, "Sometimes adults can cry in a way that feels out of control and its scary. And sometimes they can cry in a way that is meant to manipulate you. Maybe that's when you get angry. Otherwise, crying is just crying." He nodded.
It turns out he doesn't really mind when people cry. When he caught me crying he nodded in a forgiving way and gave me some hugs. Then he patted me on the head and said, "It's good to let it all out."
We sent him out of the house for the final hours while kitty passed away, because we felt that the atmosphere was too stressful for him. We talked about what would happen, and gave him permission to spend the day at a friend's house. He blew the cat a kiss, and headed out to do teen things. I think he was a little disoriented and upset when he came home and found her gone, but we didn't talk about it much. Her loss has a big impact on the general spirit of our home and it's a big change to absorb. But we all sat down to dinner.
I like to think that this was an opportunity for him to experience one of life's small catastrophes in the context of family, and gain some knowledge of how we help each other through tough times. I saw him learn another lesson, when he realized this week that I have feelings that are independent of him. We are so closely bonded now that sometimes he thinks he controls my feelings, or that all of my feelings are about him. It's hard to develop compassion until you understand and can respond to someone else's experience as separate from (but related to) your own. He did a good job with compassion this week, in his own child-like way.
I think it was also a healthy opportunity to experience what it's like to be in an "adult-led" household; we made the decision to let the kitty go without involving him, and took care of the arrangements quietly on our own. We told him exactly what was going to happen and when, so that he could be prepared, but we didn't ask him to do or feel anything in particular. We tried to show respect for his teen routine, even in the midst of our upset.
I know his experiences of loss have been devastating, traumatic and chaotic - in his young life, he's lost many close relationships, through circumstances he couldn't control. I like to think that this week, he got to witness grief and loss free of trauma and confusion. I like to think also that this experience is one more memory we share, one more private family matter than we will use as a touchstone and reference point in the story of us.
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