Growing up on a farm, I loved and lost more than one kitten. When a new litter came along, I usually picked out a favorite, though I enjoyed giving them all attention. They were good listeners too. I would hold them, talk to them, feel a connection. The favorites got a name. Two that I remember are “Holthaus”-my maiden name, and “K.C.”-for K.C. of K.C. and the Sunshine Band (one of my first crushes).
Their demise came in different ways. Some would get too close to the dogs at the scrap dish. Others, too curious for their own good, would crawl up in one of the vehicles in the yard and not always make it out in time.
One especially painful memory for me was when of my chosen kitties, probably just several weeks old, became a vehicle fatality. Some of us were in the yard when my sister drove off one summer day. One kitty got out okay, but when I looked for “mine” I couldn’t find it. I hopped on one of our bikes and pedaled to the end of our long driveway. There was my kitten, lifeless. I carried the still-warm body back home and vowed to never get close to an animal again. (And I didn’t for decades-until our dog Oliver came into our lives in 2008.)
Those kittens weren’t the only losses I experienced, nor was grief the only painful emotion. But they remind me of the feelings I didn’t learn to express or identify as a child. Though I barely recall burying those young kittens, the grief I buried needed to be recalled and processed.
Somewhere in my early childhood, I picked up the idea that to be strong and not cry was a good thing, a sign of strength and courage. It is likely no one directly told me this, but I saw it modeled. I developed some of my own ideas and buried far too many questions and emotions. Today, I realize my parents were ill-equipped to teach their children healthy grieving because they hadn’t been taught it either.
The healing finally came. When I was in my first years of sobriety, in my late twenties, a good friend recommended counseling. I went to a substance abuse counselor numerous times over a year or so. With her, I did some heavy and necessary work. It was there that the long-buried grief for dead pets was allowed to surface and dissipate, along with other sadness and pain from my childhood. Highly therapeutic therapy for this patient.
I am still not much of a crier, but pain and grief are in my emotional repertoire, serving as vital a function as peace and joy do. Life brings us a myriad of emotional experiences. To bury any is a disservice. To experience all brings the fullness of life.