I adopted Oscar when I graduated from college and rented my first apartment in Boston's Back Bay. He was tiny, the size of my hand. I had never had a kitty, and wasn't sure I was a "cat person", but, we had mice and needed help. Almost instantaneously, we became the best of friends, and over the years, he was by my side as I started my career, got married, had babies and bought houses.
Just after Christmas, out of the blue, Oscar stopped eating. The vet discovered a fast-moving, aggressive cancer in his lungs and he died two weeks after his diagnosis, right before his 18th birthday.
I have to say, it hit me hard. During his last days and after he passed away, the tears were ever-present....and would appear while I was making dinner, reading "Percy Jackson" or helping my boys with their homework.
I couldn't help it....but, I began to wonder about the affect my emotions would have on the kids. My two sons, ages 8 and 10, had never seen me so upset...and usually witness a mom, dashing from work to the classroom, juggling a lot of balls with a smile on her face.
Would my outbursts freak them out?
Or, was it important for them to see an adult, grappling with an extremely tough time?
"Grief just kind of overwhelms you and you're saying to them, 'It's OK to express it,' and they're learning how to empathize," says licensed clinical social worker Barbara Murray-Lane, who has offices in Middletown and Chester. And, empathize they did. Sam, age 10, became the voice of reason: "Mom, there was nothing you could have done," while Ben, 8 years old, wrapped one arm around me while dabbing my face with a tissue. Murray-Lane says, by nature, boys are inclined to want to "fix things". So, it's important for them to see: there are some events in life that can't be fixed. On an emotional level, it's also vital for them to see vulnerability in both women and men, particularly their parents. "It's also about letting them know you're not a super-person," she says. "We all struggle with trying to be 'Super-Mothers' - still - and it's not possible, because we are human beings that get deeply touched by things in our lives."
Murray-Lane says grief can go on for awhile and that's OK...but, seek further help if emotions interfere with everyday life with the kids for a prolonged period: "You don't want yourself falling apart so much that they then feel that they have to take care of you."
My boys and husband are certainly grieving, as well. Oscar was a big part of their lives for a very long time. Murray-Lane says we can deal with the loss together: "I think it's important to talk about as a family, share memories, so that everyone knows it's OK to talk about it."
We all sat around Osc, hugging and crying together, as we said "goodbye" to our beautiful guy. After he passed, Sam suggested we make a book about him, with text, photos and drawings. I needed some time...but, I think we're ready...and I'm looking forward to a group project. "That helps the whole family process the loss. This is often how children first experience a loss, through the loss of a pet. It's an important learning process," says Murray-Lane.
Gosh, I miss him. There is now a huge void in the house...I find myself listening for him, looking for him...then, suddenly remembering that he is gone. It's true, time heals. The tears are still there...but, much less frequently...and I'm finding that keeping busy at work is therapeutic for me.
Beyond the sadness, I also feel so grateful for Oscar's years of companionship and comfort....my husband's support....the boys' endless compassion, maturity and love.