For the last few weeks, I’ve been monitoring the rise and fall of Leo.
Leo has his good days and not so good days. Sometimes he’s alert and raring to go, eating well and enthusiastically. Other times he’s sluggish and unresponsive, with little appetite. Last week it got a bit scary, even, when he took a dive and I wasn’t sure he’d recover from it.
But he did. Recover, that is. And now he continues to complain vigorously about his visits to the hospital for treatment. Which isn’t surprising, since he’s making the trip five times a week. Yet in the end he’s always a brave patient, and always excited to get home.
The thing is, though, the treatments can’t keep up with his declining kidneys. So no doubt about it, he’s on the down slope, and his test results confirm that.
In case you’re wondering, Leo is a cat. But I’m guessing that the picture probably gave it away.
Like all of us, his days are numbered. It’s just that he’s closer to the end of his than you and me (knock on wood).
Last fall I wrote my first love letter to Leo: Life Lessons Learned from Leo.
That was eight months after he’d gotten his life back from the brink and had blossomed like nobody’s business. In fact, everything was coming up roses for Leo. Until December, that is, when he was diagnosed with yet another malady, this one incurable: Chronic Renal Failure (CRF).
Amazingly, though, he blossomed still more when treatment began.
For a while it was perpetual spring in Leo’s world. He became a visible and bittersweet reminder that each day of life brings us one step closer to death. So we sure as heck better seize the day, like Leo.
When the CRF was first diagnosed, the doctor predicted six months to a year of good quality life.
Well, here we are, just past the six-month mark.
No real surprises. All of it expected, more or less. Especially since this isn’t my first go-round with a CRF cat.
So how am I doing? I’m practicing gratitude left and right.
After all, there are so many things to be grateful for. I thought I was going to lose Leo a year and a half ago. But now I’ve had this gift of many months to love and care for him. To rejoice that he’s come back to himself, all playful and cuddly. Not to mention the out-of-this-world bond that we’ve fashioned together.
I’m also grateful that I have a flexible schedule that allows me to be with him as he nears the end. Sometimes, we sit together and stare out the window at the birds and bees. And often he gravitates toward me when I’m writing, sharing my lap with the computer. He’s here now, as a matter of fact, perhaps divining in some feline way that I’m writing about him. (But it’s probably more likely that he’s attracted to the heat of the laptop.)
Of course, if we’re talking gratitude, I must point out that my other cats are hale and hearty. Plus, Leo’s twin brother, Max, is still going strong. Which means a small part of Leo will live on, at least for a while.
Yup, I could go on and on about gratitude. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
So how come I feel so crummy?
I was sitting on the bed the other day, folding laundry and half consciously ticking off my list of things to be grateful for, when I noticed a sensation inside of me. A certain kind of emptiness. Hollow.
I know this feeling, I thought. I know what this is. This is masked grief. Grief that wants to come out. And gratitude decidedly does not make it better. In fact, too much gratitude makes it worse, shoving it into the shadows. Stripping it of meaning. Minimizing it, as if it didn’t belong here.
Because, you see, there’s a fine line between practicing gratitude and minimizing our feelings.
And you know what? I’ve had a series of good cries since that moment of insight on the bed.
So gratitude, please take a hike for now.
Truth be told, it sucks that Leo is soon to leave this world. He got a raw deal, and at nine-years-old he’s far too young. And there’s a whole host of feelings swirling inside of me around that: sadness about losing him, pain that he’s had to go through so much, relief that the intensity of care-giving will soon be over, anger that his life is ending too soon, bittersweet love and joy when I’m with him, worry about knowing the right time to let him go.
And yes, gratitude is in the mix too, but it’s just one among many feelings.
Yet sometimes, we go to gratitude in a somewhat knee-jerk, unconscious way, with fuzzy hopes of bypassing emotions, like grief.
I did, and I’m not sure what came over me. Perhaps I was momentarily mesmerized by the gratitude bandwagon. We hear about it all the time, after all. An attitude of gratitude. But I do know it’s more complicated than that, not only from my own life experiences but my work with others.
I see clients who’ve lost a home or a job or a parent. Are in the midst of a floundering relationship. Didn’t expect to feel so aimless after they retired. Don’t know what they want. Feel marooned at midlife. Can’t get traction on goals and dreams. Are facing a health crisis.
And at some point, in the beginning of our work together, they will probably say, in a faltering voice, “But I’m grateful for what I have.”
Vague question marks appear in the air at the end of these statements, and deep down they sense that gratitude is not going to cut it if it’s the only thing they’re bringing to the table of their transition.
So I encourage them to feel all of their feelings, even those that seem icky. Because more often than not, it’s the icky ones that get us to the other side, where we can make a new beginning.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Gratitude, applied wisely, is a good thing.
But it’s not the answer for everything. So these days I’m working on carving out a spot somewhere between gratitude and grief. And finding it’s not a bad place to be at all.
OK, your turn.
Please share your experiences of gratitude and grief.
And do you think gratitude can be overdone, to the point where it minimizes important feelings?
But most significant: Do you want to see more adorable photos of Leo? If so, click here.