While washing up today, I heard that Rickie Gervais and his partner Jane had lost their beloved cat Ollie. No, they hadn’t actually lost him, he’d died.
There were outpourings of sympathy from those who insist on calling pets ‘fur babies’ and videos of Jonathan Ross giving Ollie to Ricky live on his television show sixteen years ago. Ollie had enjoyed good innings and was now trending No 4 on Twitter UK, something I’m sure Rickie and Jane will find highly amusing, in months to come when the pain subsides a bit.
Washing up is an opportunity to practise mindfulness, while bringing order to the daily chaos that is a kitchen used by three hungry adults, with three very different diets. I wash up, Nelson puts away and Phoebe does the bins and the floor. It’s a great time to slow down, be present, not so much to think but to muse. Like showering, driving or ironing (which admittedly I don’t do so much of anymore) washing up occupies your body in a well-known task, muscle memory kicks in and your mind can wander free.
I need to wash up more often during the day at the moment, with the Corona Virus rampaging through the world. As an avid reader of dystopian fiction, I saw the writing on the wall weeks before anyone else and I now regularly need to get away from the screens screaming silent, climbing red numbers at me. Watching them jump by a thousand confirmed cases every time I refresh the screen, makes me feel as if I’m in the path of a huge juggernaut twisting and sliding slowly and inexorably towards me and those I love.
It’s not so much getting ill or dying myself I fear, grim as that would be by the sounds of it, it’s the possibility of having to grieve again so soon that terrifies me.
The news of Ollie’s demise made me wish again that I’d had pets. Some animals had come and quickly gone, usually after my mother realised the reality of coping with pets and two small girls was too much for her. Our pets, boxer dogs Magda and Velvet, Percy Fluff the kitten, Julie the long-legged Jack Russel, usually went to ‘live up the lane with the farmer’, whatever that really meant.
You can’t miss a pet you didn’t have time to attach to and standing at the sink, I regretted that my sister and I had never been given the chance to lose and mourn a pet. I think it would have better equipped me to handle grief. If you grieve a pet or two, but recover, perhaps it makes you more resilient, more able to cope with the grief of losing a person. Most of all, I really wish now that our lifestyle had allowed me to let my kids have pets too. We moved too often and now I realise, I haven’t equipped them for grief either.
Thinking about the nature of grief made me suddenly remember that Steve died four years ago this Thursday 12th March 2016. Steve was not a pet, far from it, a more fiercely independent and scratchy man I had never met. But he was my best friend, business partner, companion in shenanigans, lover and step-father to Phoebe and Nelson.
I braced myself, hands in suds and the pang of loss duly arrived but I noted with interest that it was not so vicious this year. Not so much the twisting of a knife in my heart, but a more gentle, wistful echo of pain remembered, not actually felt. Still vivid but misted slightly, like the blue of an early dawn sky on a hot summer day.
The first year after he died suddenly, in his sleep, the emotional storm was excruciating. It was physical, all-consuming, utter agony. I wrote in my journal at the time that it prowled my waking hours like a wolf, ready to howl and growl and tear my equilibrium apart. I could only cry for a minute or so, each time, hot tears seeping but giving no respite at all.
Nobody can take away the pain, there’s nothing anyone can say to make it better, no activity mitigated it, it was just always there making everything feel surreal, meaningless, every minute endless. Time became elastic in entirely the wrong direction, it stretched out into the future with no snapback in sight.
In the first months, early evenings were the worst, especially as the spring progressed and summer taunted me. As the long sunny days dragged on, I wandered around the village in a daze between six and eight o’clock, just to get out of the house, often ending up in the graveyard of St Mary De Haura.
Steve wasn’t there, my ‘share’ of his ashes still resided in their brown plastic coffee jar urn, neatly labelled, under his mother’s television. I didn’t want them, they were not him, just like he wasn’t buried in that 900-year-old graveyard. She could keep them, she loved golf and racing just like he had, so it was a more fitting resting place than any I could provide.
But somehow sitting among all the ancient gravestones I felt more at peace, more part of the human continuum. Each gravestone represented someone who had died, but more than that, someone who had mourned their loss, as I mourned. Someone who had grieved and yet lived on somehow. Each stone was like a spec of light, a beacon of hope in the darkness, that I might make it through too. Even the seats I sat on around the ancient walls had been donated by someone who had felt what I felt and presumably recovered from it.
Gradually though, the elastic minutes, hours, days and months passed and the pain gradually lessened its vicious grip on my heart. The wolf roared less frequently and I remember the day vividly when I sat on a sunbed, on a beach in Greece with children playing in the background and waves lapping at the shore, my toes scrunched up in the warm sand and I thought …
‘Blimey, I’m actually happy again’.