Guest post by Casey Hersch
This is the last in a series of eight posts by Casey Hersch. Casey discusses the many lessons she learned about caring for Yochabel during her illness, including her quest to stop Yochabel’s cancer from growing and spreading, barriers present with senior cats, variations in diet including supplements and herbs, and how to focus on the individual cat’s needs. Yochabel was not only Casey’s feline companion. She left Casey with ways to cope with her own illness, and with a greater sense of acceptance and gratitude.
We are stronger than we think
Sometimes we don’t realize how much strength we have until we are thrust into one of life’s challenges. If someone had asked me a year ago what I would do if Yochabel had a terminal condition, I never would have believed I had the inner resiliency to endure it.
I knew she was a senior and I couldn’t have her forever. To brace myself for the impermanence of life, I imagined what I would do without her. My reaction was always the same.
I couldn’t imagine my life without her. It was even hard to imagine my life before she arrived. She made such a difference. I never wanted to go back to what life was like before her.
But, POOF, just like that, I was hit with a hard dose of reality.
Yochabel was gone.
And BAM, another reality check: I had endured dealing with her bladder tumor while caring for both of us. I was stronger than I thought. We all are.
Feeling hurt and relieved at the same time
After Yochabel was euthanized, for a brief moment, I felt a surge of relief revive my tired body. All the stress, worry, and carrying of our pain lifted. Yochabel was safe and no longer in any discomfort. I felt sure that I had done what was best for her.
But the relief that Yochabel was no longer a prisoner in her own body was quickly replaced with a tremendous void in mine. Lying on the bed, I sobbed and gasped for air as the reality that she was gone penetrated my consciousness. I begged for my imagination to take me out of this pain and to bring me back to our cozy snuggles and a life that seemed so perfect. But I couldn’t turn back time and bring her back.
My only choice was to accept reality and find a way to move forward.
As I started to lift myself off the bed, the thought of walking down the hallway without her clip clop behind me froze my body in position. The silence in my house without her was terrifying. I am an only child. I am used to silence. But this silence jarred my senses. I was immobilized by the emptiness.
Sobbing so hard my eyes felt like they would melt out of my head, I soothed myself by drawing attention to our last day and the many gifts she gave me. I focused on her wisdom and the lessons she taught me. I thought about what she would want me to do.
What would Yochabel want me to do RIGHT NOW?
She would want me to live my life and to live it with joy.
She embodied joy and gratitude. I was not showing my gratitude for her sacrifices, loyalty, and love by locking myself in my bedroom unable to walk through a door in my own house and back into my life.
So, step by step, holding her pink fuzzy blanket tight to my chest, I slowly walked down the hallway. As I came around the corner and passed her room, I turned my head away. I couldn’t bear the emptiness. I looked at the smiling cats with princess tiaras sewn on her blanket I carried, and I smiled because she loved her princess blanket and so did I.
Keep memories alive and find meaning
I held onto her blanket like a lifeline. It comforted me the same way a child is comforted by a snuggie.
I surrounded my home with favorite pictures of her. I shared stories about her with anyone who would listen. One of the best ways to cope with loss is to keep the memory alive. Looking at pictures, telling stories, and reliving the memories is very healing. Sometimes I shared the same story over and over and as I laughed, cried, and reminisced, slowly but surely, I started to accept she was gone. I started to accept that her memory was still with me and always would be.
Yochabel had no choice; she had to leave her body. While neither of us wanted this, by not accepting this reality, I was punishing both of us for something neither of us could control. I found peace when I realized that the best way I could honor our relationship was to continue living my life. I lived in honor of her.
Unable to sleep for many nights after she left, I thought about the many lessons Yochabel taught me about living AND dying. It was during one of these nights that I realized the ultimate way to honor her was to share her wisdom with others. This was the beginning of the Yochabel’s Wisdom series on The Conscious Cat. Writing became an outlet for me to heal, to remember, and to keep Yochabel’s memory alive for the greater good.
With every loss comes a gift. Our challenge as humans is to look closely for these gifts and to find ways to turn a loss into something beautiful and meaningful.
Grieve at your own pace and be gentle with yourself
Several months passed. I cannot count how many times people asked me when I was going to get rid of her designated space in my house.
My answer every time was “when I am ready. I don’t have a plan or a timeline.”
Even though I had cleaned Yochabel Beach (her litter box), I couldn’t remove it. Seeing it out of the corner of my eye comforted me. Her beds, washed and tidy, remained in their spots. I even changed the blankets as I did when she was alive. Seeing her silly, fun, handmade blankets comforted me.
It didn’t matter to me if people might judge me as holding on too long by not clearing out Yochabel’s room. I had my own process, and I honored it on my own terms. I found comfort in ways that only I could. I had to allow myself to be me and heal at my own pace.
The Kubler-Ross model, also known as the 5 stages of grief, describes a normal, yet individual process of grief:
- Denial: This cannot be true, it never happened.
- Anger: Why me? How could this happen?
- Bargaining: If I did this… then…
- Depression: Sadness, isolation.
- Acceptance: It is going to be ok.
This process does not start at denial and end at acceptance. It ebbs and flows. It is normal to have denial, anger, depression, denial, and some bargaining here and there. Others might have days of acceptance and then days when they are more vulnerable, returning to anger and bargaining. There is no timeline for these stages. What matters is that healing is taking place, and bit by bit there is a shift toward acceptance, and being able to live with loss.
The healing power of those who understand
My greatest healing came not only from the things I did on my own terms to remember and honor Yochabel, but also from the gestures made by others around me.
Living with loss can be a way to grow closer to other people who can surprise us with their kindness and understanding. There is nothing more healing than feeling understood. When others honor your loss of a pet companion, it helps your healing process.
Days after Yochabel passed, I got a call from Dr Haas, Yochabel’s in home veterinarian. She said she had something for me. I hadn’t seen Dr Haas since the night we said goodbye to Yochabel. I knew seeing her would be both wonderful and hard.
As we made our way toward each other, tears started to flow from both of our eyes. Our bond was solidified through Yochabel. Perhaps I would have never met this wonderful woman had it not been for Yochabel. She handed me a package. To my surprise it was the most beautiful art piece of Yochabel. Weeks before Yochabel passed, Dr Haas began working with the artist to have this custom made. “I knew Yochabel’s time was soon,” she said, “and I wanted to honor her in the best way I knew how.” This art piece sits in a central location in my home. It is a daily reminder that I don’t have to see Yochabel to know I have an angel watching over me.
Even weeks later, just when I thought no one other than me wanted to hear about Yochabel one more time, I received another package in the mail. It came from a woman I had known since birth, but who had not known Yochabel. I opened the package and tears streamed down my face. It was a perfect image of Yochabel, painted on a rock. Holding this rock in my hand, I felt like Yochabel’s eyes were looking at me. (Editor’s note: the painted rocks are available on Etsy*.)
I had no idea that this woman understood just how much Yochabel meant to me. It comforted me to take my Yochabel rock room to room. When I combed my hair in the morning, it was on the bathroom vanity; when I cooked dinner, it was on the counter. At night, it sat on my nightstand. But more than the gift itself, was the feeling I got when a dear person in my life said, “I know you are hurting. I am here for you. I get it.” This made all the difference in living with loss.
What I learned from all of you
As the Yochabel Wisdom series comes to a close, I thank all of you who have been there, reading and honoring Yochabel and our bond. I am at peace knowing her wisdom will live on. Each one of our pet companions lives on in their own significant ways. It is the smallest gestures – a comment on a blog or on social media, a card, or a smile – that help all of us live with loss. But at the end of the day, the greatest thing we can all do is to breathe in and let all the love we have received from our beloved pet companions fill us up. Then when we allow this love to expand us, we know that living with loss is about loving ourselves and each other. This, my friends, is what all of you and your pet companions have taught me.
Casey Hersch, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker, author, and founder of http://www.lightyoursparkle.life. She specializes in chronic illness and ways to empower others to be an expert on their own bodies. Pet companionship, and in her case, her cat friends, have been at the heart of her own healing. She is passionate about integrative treatment models for humans and pets.
*FTC Disclosure: The Conscious Cat is a participant in Etsy’s affiliate program. This means that if you decide to purchase through any of our links,
we get a small commission. We only spread the word about products and services we’ve either used or would use ourselves.