Two Deaths [en]

[fr] Deux décès, l'un humain, l'autre félin, et mes réactions assez différentes aux deux.

Two heart attacks, even. The first is Bagha, you’ll have guessed. Jean-ChristopheThe second is Jean-Christophe, who was deputy head in the school I taught at and with whom I stayed in touch over the years: fellow blogger and lifter, I enjoyed our lunch-time conversations about social media, web technology, education and the various things of life. He was a really friendly, genuinely nice person. I didn’t know him very well, but we did hang out once in a while. He wrote a very nice piece about me for Ada Lovelace Day in 2009. He died almost exactly a month after Bagha.

I was very, very shocked by Jean-Christophe’s death — and remain shocked. You don’t expect young, healthy people around you to drop like a stone and die in the middle of a basketball match (he was 42, a regular player, didn’t smoke…). I was also shocked by Bagha’s death, but the grief was so great that I just couldn’t stop the tears for days on end, and it took over.

Two deaths, one human, one feline, one of a being who shared almost every single day of mine for 11 years, the other which I would see a handful of times every year. Two different reactions on my part. On a slightly “clinical” level, I’ve found it interesting to observe how I’ve been processing both these deaths. Beyond the obvious animal vs. human difference, I’ve realised that what really counts is the role they were playing in my life.

Jean-Christophe was a truly lovely person. His death pains me, and even though he was somebody I trusted (to the point of collapsing in his office during my first year of teaching when things were not going well at all) we weren’t close. He was somebody I knew and appreciated, a part of my network (our discussions revolved primarily around work and common interests, not each other’s lives). If I think of his family, my heart breaks for them, but I am not touched as if it were my family.

Not seeing Jean-Christophe is the normal state of my life, so beyond the shock of the announcement, I am not confronted much with his death. A couple of times I’ve thought “oh, I should ask Jean-Christophe if he knows somebody who…” and caught myself. Beyond the shock and discomfort of seeing the sudden death of somebody who is just a few years older than myself, and of knowing that a wonderful human being is no more, the impact of Jean-Christophe’s death on my life has been pretty minimal.

Maybe this minimal impact (compounded to the fact I was in India for the funeral so couldn’t attend and therefore share others’ grief) has allowed me to stay in some stage of denial — or maybe the fact he was a rather “weak tie” in my life simply makes the whole grieving process less painful and visible.

Eclau oct 2009 24Bagha, on the other hand, even though he was “just a cat”, was part of my everyday life for years and a primary emotional attachment. His loss is a huge disruption in my life, all the more because he was an elderly cat who had started to require care — some parts of my life were organized around him. Making sure somebody was there for him when I travelled, coming back home to give him his meds, being available to take him to the vet when things weren’t quite right.

Except when I was in India, I have not been able to “forget” his death much. The flat is lonely without a feline presence. Another cat naps on the couch at eclau (I’m happy about that, though). I’m still surprised that I can stay out when I hadn’t planned to. I can leave stuff lying around in the flat (even food) and nothing happens to them. Open cupboard doors are not important anymore. I’m not woken up at 6am by somebody furry who wants to be let out.

When somebody asks a group of people “who has a cat?” I have to keep my hand down now. I don’t have a cat anymore. I’m not a cat-owner. I’ve had a cat since I was nine, even though my first cat, Flam, lived at my parents’ for three years when I moved out, and I was briefly catless between her death and the moment Bagha officially became “my” cat. But being a cat lover and owner has always been a big part of my identity, which I feel I have now lost (risky parallel: does it feel like that to long-time smokers who give up the cancer-stick?). Of course, I will have cats again (after India early 2012 is the current plan), but right now, I’m part of these petless people.

Almost everything in my life reminds of his death. I still have a photo of him as background image for my iPhone, because I’m not sure when the right moment to change it would be, and what to replace it with. Though I’m slowly rebuilding a layer of habits and memories of my new life without him, I feel his loss almost every day — some days worse than others.

This makes me realize that in a way, it is less the intrinsec value of the being who died (who would dare put a cat’s life before that of a human being?) than the role played in one’s life and one’s emotional attachment that determines the amount of grief. Sounds obvious, uh, nothing new under the sun here. But it has another taste when you’ve reached the conclusion all over again by yourself.

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Of Grief and Travel [en]

[fr] Retour d'Inde, et je pleure mon chat comme il y a un mois, après une sorte d'interruption où le deuil a gentiment glisser sous le tapis. M'habituer à son absence alors que je suis ailleurs, dans un contexte complètement étranger, c'est une chose. A la maison, cela va prendre nettement plus de temps.

As all of you must know by now, my cat Bagha died just ten days before I was due to leave on a month-long trip to India, my first “real” (understand: three weeks or more) holiday in many years. It’s been a horrible, horrible loss for me — and if at this stage you’re thinking “just a cat”, switch to “11 years of life together”. I cried every day until I left, and was still very upset when I arrived in India.

Ready to Pounce

At some point, in India, I stopped crying. Different context, people around, not much privacy, but mainly, I think, lots of exciting Indian life and people to keep me busy. Over a month, I had plenty of time to settle down in my holiday-life over there — and holiday-life and travel clearly never involved having Bagha around.

When Bagha was alive, I would miss him when I was travelling. The first days would be the worst, and then I would get used to it and stop thinking about it. After a few weeks, though, I’d be really looking forward to seeing him again. It was part of what would draw me back home.

So, maybe I was just following my normal travel-pattern here too.

Coming back has been really hard. In all honesty, it feels pretty much like I’m back to where I left off before my travels. A few things have changed, though — the work of time: I’m not in shock anymore (I’ll talk about shock in a later post about another recent death), and I don’t really expect to see Bagha sleeping on the couch or on the bed when I enter a room. I still have “where’s the cat?” or “I need to get the cat” moments, though. Many times a day. and I’m going through a lot of tissues again.

I don’t know if this “break in grief” was a good thing — not that I regret going to India at all, and I immensely enjoyed my time there — but I remember wishing I had “more time” before leaving while I was preparing my bags and departure.

Bangalore 142 Fancy Buildings.jpgWhat this trip has shown me, though, is that life goes on. Or at least, that I can rebuild a life for myself. This is very similar to what my year in India showed me: that I could start from scratch somewhere and find friends, have a life, be happy enough. (I write happy enough because generally, that’s how I am — “happy” on its own has not often been a general state in my life, though it’s a regular short-term feeling.)

But life elsewhere without my cat and life at home without my cat are not the same thing.

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Sorting Through Grief [en]

So, in the process of coming to terms with Bagha’s death — or at least, moving forward in that direction — I’ve tried to identify what made him special and unique for me. You see, when losing a pet you’re as attached to as I was to Bagha, a lot of things get mixed up.

Cute Sleeping Bagha at Eclau

I think it helps to differentiate, for example, between the pain of being “petless” and the pain of losing this specific pet. Here are some of the levels I can make out:

  • what it means for me to now be living completely alone (ie, “petless” => by extension, what having a pet — any pet — adds to my life)
  • what made Bagha special, as compared to other cats (his personal caracteristics, pretty objectively)
  • what made Bagha special for me, in terms of the relationship we had and what he meant to me.

I made a pretty long list in the days following his death. One of the reasons I’m doing this is that I have trouble sorting out the levels (even simply hoping they make sense). The idea is to identify what I am really grieving here (yeah, my cat of course, but let’s skip the obvious) and also — this is the difficult part for me — to pinpoint what remains for me of this feline relationship.

What made it worthwhile? What justifies or compensates the suffering when it ends? What is really hurting because of this particular loss, and what is just old stuff coming back to the surface? Because without that, the obvious conclusion to this much grief (and those who have been through separations of any type in their life can probably relate) is vowing never to put oneself in a situation that leaves the door open to suffering like this again. To put it clearly: to be able to love (or bond) you need to be able to grieve (to come to terms with loss).

I’ll dive into this exercise in another post. First of all, because it will be long — and second, because it’s not easy, and I think I have to take things little by little. Writing this up is the first step.

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On Grief and Losing Bagha [en]

I’m in India. I’m in Pune. I’m in IUCAA. I’m where Bagha was born, where I started to love him. It’s also the place where I spent a short year with Aleika, Somak and Akirno, and the Shindes, and all the other people and beasts who were part of my Indian world. That world is gone forever.

So as I grieve for my cat, I also grieve for these other pieces of my life which are lost and gone, never to return. Being here makes it all the more raw — also because I’m so happy to be here.

Pause à l'eclau 7

I’m still terribly sad about losing Bagha. I’ve been crying every day since he died. I didn’t have much time to myself between packing and traveling and arriving here, and it’s all been piling up, because I’ve been forgetting. Completely forgetting, because there has been so much positive excitement these last two days.

But now I’ve been remembering. Remembering that I miss Bagha not because I left him at home to go on a trip, but because he is gone, gone, gone. And it hurts like hell.

I don’t believe in any afterlife. I don’t believe in any spirit hanging around. There is no more Bagha, except in our photographs, our memories, and the changes he might have brought around in our lives. In mine, in any case.

I hinted that I would be telling you more about what I’m going through and learning these days. I actually started writing about what I was discovering about grief the other day, but got lost somewhere in the middle.

Grief is a weird state: it goes back and forth, up and down.

The first days after Bagha’s death, I would find myself going from a kind of numbness in which I’d “forgotten” he was dead to the horrible realization it was true even though I “couldn’t believe it”, and then devastating sadness in which my world seemed to have come to an end, and from which I had the feeling I would never emerge. And back out and back in again.

I would wake up crying in the morning and go to sleep crying at night. I had no trouble sleeping, however, to my surprise: I discovered that it is not sadness but anxiety which keeps one awake all night, mind spinning, too wired to slow down one’s thoughts enough to fade into sleep. For me, at least, grief seems to tire me out.

I put most of his things away over the first few days. Not in an attempt to make all traces of his presence disappear — more as a way to try and accept that these bowls, pieces of string and old expired meds would not be needed anymore. It took me a long time (until my imminent departure, actually) to touch his spot on my desk, though: I could still see the shape of his body on the pillow, and feel myself hanging on to this very physical trace of him.

Cleaning the flat was very hard. Tidying up. Removing the subtle remains of his presence in my life. The first time I hoovered without him trying to run out of the flat. The first time I changed the sheets without him trying to get under them. The first time I washed things in the bathtub without having to worry about him drinking the soapy water.

That cat was everywhere, all along my days. Watching TV: a break comes up, where’s the cat? I get up from what I’m doing, “to find the cat”. All these reflexes which are now meaningless.

My one consolation right now is that my grief is simple. I did everything right with this cat. He was a wonderful pet. I have no regrets. He lived a long life (14 years is not exceptional, but as Aleika put it, he probably outlived all of his litter-mates by at least 8 years) and even died pretty well (if one can die “well”). I don’t feel guilty, there’s nobody to be mad at, I knew he was going to die someday, and I treasured the time I had with him, specially these last few years.

It doesn’t make things easy, but it makes them simple. Even when it hurts as much as it does right now, I know that what I’m going through is normal, and that it will get better in time and tears, and that I will probably be ready at some point for new feline companionship.

So here it is: the one pain I’ve spent my whole life being so afraid of. I’m in it, it’s dreadful, but I’m still alive and happy to be. I have plans, I want to do things, I laugh and I smile. Life goes on, it really does, I know it for good now.

It hurts, but it goes on.

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