On Loss, Grief, Cats, and Picture Books

posted by Gina

Stella Cat turned 16 in August.  We brought her home from the pound when I was just a few months out of college, so small she slept in her food dish.  She’s seen me through love, loss, divorce, uncertainty, joy, and a cross-country move.  She is the love of my life.  She is not doing very well this week.

The vet is cautiously optimistic, but I know that even if she comes home this time, I’m facing the reality of losing her in the fairly near future.

Stella Cat, studiously ignoring the paparazzi.

In many ways, for many of us, these loves are more personal, more profound, than any other relationships we have.  For those without a pet, there are no words to explain this strangely deep and meaningful connection.  The logical triviality of it (“it’s just a pet!”) doesn’t measure up to this kind of grief.   

As children, this is often our first heartbreak.  As parents and as teachers, this is our opportunity to help our children learn how to grieve and how to move on.

So, while I’m staring down the phone, waiting for the vet to call with an update, let me recommend a couple of books.

Badger’s Parting Gifts, Susan Varley
I first read this book fifteen years ago, when a teacher I was working with pulled it for a child who had lost her father.  It has been a staple ever since. After losing Badger, his friends struggle to cope with the loss. As they remember him they realize he lives on through his influence, lessons, and love.  Beautiful and moving without veering into sentimentality, this is a story we could all stand to read a couple of times a year – both to help us through our own griefs and to remind ourselves to live the kind of lives we want remembered.

Before continuing, a Rainbow Bridge” note –

There are a wide variety of incarnations of this in book form.  All revolve around the same basic premise: there’s a pet heaven where you will someday be reunited and where, in the meantime, your pet will frolic about in happiness.

A lot of people love this idea, and a lot of people – young and old – have found comfort here.  I’m totally down with that.  Anything that helps us through the grief process is good by me, and my classroom philosophy was always to throw everything I could out there to see what stuck.

That said: I am not a fan.

You may have already suspected, but I’m kind of a grouch.  My inner 9-year-old finds this concept annoying (at best) or infuriating (at worst).  As a child, I didn’t find “your loss is heaven’s gain” particularly comforting.  Like most kids, I had a narcissistic view of justice, and this just didn’t seem fair:  “I don’t WANT heaven to gain. I want my cat HERE.”

Which brings me to …

The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, Judith Viorst
Yes, this is the Judith Viorst of Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day fame – which means I don’t need to say much else, right?

But I will.

This is a wholly unsentimental, “your pet is gone and that is hard and let’s remember him” story, lovely in its simplicity, surprisingly comforting. Barney has died, and to help his sad and lost young owner, his mother suggests making a list of ten things about Barney to say over his grave.  The tenth “good thing” becomes a way to accept and begin to find peace with Barney’s loss. The reality, honesty, and immediacy of the text speaks to the part of me that needs the acknowledgment of what is happening and the concrete to-dos of moving on.

The Heart and the Bottle, Oliver Jeffers
If you don’t already know Oliver Jeffers your life is incomplete.  There’s nothing like Lost and Found to make the world seem right again. (In the course of writing this entry, I found out he’s all Irish and my age and living in my neighborhood.  Maybe we can be friends.  Are you reading this, Oliver?  I make great cupcakes.)

Anyhow.  The Heart and the Bottle is beautiful, heartbreaking, and redeeming.  This is the book I give to adult friends grieving the loss of a parent.  This is the book I will turn to when I have to face that loss myself. After her loss, our young girl puts her heart in a bottle, determined to keep it safe, eventually to discover all she loses by not letting in the world.  Jeffers’ illustrations are wonderful and beautiful and you will want to pore over them for days.  This book is just how we feel when we’re hurting the most, and carefully, lovingly – non-condescendingly – brings us back to the place where we can feel again.

These are my go-tos.  What are yours?  Let us know what titles I should be adding to my shelves.

* An Update:
Lost my wonderful girl on Saturday, November 3rd, 16 years and 12 days after the day we brought her home from the San Francisco SPCA.  And turns out, it is still true:  all the (well-meant and very loving) messages about the Rainbow Bridge, about some heaven that looks like my apartment and is full of snacks, does absolutely nothing to comfort me, and my poor boyfriend did get a punch in the arm when he ventured into that territory. So for what it’s worth, “I’m sorry”, “she was wonderful”, “I will miss her too” are all my suggestions for expressing sympathy to the grieving grouches like me.  Because I don’t want her in a better place.  I want her with me.

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Author: Gina L. Grandi

Moderately well-read. Fairly socially awkward. According to Greg, 'a sentimental cynic with artistic sensibilities.' Somewhat nifty.

2 thoughts on “On Loss, Grief, Cats, and Picture Books”

  1. I think all three could work for a four year old. They’ll have varying levels of understanding of the nuances – and The Heart and the Bottle, in particular, will be largely over their heads. Badger’s Parting Gifts I would recommend most highly for a younger kiddo.

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