Let me tell you a little something about grief, and mourning: lots of people are going to tell you things about grief and mourning. They’re going to make all sorts of noises at you, and most of those noises will be designed to make you feel like you should move quickly through the mourning process, because everyone has better things to do. You’ll be allowed your allotted time, sure, but don’t exceed it.
Especially if you lose a pet. It was just a pet, people will tell you, heedless as to how their words twist like a knife.
Let me tell you something else about grief, and mourning: you have the right to do them on your own terms. You can mourn for as long as you like, and you can grieve in any way you like. And you can recognise that when you lose someone you truly, intensely loved, you will probably mourn that person, or animal, for the rest of your life.
Maybe with time you’ll reach the point where you don’t think about what you lost every day, where you can tell a funny story and laugh, and not feel a bittersweet twinge when you do. Maybe you’ll reach the point when the picture you hang on the wall feels like it’s conferring a little friendly blessing as you walk past it every morning, instead of glaring at you accusatorially, asking why you couldn’t do better. But then maybe sometimes you’ll have days where something bursts into your head and you experience a sense of loss so acute and intense that you feel like someone is ripping your heart out through the back of your rib cage, and it happens for no reason at all that you can tell, because grief is just that way.
Mr. Bell always looked out for his friends, was always the one who woke up first when he sensed a threat, or food. When Mr. Shadow was dying, Mr. Bell rarely left his side, afraid, like I was, that he might die alone, cold. He guarded Mr. Shadow to the last, even though the cancerous cells that killed him were already growing deep inside by then.
He helped me work, a role that Loki has tried to take over, but sometimes I reach over to scratch my office assistant’s head and I’m startled to encounter silky ears, a differently-shaped head. Mr. Bell especially loved it when I set up in the blue chair with a quilt wrapped around me and a keyboard on my lap — he’d burrow between my legs and stay there all day, grumbling when I tried to get up to do anything.
He always slept in the tightest of cat balls, like he was modeling for a competition, and he’d pick any soft surface, but he liked it best when I mounded up sweaters or quilts on my desk for him to lie on. He loved his cat drawer, and when he got too sick to jump into it, he liked it when I made him a nest on the desk and lifted him up. He would have loved the heated cat bed Loki uses now, although it would have been painful to watch him at the end, when he wouldn’t have been able to clamber over the sides to get inside.
He might or might not have rigged elections — the statute of limitations hasn’t run out on that one yet. But I remember him like this, curious, engaged, interested, and healthy, just as I also remember him in his final months, when some days he would run around the house, or sit up on the vet’s table and butt her hand as a signal that he wasn’t done just yet, and some days he would cry in the office, miserable, furious at the world.
Because this is something else I will tell you about grief: much though we might prefer otherwise, we do not get to pick which memories it chooses to fire, how it insists on tormenting us. And sometimes, secretly, we become so afraid of forgetting that we are grateful even for the painful, awful, terrible, miserable memories, because they are a reminder that it wasn’t all a dream. Grief is a razor, not a scalpel. It cuts indiscriminately, slicing through everything and flaying you wide open.
I don’t have the comfort of believing in an afterlife; Mr. Bell is gone, and he doesn’t exist in any form, and he is never coming back, and sometimes the loss of my best friend of 18 years is so devastating that I can barely remember to breathe, and that hasn’t gotten easier with time, but there is no shame in that. And I will never let anyone tell me otherwise.