Vinnie died on Sunday.
He was just a cat, but he meant a lot to our family. He joined us over fifteen years ago. It was mother’s day, and my wife prayed for a pet. To her surprise, Vinnie showed up later that day at the porch, and he has been with us ever since.
He was unusually friendly and outgoing for a cat – greeting visitors, following us around the house, staying by us as we worked or relaxed, saying goodbye when we would leave, and welcoming us home when we drove into the garage. Every day, for fifteen years.
Vinnie’s health declined rapidly over the past few weeks. He lost weight and lacked energy. A vet diagnosed his condition as untreatable cancer and heart problems. He died naturally in our home. My son and I then buried his lifeless body in a cardboard box in a grassy field.
As I processed Vinnie’s passing this week, I was surprised by the tide of painful emotions that rushed over me – feelings that I think must be familiar to everyone, whether they have lost a pet or something more.
I Felt Sorrow: It was been painful to watch Vinnie suffer. He wasn’t able to move much for his last week, so he opted to lie near our kitchen where he could see all of us most often. It was heart wrenching to watch our little friend increasingly struggle for each breath and lose control of his limbs. Everything about it seemed wrong and out of place, as if the world was broken.
I Felt Loss: Vinnie was loved by our family, and we will miss his company. I realize though that my feelings of loss were about more than just the cat. A lot has changed since Vinnie joined our family – my mom died, my kids have grown from toddlers to almost adulthood, my career has taken unplanned turns, and we’ve moved twice. He has been with us through so much that his passing feels like the closing of a chapter, or at least a sign that we’re about to close one, and a reminder that things will never be the same.
I Felt Regret: Vinnie died alone in the middle of the night. I was upstairs asleep in my bed. I didn’t expect him to go so quickly. If I had, I would have been there by him. If only I had not let him down in his time of need. I know that this also is tied to something more. I remember when I promised my mom as she was dying that I would take care of her many cats, but unfortunately I failed to do so very well. So here was another cat in need, and I wasn’t there for it as much as I wish I had been. Ouch.
What to do?
Sorrow, loss, and regret are something we all experience, whether it concerns a pet passing away or something else, such as a destroyed relationship, a failed business, a foreclosed house, a never-fulfilled dream, a missed friend, an emotional wound from someone we trusted, or the death of a loved one. As we get older, the pain of one thing after another can build up, and, if not dealt with, can temp even a strong person to depression, alcoholism, substance abuse, eating disorders, promiscuity, workaholism, isolation, self-contempt, or depression.
Fortunately, there is a better way to deal with our hurt emotions.
1. I realize that my feelings are normal.
Loss, especially the loss of life or abuse, feels unnatural and uncomfortable precisely because it is unnatural and is not part of God’s perfect plan. There was no loss or death in Eden, and there will be none in Heaven.
2. I realize that God cares.
God never minimizes our pain, no matter how small it may seem to others. Jesus said that our Heavenly Father notices when even a little sparrow falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29-30) which means that God cares for and is attentive to even the most insignificant of his creation, including our cat. Jesus went on to say that we are worth more than many sparrows to our Father in heaven, and so we do not need to fear. As the hymn says, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”
3. I thank God for the gains amidst the losses.
He is always blessing us with good things. No matter how bad things get, the sun still rises, the flowers blossom, a new day comes. Romans 8:28 even promises that He will make all things work for good if we are His.
4. I am patient with myself.
Psychologists tell us that there are five stages of grief that people go through as they deal with the death of a loved one: 1. Denial, 2. Anger, 3. Bargaining, 4. Depression, 5. Acceptance. When my mom died I realized that I was indeed proceeding through each of these stages, in order, over many months. I have since realized that I go through at least some of them, albeit much more quickly, even when I’m dealing with much smaller losses of various kinds. Realizing that I’m in process helps me to be patient with myself as I heal.
5. I let God carry my regrets.
Everyone, except perhaps for the most narcissistic individuals, lives with some regret as they get older. When elderly people are interviewed, they often lament that they did not spend more time with their children, or take more risks, or follow their dreams, or … and on it goes. The pain of regret can feel debilitating sometimes. It helps me to realize that regret and shame is actually a realization that I missed the mark in a way that can never be remedied. This is the very definition of the biblical word “sin.” When Jesus died on the cross, he bore our regrets and shame! Thankfully, I can now acknowledge my failure, entrust my sin to him … and move on.
1 John 1:9 ESV If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Romans 8:1: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (NIV)
2 Corinthians 7:10 ESV For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret,….
Philippians 3, “forgetting what lies behind and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of god in Christ Jesus.”
6. I look forward to a better, pain-free future.
A beautiful day is coming when there will be no more sorrow or pain or suffering or death (Revelation 21:4-5)… and, we can infer, no more loss or regret.
Even cats will be there! “And the leopard will lie down with the young” (Isaiah 11:6, notice that felines are in the heavenly kingdom, with a nod to my cat Vinnie).
And all will be as it should be.