My friend Kathy and I have met between our homes, hers in Wakefield Rhode Island and mine in Warwick, twice a month for ten years.  We are therapists.  We meet to offer each other support and guidance in our work and in our lives.

Recently, the subject was grief.  A client of Kathy’s felt he should be ‘further along’ two years after the death of his much-loved father.

Instantly, the image formed in my mind of grief as a ring of fire, frightening to approach, painful to step through.   And so the temptation is to ease on down the denial road, pretending our loved one really isn’t dead or that the loss really wasn’t so great.

Working with clients, I make no distinction between the loss of a human or animal companion.  Love is just love no matter what body it wears.  And my own primary guides in learning from grief have been animals.  I have grieved humans as well, but those relationships are much more complex; their endings sometimes hard to recognize as grief.  My feelings for my animal loved ones are far less conflicted and so their passing experienced as  piercing - but clear and much more simply - sadness.

Five members of my animal family are now buried under the towering white pine in my front yard, four cats and my rickety 18 year old miniature poodle.  The body of George, a 13 year old orange cat with a scarred white nose and serrated ears, is the most recent.  He was my dear companion and guide in life and has continued in these roles since his death.

When a client talks about losing a loved one and asks for ideas about wrestling with grief, I am happy to pass along an idea I got from Alexandra Kennedy’s wonderful book LOSING A PARENT.  She suggests making an appointment with grief.  Set aside a place and a time to remember the one who has passed.  Sit with pictures and objects that bring the loved one to mind and allow yourself to be in his/her presence.  But set a time limit and grieve for only 15 minutes.  Then leave it and go on.

Here’s how George taught me to remember him.  I had a picture of George in his salad days enlarged and framed.  The picture sits on an end table next to the chair I usually use.  Several times a day, I relate to the picture in some way and thus to  his memory.  I brush the back of my hand across the photo as I used to do along his cheek.  I pick the picture up and hold it.  Or I just speak to it, saying ‘I love you’ or ‘I miss you’.

But maybe once or twice a month in the season since George died, I step through the ring of fire and let the grief burn me.  I feel completely my love of this special friend, and my loss.  And in that feeling we meet again as intimately as in life.  As I feel my throat tighten and the tears come, it as though the water coming from my eyes acts as a conductor for the energy that connected us when George had a body.   In the sadness, he is alive to me again.

I tell this to clients.  Let the tears come.  When you are strong enough to feel the pain, you will also in that moment, feel again the presence of the one you have lost.

Immediately on the other side of the ring of fire, I can remember George very clearly:  his chin on my pillow and his paw cupped in my hand  as we slept.  I can feel it!  I can see the scars on his nose and the little bites in his ears, remnants of his time on the road before he accepted me as his life assignment.  I can hear the chirp of his singing purr during one of our many conversations.  I can see the little spot of black fur in the corner of one eye, on an orange and white creamsicle cat!  These are details that bring him alive for me, that I cannot remember already, so soon after his death, unless I allow myself to step into the grief.

But there is even more treasure on the other side of the burning ring.  I am finding that when I let the grief in, I not only am in contact again with my beloved, but he becomes my guide again in his new world.  He shows me where life never ends and limits never bind.  He leads me where he has grown and allows me to know in my body that there is no death.  We live as raindrops.  My loved ones who have passed before me show me the ocean.

Now this holy state doesn’t last.  Grief is composed of many moments spent slogging through lonely patches.  Much of the time I just want my animals warm and squishy furbodies back!  I remember when my 21 year old cat Ivan, a solid black Siamese-mix,  died.  Three days after his death, I found myself walking around the house saying:  ‘Okay.  This hasn’t been too bad.    I’ve been good.  I’ve been brave.  Now I want my cat back.  Three days is just about enough.  Now that’s it.  I want my cat back.  Now!’

I don’t know anyone who isn’t afraid of grief.  It burns.  And so we tend not to do it and by not attending to it allow it to become an undertow in our lives.  But we’re going to have losses.  And if we’re going to experience them and they’re going to hurt, we might as well go for the diamonds in the coal.

Some time after the death of Simon, another elderly and ailing foundling cat, we were having a conversation late at night.  I was going over with him a mistake I made which shortened his earthly life.   I saw him as I had met him first, under a tree by the side of the road after I had nearly hit him with my car.  He was a tall, blond rack of a longhaired cat.  One eye was weeping.  His fur hung like moss on a cypress.  When he answered my questions about his health with a loud ‘yarow!’, he had only two canines, both on the same side.

He lived six years after I persuaded him to come home with me.  He was more frail than I knew when I took him to the groomer to have the mats - which I should have prevented from developing - cut out of his hair.  The grooming was too stressful and he had a stroke on the table.

So we were discussing this - he sitting tall under his  cauliflower ears  - when I just dropped into the grief and said  ‘I just miss you.  I want you here.’  And he answered, ‘I am here.  Every time you hold another cat, I’m right  there.’  And, you know, I’ve noticed since then that he really is!   I can feel him or Ivan or George - any one of them I want to tune in, in a warm, squishy body!

Grief hurts.  None of us would choose it as a way to learn.  But the life road isn’t straight.  There are sharp turns.  There are deaths and there will be grief.  Our  loved ones can show us the way through, if we let them.

Published in the 2005 Chicken Soup For The Cat Lover's Soul and 2008 101 Best Stories