On Sunday morning we were searching the front yard for our cat, Louis. Pickles was perplexed because in the waking hours Louis was always close by him. Louis would follow him around the garden, or sit and watch him playing. If we were inside and he was out, he would be at the window. If he couldn’t find us he would wait by the door.
Before Pickles, Louis had never really advanced from the noisy, playfully aggressive kitten that we’d picked from the litter of foundlings at our local vet. He had never been around other cats and so assumed he was human. He mostly wanted to eat what and when and where we ate. He wanted to sleep tucked up under the covers with his head on the pillow. He liked all of our favourite television shows. When someone arrived who he didn’t know or trust, he would rush headlong into the defence of the home. A little streak of terrific madness.
When Pickles was born Louis became a different cat. He had always been affectionate and protective, but now he was also unspeakably gentle and tolerant. As Pickles grew, he pulled Louis’ tail and fur, lay on top of him, and on several occasions even tried to ride him around the house. Louis took it all. He was ever patient, ever loving. Just before Pords was born, we moved house and Pickles was a little more fragile than usual. He had dissolved into tears at something or other, and Louis came over and started licking his face. He licked and licked until Pickles was laughing. They were best mates.
So, on Sunday morning when Louis wasn’t around, Pickles came up with all sorts of theories as we searched. He settled on the one in which Louis was on holidays – probably the beach, but maybe Nana’s house because she has fish. Suddenly, my husband said: “I see him.” He pointed to the side of the road. I knew from the tone that it was not good.
I bundled Pickles and Pords into the car and left my poor husband to deal with it on his own, not wanting the kids to see. As we drove, Pickles kept his eyes peeled: “Looking, looking, looking” He sang. “What are you looking at?” I asked. “Looking for Lou Lou” He replied. My heart sank. I pointed out a bus, hoping to distract him. “Bus looking for Lou Lou.” In that moment I decided to play along. “Yes. Or maybe Lou Lou took the bus to the beach.” He looked satisfied; that was probably it. Ok phew, I don’t have to deal with this right now. As soon as we got home though: “Lou Lou back? Lou Lou back?” Of course Lou Lou was not back. “Nope, still on holidays. He might not come back.”
I saw some friends that afternoon and talked it through with them. I also read some articles about toddlers and grief. There was a general consensus that simplicity and honesty were the best policies. So that night I pulled Pickles onto my lap and said: “You know what happened to Louis? He’s dead. That means he can’t ever come back. But he was a special part of our family. He was a funny old cat wasn’t he?” Pickles’ face furrowed in deep concentration as he grappled with the philosophical ramifications of this new word: dead. I wondered if I had done the wrong thing.
I asked if he wanted to hear the story of when his dad and I had first met Louis. He smiled. “Yes please!” So I told him the story. And again. Probably twenty times before he would go to sleep. In the end he was telling it with me. “This one!” he’d yell when I got to the part where we decided that Louis was the cat for us. Then finally he slept and my husband and I could talk through our own sorrow.
The next morning the first thing Pickles wanted to do was to make a play dough sculpture of Louis. Later, his cousin brought him a picture she had drawn of Louis and he rushed to proudly display it on the fridge. It was the first thing he showed his dad when he walked in the door that evening. “Lou Lou!”
He is gone, but Pickles has already found ways of remembering him. Inevitably one day he will have much bigger griefs to deal with, and perhaps this experience will have helped in some way to prepare him for those to come. I used to think it was callous when people said that having pets was a good way of teaching children about grief and loss but I can see the point. I hope that when he next faces grief, he is able to hold on to some of this ability to find joy in remembering. And I will try to remember how being able to share in that joy with him has helped me this time too.