A holy string of losses

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This week, we buried our last and oldest cat. Closing in on 18 years of age, Henry survived all the other strays who arrived to huddle against our front door. Fast cars on our country road, disease, and probably a hungry fisher claimed the lives of Martha, Max, Arthur, Freddy and Dennis, while cautious Henry stuck close to home and lived on. But at last, thin, weak, and bloated by edema, it was his turn too. As he lay on the metal table in the vet’s examining room, I looked into his clear emerald eyes and stroked his fine ginger fur and wept.

Now our small house seems too large, far too quiet. My feet drag, emails go unanswered, and my usual drive seems stuck in neutral, idling uselessly. Fatigue ambushes me.

I recognize the heavy emptiness of grief – for Henry, yes, but also for the growing list of human beloveds who have died. This December marks the first anniversary of the death of my brother Peter. I remember the last days of his life when my siblings, their families and I held vigil at the hospital with my sister-in-law, at first joking with Pete while he still could talk, and then sitting quietly by his bedside as he struggled for what breath remained. Flashes of memories of my mother, determined to hold on to every single second of her long and active life. My father, dead now nearly 30 years. At 67, I am as old as my father was when he died, a thought that haunts me. All those aunts and uncles who will never answer the questions that only now arise. Friends and acquaintances from our village, whom I had come to know and like.

My friend Laura recently sent me one of her fine poems. I read and re-read aloud the lines,

each loss strung
alongside the last
hanging from this boat of me

Now, only wondering –
is grief being kept alive
or only the memory
of those who have gone.

The dead crowd my mind, jostling for attention, each striking a spark of memory. Maybe the reason that grief is being kept alive, through memory, is to reassure the dead that they are not forgotten. Or, as my wise sister Pat suggests: when thoughts of our dead preoccupy us, it could mean they are close by, making their wordless – and worldless – presence known through grief, the language that connects us to them.

Either way, my heart counsels me to make room for this grief as honourable and ultimately holy.

Gill Strung

Do you know
what the fishermen do?

Once their fish are caught?
They keep them alive,
gill strung and tethered
tied to their boat
swimming yet again.
When returning to shore –
still fresh.

I, too, have been a fisherman.
Summer days in youth
I, too, filled the stringer.

Remember those days –

Now, when I remember you –
I seem to remember
the others too

as I catch the heart break of loss
I reach below
pulling the stringer up again
full with previous grief –
each loss strung
alongside the last
handing from this boat of me

Now, only wondering –
is grief being kept alive
or only the memory
of those who have gone.

~ Laura Hooper



  1. Wendy G Sarno

    November 30, 2018

    Oh, yes, Mary Lou, your tears fill these words with such heart and such beauty and so much love for the beloveds who have blessed your life. Each loss hung so close to the others. Dear Henry. I weep with you. I sometimes think I’ve grieved at least as deeply at the deaths of my animals as the people in my life. I love the image of the cats huddled against your door. When I sat with my Kudsu, just shy of 21 years, on that metal table at the vet, she leaned into me with her whole, weak body. I imagined she sensed herself disappearing into me as she went, knowing she was loved and held to the end. So did Henry. And your brother. And all the ones you have loved so well over the years. Thank you for sharing Laura’s exquisite poem. My tenderest love to you.

  2. Nicole

    December 1, 2018

    Dear Mary Lou

    My heart feels your loss. Henry was a beautiful cat with eyes that were so present. He could not have found a better home to be loved and cared for. Thank for sharing the poem. I am sending you a warm hug dear Mary Lou

  3. Janice

    December 2, 2018

    Dear Mary Lou, what an exquisite expression of your loss and the importance of grief in our lives. I love the idea that grief is a language that connects us with those who have died. My own father has been much on my mind these past weeks in the 9th year of his death, gill strung along with my mother, friends, relations. They remain fresh, each loss alongside the last as dear Laura has imagined for us. With gratitude for sharing your grief with us and with love, Jan

  4. Sherry

    December 3, 2018

    Oh the great gifts that our companion animals give us while they share our lives and oh how painful it is to say good-bye. Your reflection on grief touches me deeply right now as two good friends are facing recent deaths of loved ones and are feeling the huge absences and all that that brings up. Sending you gentle virtual hugs and compassion for your loss of beautiful Henry and the anniversaries of the deaths of your brother and mother who were so cherished by you and will remain in your heart always.

  5. Mary Lou van Schaik

    December 3, 2018

    Dear friends – your loving empathy brings tears to my eyes. I am so grateful for your condoling hearts. Love – Mary Lou

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