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The Gains in Our Losses: Growing Through the Pain

Loss

“In this world of change, nothing which comes stays, and nothing which goes is lost.”  ~ Anne Sophie Swetchine

I’ve always been a “cat guy.” This was long before my Buddhist friends told me stories of how cats are true earthly masters, here on earth to show us the way. Or, to demonstrate the meditative perfection of the feline purr. Or, how the life of a cat is seen in some traditions as reward for good karma.

When I lived in rural Nova Scotia, the house was blessed with two cats named Midge and Mooch—tabby mixes, who would come and go as they pleased, and were kind enough, if not overly affectionate.

I kept asking for a cat of my own, and my folks eventually buckled. For my seventh birthday, I received a black and white kitten with golden eyes and a salmon-pink nose. He took to me instantly. Love at first meow.  

My parents kept pushing me to name him, but whenever I asked what he wanted to be called, he’d just scamper off. Cats are coy like that.

A few weeks later, my dad pulled out a Canadian road atlas and told me to point to the first town that caught my eye. And that’s how we finally settled on a name: Kitchener.  

I’d call for him, and he’d come without too much argument, so I guess the name wasn’t that offensive, all things considered.

For a lonely kid who lived in the middle of Granville Ferry—population 820—this was as close to friendship as I was likely to get. And it was more than enough.  

A week after school let out for the summer, I was playing across the road on a rope swing attached to the neighbor’s big elm tree. Kitchener would follow me sometimes, climbing up the trunk and perching above as I swung. I’d lean back to scan the sky, comforted by the blurred canopy of branches, and the tiny black and white face nestled within.

I heard my mom yell that dinner was in 20 minutes. It was a Sunday, so that meant pizza night; homemade dough, tomato paste, cheap chunks of pepperoni, and cheddar cheese were manna from heaven for a seven year old. I leapt off the dangling wooden plank and ran across the road.

I didn’t hear Kitchener yowl behind me. I didn’t hear the hooded jogger, approaching in the looming dusk, shout an urgent warning. I didn’t hear the engine of the ‘68 Chevy growling down the highway, its elderly American passengers ripe with thoughts of seaside picnics and historic lighthouses. The only thing I heard was screaming. Mine.  

Screaming through the pain, and blood, and terrifying confusion. Strobing in and out of consciousness, I remember my dad suddenly appearing over me, pale and distraught, and tearing off his flannel overcoat. For some reason, he started beating my leg with it.

I screamed again—howled, actually. He rolled me over, and almost fainted.

I’d find out later that my shoe and pant-leg were on fire; I had slid across the road so fast after the impact that they ignited. It didn’t help that I flew face-first. Or, that I had a compound fracture.  

I can’t imagine how my father felt when he flipped me over and saw the sticky crimson mask, and the shattered fibula and tibia tent-poling through my jeans and flesh. His only child—adopted, no less—the source of all this horror.

The rest of the injury tale is for another day. Suffice to say, I was hospitalized, hammered and stitched, physio’ed, and sent home with a cast up to my hip. But I wasn’t sad.

Even with the permanent loss of 100% mobility, and the fact that we had just installed an aboveground pool. (Yup, the Simpsons copied my life. I’m assured the royalty check is in the mail.)

I wasn’t sad because I had my kitty to come home to. Kitchener would be there for me no matter what, because that’s how best friends roll. 

Except that he wasn’t. I’d call from my army cot in the living room, louder with each passing day, but only Midge and Mooch would come sniffing. I asked my parents to look for him back in the garden and across the road. They’d just wring their hands and promise to try.

You see, I’d been in the Halifax Sick Kids’ Hospital for nearly a week. My folks would make the 150-mile trek every day, bringing hopeful smiles, get-well cards from neighbors, and portable cribbage and chessboards to play on. They’d sneak in cake and popsicles, help the nurse with my bedpan, and keep me from picking the scabs off my face.

But what they didn’t do—what they failed to tell me—was that Kitchener was dead.

They found him on the side of the road one morning, on the way to visit me. In the same spot where I was hit. He was less than a year old. Almost seven in human years. The same age as me.

They buried him on the back acreage, near the edge of the vegetable garden. Beside the old colonial graveyard where I used to lay on stone slabs from the 1700’s and see faces in the clouds. Where Kitchener would stalk mice and bees, while making sure I didn’t get too lost in heavy, lonesome thoughts.

My dad put me in a small utility trailer attached to the riding mower, and took me out to see the grave. It was just a small mound of dirt, crowned by hollyhocks, bluebells, and long grass. I don’t think I cried then. I only remember not looking at that mound of dirt again until months later, when I was able to hobble there by myself.

I was seven years old when my cat died. I’ve tasted death since. Other pets. Family members.  Good friends. Lovers. But Kitchener was my first. And when my young, broken self stared down at the tiny grave months later, a calm washed over me as the tears began to flow.

It was like a contract had been fulfilled. A life for a life. A great love. A tragic loss. And, a profound lesson.

During our brief time together, Kitchener brought the fuzziness of my existence into focus. Up until then, I had felt distant from life. Removed. Like I’d never truly be understood, so therefore I wasn’t meant to be a part of the world around me.

But his presence snapped a fearful, self-absorbed child out of his shell. His touch made that boy feel more connected to another living being than he had ever dreamed of feeling. His purr filled that young, damaged heart with such complete joy that the thought of ever losing it wasn’t ever a consideration. 

I’ve learned that not all attachments are bad, even when they hurt (especially so)—unlike our expectations, our whims and desires, our material goods, or our fair-weather friendships. The real bonds—the ones we form on the deepest, most meaningful, most vulnerable levels—they touch us, and change us, and the truth of them endures.

My little friend and I will always be together. Always. Frolicking in sunbeams in the infinite moment. But he could only teach me this by breaking my heart in death.

My first guru had four feet. I guess my Buddhist friends were right after all.

Sometimes we gain through loss. We just need to be willing to see the lesson and let ourselves grow through the pain.

Photo by Lel4nd

About Brooke Burgess

BROOKE BURGESS is an award-winning writer and transmedia producer from Canada. He created the acclaimed motion comic techno-spiritual saga ‘Broken Saints’, has multiple films in development, and is currently finishing the first novel of a children’s fantasy series—The Shadowland Saga. You can follow Brooke on Twitter at and learn more about his work at www.brookeburgess.com.

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  • Sophie

    Oh this made me cry, what a beautiful story, thank you for sharing it

  • baro

    Thanks, i look for a fresh start for my happy being too much failure in my mind has happened and i lost my focus in life but i stil havevhope thats why i am writing this piece of thoughts.

  • barbs

    Wow- that made my stomach ache for you. That feeling of closeness to an animal, -the pure love, compassion unconditional friendship. I love my cat so much, she is such a part of my life and yet I know one day ill have to let her go – some day, for some reason. She has survived cancer, and she is just the best buddy ! ( although i love my human friends too !! ) And the lesson here, that nothing lasts forever is so brutal and tragic, and yet inevitable. Its loving a living being, yet knowing, all things are transient. Thank you for that beautiful story – really made me cry ! Best wishes, and hugs 🙂

  • Brooke Burgess

    I’m so pleased that the story could resonate with you — thanks to a fellow feline-lover!

  • Brooke Burgess

    Stay strong…all things are destined for change 🙂

  • Brooke Burgess

    My pleasure, Sophie — moved that it could touch people in some way!

  • Crunadh

    Your story made me cry out of two reasons. My beloved cat died some weeks ago. She was 13 years old and had cancer. I still miss her terribly. This huge loss made me think about death and life. And so I discovered buddhism (which is the second reason why your story touched me so much). Thank you for sharing! It mad realize that I’m not the only one to feel this pain about an animal’s death.

  • Arlene

    What if you cannot see the lesson?

  • Brooke Burgess

    The lesson is always tied to the pain. If we don’t ‘blame’ an external enemy (human ‘evil’, Fate, God, etc), then the lesson usually becomes clear in time.

  • Brooke Burgess

    Much warmth your way. You might appreciate a recent post I made about a silent Buddhist retreat that stirred up some heavy thoughts on death.

  • Lizzie Lumsden

    Beautifully written thank you. I never leave comments on articles but for this I just had to. It is heart-wrenchingly lovely.

  • Brooke Burgess

    Infinitely flattered, Lizzie!

  • Arlene

    Thank you, Brooke. Thank you for your story and insight.

  • SouthernGirl

    This story had me in tears, it just tore me up. I think it’s because one of my greatest loves was Ozzie, my cat, we came together when I was 18-19 and he left me a couple years ago at the ripe old age of 19. We had spent so many years together and he was my rock, when I cried, he came near and loved me, when I was happy he would tear through the house and make me laugh, he was so smart and such an important part of my life. I remember the last night we had together, when I knew the end was near, and the look and meow he gave me, to this day tears me up. He knew it was the last time we would be together and to this day I can not put into words the love and respect I had for that cat. Thank you for your story!

  • Brooke Burgess

    Your words made ME cry, SouthernGirl…consider us even. Much respect.

  • Veronica

    This came in a perfect timing. My experience was with my little dog Oso who passed away 3 days ago:( I love him and he will always be in my heart. It’s the transition that is difficult for me. But something I have gained with his loss is that my mom and I are having a better relationship. I have never felt the closeness of my mother until I now.

  • Nick

    Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt story. I to have been struggling with two losses, one was my first true love due to a breakup and then followed soon after by the death of my mother. The loss of both of these women has changed me in ways I cannot begin to describe, yet I know that I will come out stronger and better in the end. It had been 8 months since these two events and I still continue to learn lessons in them, your article being yet another among many. Not all attachements are bad, it is our attitude and willingness to learn from them that matters.

  • Brooke Burgess

    Perfectly said!

  • I’m so sorry about your dog. We lost one of ours earlier this year and it is heartbreaking but eventually the pain subsides and you still have all of the happy memories to cherish forever.

  • Diana

    Thank you for this article. I also never usually comment on articles but this one was so touching. I lost my cat a few weeks ago. He had been with me through some very tough times and although I really valued his companionship in life,when he was gone I seemed to realise just how significant he has been for me.
    I know that I will always have his memory with me and that in time this will be the most important thing. I feel very priviledged to have had such a wonderful cat companion.

  • Valerie Rogers

    OK, see my comment didn’t post- trying again. Very touching story, and what a profound loss for you at seven. This left an impact that changed you forever. I’ve recently gone through a devastating loss and working on getting to that other side of grief. We become empathetic by these experiences. Rest assured, your kitty as well as your other loved ones will be on the ‘other side’ to greet you when that time comes. Blessings.

  • Kathy www.yinyangmother.com

    I love this post Brooke, such a poignant story, so well told. I blog as yinyangmother and truly believe that gain is contained within loss, loss within gain. Sometimes it depends on how we choose to see things.

  • Val

    So many lessons so little time. It’s difficult when you are mired in pain from so many different events overlapping. I am sitting here still stunned by the accident that happened to you. I have a 10 yo girl and 4 yo boy and wow I can’t even imagine. And yet your focus was on the loss of a dear little kitten. I am a dog person so I understand. You endured so much at such a young age but I believe you were able to endure it so well because you were 7 and loved Kitchener fiercely. Even though you had lost him when you had the accident Kitchener instilled something in you that allowed you to endure every parent’s worst nightmare. Never underestimate the power of furry little (or big) four-legged friends. Thanks for sharing. Namaste.

  • Brooke Burgess

    Then your sweet Oso was a ‘guru’ too…enabling this connection in your life to flourish. Beautiful.

  • Brooke Burgess

    Thanks so much for your supportive/understanding thoughts – means a lot 🙂

  • Brooke Burgess

    Perfectly said.

  • Brooke Burgess

    Thank you for the kind words, Kathy — I too believe that ‘loss’ is akin to a blacksmith’s forge; it takes fire and impacts to turn iron into a sword.

  • Brooke Burgess

    Deep thanks for your warm words, and condolences/support for your loss xo BB

  • Beautiful post. Sorry for your loss. But thank you so much for the advice.

    I am currently going through the loss of my girlfriend (she broke up with me), and while it has been very painful, I am starting to see the lessons, and they are many.

    Thank you for sharing, this hit me in the way I needed to.

  • PIXIE

    This really resonated with me….I love my dog more than anything in the world…she recently turned two, and I couldnt imagine how I’d be in the same situation 🙁 Really humbling, love, peace and respect

  • What a beautiful, heartbreaking, touching story. A cat was my route into connection, too, Brooke, and his loss was the defining moment that ended my childhood. It’s going on 35 years since I last saw him, and I still miss him terribly.

    The bonds between animals and children should never be underestimated. And I agree that not all attachments are bad. I’ve lost many pets since my beloved first friend, and each time is excruciating. But even though I know loss is inevitable, I keep signing up. I’d rather have the connection and lose it than live without.

  • lv2terp

    Truly inspiring post, thank you for sharing this story, wisdom and insight!!!! You are truly a gifted writer/storyteller! 🙂

  • Vincentas

    Wow…This post really touched me,it’s emotional.You deserve the title “award-winning writer”.

  • Lucy Roleff

    needed this article today as I have to go and help put down the family dog who is 16 and very ill. Not used to these feelings of loss but I know it will get better xx