Written by Casey Hersch, LCSW
This is the first in a series of posts about Casey’s experience following the loss of her senior cat Yochabel. After Yochabel’s passing, Casey was convinced that she would not regain stability unless she adopted another hospice cat. Struggling with her own chronic autoimmune disease and childhood trauma, Casey believes her life purpose is to give back her own healthcare knowledge to help vulnerable senior cats. Instead, to her surprise, kittens were just what the doctor ordered. She begins her journey with foster kitten Pawso, who shows Casey her new life purpose. Pawso not only teaches Casey how to live, but has a very important message to share with the world.
Dealing with Grief
As the days passed following Yochabel’s transition over the rainbow bridge, the silence cracked my bones. During her last days, we both found the most resilient parts of ourselves while growing even closer than we already were. Those of you who followed The Conscious Cat for a while may remember me sharing her story, Yochabel’s Wisdom, with you. She developed bladder cancer at age 20. This type of cancer was merciless and ugly. Throughout the pain of caring for her, the time came when Yochabel told me she was ready to transition. I did not want to let her go, but I knew I had to make the right decision to humanely help end her suffering. No matter what my mind told me, my heart selfishly still wanted her with me—to soothe my pain, brighten my days, and remind me of my purpose. I was terrified of the silence that comes with loneliness.
On the other side of this loss was relief. Those months before Yochabel left, I worried every day. I even felt as though my bladder hurt, too. I rallied through every up and down with her, maybe sometimes too attached, and other times with just the right amount of focus. My own fragile autoimmune-disease compromised body had been surviving on very little fuel. My stress level definitely burned out my motor. I tried to shut away the relief I felt at not having to see cancer’s brutal force. Relief made me feel more guilty, but truly, there was a part of me that knew one aspect of both of our suffering had ended.
As a psychotherapist, I live and breathe emotional expression. However, in my personal life, as I allowed my emotions to freely come and go, I also felt the dangers of falling into a dark hole and succumbing to the pain. I rallied just like Yochabel had during her illness, fighting to return to my life, accepting a new routine, and grounding myself in the familiarity of mundane tasks. I reminded myself that Yochabel wanted my life to positively move forward. I needed her wisdom to sustain me. I honored her by nurturing my mind and nourishing my body.
Getting another cat to soothe my pain tempted me. Yet I worried that another cat could not possibly be as perfect as Yochabel. I feared I would resent the new cat for reminding me of what I would never have again: the irreplaceable Yochabel. I did not want to give any cat less than they deserved; therefore, I resisted the urge to adopt. I made a pact with myself that I would consider a new cat companion only after I met the following criteria: I processed my grief and loss to such an extent I was sure a new cat would not be a “bandaid” to my feelings. I healed enough that a new cat would not prevent me from facing my grief-stricken reality. When I could be a cat parent as an extension of my love for Yochabel and life, then the time would be right.
Alas, I found a loop hole in my pact. I had never spent any part of my life without a cat. I knew I could not function without feline energy. I made a compromise that fostering rescue cats to prepare them for adoption was an excellent and impermanent solution. Having rescue cats in my home would ensure my overall stability while I still grieved Yochabel’s departure.
I sent my intention out to the universe and told myself when the time is right, my home and service would be called upon. At the time I was completely focused on senior cats and only senior cats. I was experienced at caring for the intricate needs of hospice cats. I also lived with a chronic condition, Crohn’s disease. Caring for senior cats made me feel less alone in a world that harshly judges and misunderstands chronic and invisible illness. Little did I know that what I planned for my life was not what the universe planned for my life.
I got the call the night I returned from a vacation to Maui. A biker found four kittens on the bike path near my house. Their mother was missing, and a hawk had been circling the fragile newborns for hours. The rescue volunteer told me the kittens were the “Hawaii” litter: Honu, Kaipo, Lalakea, and Moa. One of the kittens, Honu, was almost lifeless. In that instance, I abandoned my plan to care for senior cats. I told myself, “This is a sign! I just returned from Maui and now the Hawaiian kittens need me.” I agreed to pick them up immediately.
As four little pairs of eyes stared at me from inside the dark cat carrier, I loaded them into the back of my Subaru in the late-night darkness, and brought them home. The interesting circumstance around these kittens was that one of the rescue workers wanted all four of the kittens. She was moving back home where her father owned a veterinary practice and wanted to personally re-home the kittens in her new community and begin the next phase of her rescue advocacy. I was to provide a preset and limited duration service so the worker could relocate. My job was simple: Bring little Honu back to life and ensure the rest of the kittens thrived and were socialized.
The power of play and kitten energy
The rest of the story is the classic human meets cat story. Little Honu came back to life, and, to no surprise the Hawaiian babies brought me back to life. What turned out to be the surprise was kitten energy! Having spent my entire adult life with senior cats, kitten energy was nothing I had ever experienced. My senior cats covered in one week the territory these kittens covered in 15 minutes. At my middle age, I had forgotten what “energy” really means. The kittens were nothing less than motorized jumping popcorn kernels. Everywhere I looked they were getting into mischief, scooting past me, up a curtain, or across the flat screen television. Instantly I realized that I would have to set some significant boundaries if I wanted to socialize these babies to be polite house cats. I would have to revisit my parenting knowledge—because human or kitten, there are distinct similarities.
For eight weeks, these precious beings transported me into a fantastic kitten wonderland. As they played, explored, developed confidence, tested boundaries, ate to their hearts’ content, and pooped it all back out, they transported me back to a part of my life that had been forgotten, maybe even erased: my own childhood.
My childhood was traumatic. I grew up way too fast due to poverty, abuse, and adverse childhood experiences. However, fostering these kittens reacquainted me with the vital role play has in all our lives from birth through adulthood. I had spent so much of my life in a survival state. While managing one health crisis after another and then translating my own care giving skills to hospice cats, I had forgotten there are other stages of life that need attention. Life is not just about the end of life. Life is also about the beginning of life.
Even though I lost the innocence of my carefree childhood early in life, the kittens and I were rewriting my childhood. These kittens showed me how to play again. Every second they reminded me of what it means to be in the present moment, to let go, and move on to the next curiosity (or disaster). What I really needed in order to heal my body and grief was a reminder to play and not take life so seriously. When the kittens fell or had a hard tumble, they picked themselves back up and kept on playing. They didn’t miss a moment to enjoy themselves or each other! So, me and the Hawaiian kittens did just that—we played until two in the morning, crashed out on the couch, and woke up early the next morning to play again. We did not sweat the small stuff. The only stress was the curtain snags, a few falls off the kitten towers, and the patient process of slowly building Honu’s strength and coordination.
Rewriting my story
As I observed the Hawaiian crew for hours, I reconnected with my clinical training and time spent with kids as their therapist. Children process feelings and problems through their natural tendency to play. They make believe, move their bodies, smell, taste, touch, listen, imagine, role play, write new stories, arrange, manipulate, and even annihilate bad things through play. This was my opportunity to rewrite my own childhood safely in my home environment while giving these kittens everything they needed to have a resilient cat life. I could even heal some of my own trauma by parenting and teaching the kittens everything I needed but did not have as a child. I chose not to raise anxious, traumatized kittens. I would raise resilient, confident, capable cats.
In these moments of playing and parenting my “children,” I planted a seed to embark upon writing a children’s book. I did not know what I would write about, because at the time I did not have Pawso. But when Pawso showed up, I was ready for the journey to begin.
Stay tuned as I Am Pawso continues next week with Meet Pawso.
About Casey Hersch
Casey Hersch, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker, author, animal rescuer, and Latin ballroom dancer. She uses holistic and resilience-based models to help children and families cope with trauma, stress, and illness. Her upcoming children’s rhyming book I Am Pawso: A Cat Teaches Kids Ways to Turn Around Difficult Situations (Fall 2023—Amazon,) is about her foster turned adopted cat, Pawso. The book is a collection of Pawso Practices that reduce stress and encourage healthy choices. Casey lives in California with her husband, Scott (I Am Pawso illustrator), and her cats Pawso and Samba.
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