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Creativity is a Powerful Tool for Healing

A couple of weeks ago, the event I’ve been dreading for more than a decade finally happened. My beloved cat Tux, who’s been with me for virtually all of my adult life, died.

On the one hand, I’m grateful because it was just about the best losing-a-pet experience one could have: Tux was 15 and had lived a full life—all of it with me. Our family of three also had some warning that the end was near: After Tux abruptly stopped eating and drinking, an overnight visit at an emergency vet clinic revealed that he had kidney failure, and there was nothing more we could do. That allowed us time to say our goodbyes.

During his last few days, Tux laid at the foot of our bed, mostly sleeping, finally unable to even stand up. It was excruciating to watch, and eventually, we had a veterinarian come to our house to put him to sleep. My husband and I buried him in the backyard immediately after, and we held each other and wept.

I was no stranger to death, having lost several family friends and all four grandparents during my lifetime. But losing our family pet—who had moved states and homes with us, who always seemed to know when we were sad, whose presence was a constant—completely undid me. The grief came in waves, and I sobbed uncontrollably the day he died.

I decided that what I needed was an outlet to process and channel my grief so I that it didn’t consume me. I’m not artistic in the least, but I got to thinking about how the part of funerals that I always appreciate the most are the remembrances shared by family and friends. I have loved giving them and I always love hearing them. That led me to write an obituary for Tux.

Writing it helped me more than I ever could have imagined. It was deeply therapeutic to reflect on Tux’s life, my favorite moments with him, the role he’s played in our family. And somehow recording these things was my way of memorializing him—of declaring that his life mattered to me and our family—and of letting him go. I wrote the obituary for myself, but I also posted it on Facebook, and I was so moved by the outpouring of support it elicited. It was meaningful to hear from people who understood the vital part that pets play and had themselves experienced the same type of loss and sadness. What I didn’t expect was that writing my reflection would almost instantly provide closure and begin my healing process—but that’s exactly what it did.

What I learned: Creativity is an incredibly powerful tool for healing. I decided to write because that’s the medium that’s most comfortable to me, but there are myriad other ways to use creativity to channel and process grief—and remember or honor your loved one at the same time: painting, drawing, planting a tree or creating a special garden, building a photo montage or scrapbook, making a quilt or craft, listening to a healing song (or writing your own), preserving memories via video or audio recording, and the list goes on. I don’t think you need to have any prior experience with these outlets for them to be helpful.

I don’t wish the loss of a loved one—pet or human—on anyone, but if you experience a loss and your grief feels overwhelming, try using a creative outlet to start the road to healing. You might be surprised just how much it helps.

Here’s the obituary I wrote for my cat:

Tux—the beloved cat of Christa, James & Cooper—died at home Wednesday, April 14, 2021, from kidney failure after a difficult battle with diabetes.

Tux was born on or around July 3, 2006 in Gillette, Wyoming, and found on the side of a road after his mother was hit by a car when he was just a few weeks old. Christa had moved to Gillette the year prior and started dating James when they were both working as newspaper reporters out of college. Although she never liked cats and swore she’d never have one, she fell in love with kitten Tux upon seeing him at an animal adoption booth inside a Kmart. She brought him home that same day—convinced the adoption fee was the best $16 she’d ever spent—and he immediately won her heart.

Tux moved with Christa to her hometown of Minneapolis in early 2008 when James went to cover the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as an embedded reporter. He was her constant companion and the object of her affection as she missed and worried about James. Tux had piercing green eyes, an unmistakable Africa-shaped mark on his nose, and an unusually sweet and gentle personality, winning over every person who got to know him—both cat lovers and non (including Christa’s mom, who went so far as to have a fish-shaped Christmas stocking embroidered with his name on it). He loved reaching out his paw and resting it somewhere on Christa, throwing himself dramatically on the floor to be petted each time she came home, and gazing out the window. On one of James’ visits from Iraq, he opened said (screen-less) window and later realized that Tux, a strictly indoor cat, had jumped out and become loose in the busy streets of Uptown—which incited a level of panic Christa hadn’t experienced before. To this day, both Christa and James maintain that their relationship would’ve likely ended right then and there had James not found Tux huddled under a parked car.

When James’ overseas reporting stint ended and he moved to the Twin Cities to be with Christa, he and Tux developed a strong bond. In 2011, on Tux’s fifth birthday, he was the ring bearer in Christa and James’ wedding, and he helped make their Hopkins house a home when they bought it the following year. He was especially fond of laying under the light-adorned Christmas tree. Dog Raspberry (Raz) joined the family in 2013 and Cooper in 2017, and easygoing Tux easily adjusted to these major changes. When Christa and James experienced several years of loss and heartbreak on their journey to become parents, Tux brought them joy amid their sorrow and walked alongside them through their grief. He was their baby when they didn’t have a baby—and he carried them through one of the most difficult periods in their lives.

James became Tux’s primary caretaker—feeding him, cleaning his litter box, and bringing him to the vet—and each day, James carved out time for his favorite feline. Tux returned James’ affection and began waking him up each morning and following him around the house whenever he was there. Five years ago, as James was coming out of anesthesia following shoulder surgery, the first thing he asked the nurse was, “How’s Tux?” Christa declared it definitive proof that James loved Tux more than her, but secretly, she loved that Tux was James’ happy place and brought out his softer side. Even in Tux’s final months of life, when he’d slowed down and his walking became labored, he continued to follow James from room to room—even limping down the basement steps just days before he took his final breath.

Tux’s death has left a void in the Warden-Meland household. He will be remembered as the best cat there ever was, and he will forever live on in the hearts and memories of the family members he leaves behind.

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