I was standing in line at the post office, browsing through pages of search results for full length oval wall mirror on Amazon. I was living with my mom, moving into a one-bedroom apartment soon, and using images of its floorplan to guide my decorating ideas. I was taking screenshots of everything that informed my new bachelorette aesthetic. I thought I could control the chaos of my emotions with mood boards, and I called the apartment an opportunity. As a distraction, it worked fine enough.
I missed the ritual of taking care of someone — medications and meals designing a sense of shared fragility. I’d always thought that I only wanted to be responsible for myself, but now that I was alone, I wanted to need and be needed — to belong to someone who belonged to me.
The text read: BUG, your Rx is due now. Reply REFILL to fill, HELP for more info, & STOP to opt out of Rx alerts. I did not reply. A woman behind the counter asked if she could help me, and I stepped forward to hand her the orange USPS delivery slip.
It was that time of day when my grief would come to me through an automated text. I was teaching then, and I liked to run errands after work before the long highway commute back to my mom’s. I thought that if I could keep up the school day’s momentum while I was still out in the waking, working world, I earned the right to fall apart by the time I got home.
Eventually the texts stopped coming, and in May, I returned to the animal hospital to collect Bug’s ashes. It was the first time I had ever walked inside the building without his twenty-pound orange body slung in a carrier over my shoulder, and my arms felt eerily light. That morning, after several months of partly waiting for the voicemail, partly postponing the trip, I called and asked if they had come in yet. I noticed that I shifted back and forth between how I referred to him, still undecided: sometimes he, sometimes his ashes.
A poem I had written earlier that year read, is it corpses that? or corpses who?
I approached the front desk and said, I’m here to pick up some ashes, with a confidence that immediately broke against the receptionist’s sympathetic expression. There was a weather in my voice as I spelled out our last name. The Candle of Remembrance — a signal to waiting area clientele to keep their noise level at a respectable volume as an animal somewhere within the hospital was undergoing euthanasia — sat unlit on the counter. I checked ashes off of my phone’s reminders list.
No one was sitting in the waiting area. A wooden bench along the walls created a three-sided rectangle. A Keurig was stationed in one corner next to a bulletin board cluttered with dog walker flyers, missing pet notices, and ads for behavioral classes. I spotted an 8×10 flyer that was pinned near the middle. It had rainbow text superimposed onto some clipart of a rainbow, making it difficult to read. As I got closer I made out, Empty Leash Support Group / Every other Monday / Call Kym / 555-0919. I ripped off one of the phone number takeaways.
By this time, I had begun to talk about Bug with new friends who hadn’t met him. He was already becoming myth.
You should write about him, Lucy told me. About how you grew up, and he stayed small. I was old enough to know that there were people who could die in your heart. Every time I wrote about Bug, I knew he hadn’t.
I have always preferred the private control that my imagination affords me. I like being alone, with no one to correct my heart’s eye-view of the world. I thought this would be an excellent quality if I were to keep his spirit alive, but slowly, like a supernova, the bright dead light reached me and I knew I had to let him be dead.
Jakob told me about the time he banished a ghost from his college dorm room by saying, Hey man, you’re dead. You died. I’m really sorry. He said that sometimes, if a person dies suddenly, they have to be told that they’re dead. We knew he was going to die, I told him, disappointed that Bug wasn’t a ghost.
I kept returning to friends who knew Bug when he was alive. I stored screenshots of their messages, and cherished them like sympathy cards.
I called Kym of the Empty Leash Support Group, but found out that the meetup was no longer active.
In the news: If you’re in the hospital or a doctor’s office with a painful problem, you’ll likely be asked to rate your pain on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 meaning no pain at all and 10 indicating the worst pain you can imagine. But many doctors and nurses say this rating system isn’t working and they’re trying a new approach.
One recent study had medical professionals supplement the pain scale with the question, Is your pain tolerable?
I questioned whether or not my pain was tolerable, and when it wasn’t, I began to wonder whether or not it was relevant. In an aching world, I feared that some might find this level of grief over an animal absurd. I didn’t know where I could go to mourn.
Anne Carson asked her mother, Where can I put it down?
I missed him. Miss. I kept sending out my longing toward a target I couldn’t hit. I didn’t care. I let my grief accumulate — his absence measured in the volume of moments he’d been gone.
I let it get heavy. Where could I put it down?
A few weeks after Bug’s euthanasia, an older friend died of a heart attack. At his funeral, the pastor told us that dying is not a failure of life, but its completion. What’s done is perfection, I remembered Alice Notley had written.
Imagining Bug’s spirit as perfect in death helped calm the red-hot sting of those first few weeks. I shared this new insight with friends, but had difficulty engaging them. I suspected that without the heightened senses that accompany mourning, what to me felt beautiful and profound sounded either too obvious or abstract to them.
He’s perfect, I texted my best friend. We always knew that, she wrote back.
It was around then that I went to Sunday Mass for the first time since childhood, but I left frustrated that the priest spoke little of death. Back at home, I bookmarked the websites of a few local funeral homes, and began browsing the obituaries a couple times a week, tempted to attend a stranger’s service.
I wanted to find a place where my feelings were called prayers and could be answered. I wanted to put down whatever questions still rocked inside my heart.
One funeral home’s website links to The Mourner’s Bill of Rights by Alan D. Wolfelt. You have the right to talk about your grief, he writes. Seek out others who will allow you to talk as much as you want, as often as you want.
I discovered a website called In Memory of Pets that is home to the Candlelight Rose Ceremony — a platform where anonymous users post memorials of their deceased pets alongside the site’s animated candles and karaoke instrumental of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On.
It happened so fast, one person posted.
Please be safe no matter where you are, wrote another. We are so very empty without you.
Although updated both recently and frequently, the design of the website looked like it hadn’t aged beyond the style of AOL forwards. Stars appeared in the background and glittered like a two-frame gif. Celine and the song’s iconic piccolo flattened into notes on a keyboard.
I wanted to write, I am sure she forgives you, on one of the more moving memorials, but I found that there was no comment feature.
I subscribed to the subreddit, /r/petloss, where downvotes are deactivated. I read through posts with titles like I lost my princess today and I didn’t get to say goodbye.
I posted one of my favorite photos of me and Bug. In it, I’m in bed, lying on my back with his small face peeking out from underneath the comforter in a triangle on my chest. The title: Monday would have been the 15.5th anniversary of the day I found Bug. I was eleven and he was a stray kitten and we took care of each other for almost sixteen years.
A few users commented their condolences, and the post grossed twelve upvotes.
I posted a video on Instagram of Bug lying in a rhombus of sunlight on my mom’s living room carpet. He loved warm things, I wrote. He was my best friend.
I watched as hundreds of friends, family members, colleagues, acquaintances, internet strangers, former coworkers, and old roommates came out to either acknowledge my pain with a like or offer their condolences in the comments. I thought back to my Reddit post — we took care of each other for almost sixteen years — and watched what sixteen years’ worth of people looked like. A woman I’d lived with for a month two years ago wrote, He was a god among cats, and I’m happy he got to spend his entire life with you treating him like the king he was.
In the weeks that followed, I posted more photos and videos from my life with Bug.
In one photo, we’re lying together on a bare mattress, fast asleep in the middle of the day. I asked in the caption, What are some small ways to feel better? I am in physical pain.
I reenacted finding a cat hair on my clothes for an Instagram story. I wrote, What will I do now with all of this cat hair? All of a sudden so precious to me.
In a video, Bug gets up from the spot where he’s laying down to come rub his face on my hand, stationed in the foreground of the frame. You can hear him purring — the gravelly old man purr that defined his later years. The caption: Come here.
Someone from an account I didn’t recognize wrote, Rest in peace furry baby.
I welcomed every stranger’s condolence — whether a wail of grief or heart emoji — as earnest and in good faith. My pain felt lighter. I watched it blossom into a more tolerable sadness.
When Bug and I lived in the south of Spain in the small village of Granada, my route home from work included a narrow cobblestone street called El Paseo de los Tristes — the Mourners’ Passage. The walk begins at the village’s main church and leads along the Darro river to the old cemetery, and it used to be that whenever a rich or powerful Andalusian died, mourners were paid to follow the family from the funeral to the burial, howling and clutching one another — a chattering chorus of grief.
It was thought that the more people who took part in this spectacle, the more important the dead’s life must have been.
After Princess Diana’s sudden death on August 31st, 1997, her funeral procession was broadcast on live television the following week. For years afterward, people left flowers, candles, and sympathy cards outside Kensington Palace.
Sociologists named this phenomenon — the mass display of public grief by strangers to the deceased — mourning sickness or recreational grieving. They called the strangers grief tourists.
In 2006, Canadian teenager Anna Svidersky was murdered in her hometown of Vancouver. She was a popular user on the social media site Myspace, and thousands of users digitally flocked from all corners of the world to mourn on her page, sceneslut.
Complete strangers posted lengthy comments, wrote and recorded songs for her, and created YouTube tribute videos, with one earning more than three million views.
YouTube eventually took it down, it was rumored, because Anna’s family got upset.
An acquaintance committed suicide a few years ago. He was eulogized on his timeline by hundreds of his Facebook friends — some claimed that they knew him only tangentially, others admitted that they’d never met at all. I check his page every now and then for new posts — tiny prayers typed out to him.
Everyone who knows you is thinking of you, one person wrote.
Shortly after his death, Facebook announced a new policy that would allow its users to select legacy contacts, or users who would have access to pinning final posts to the timelines of the deceased, such as death announcements or service details, and who would be responsible for informing Facebook of their deaths so that the company could memorialize their profiles — a sort of digital health care proxy.
Remembering [redacted], the header of his page now reads. We hope people who love [redacted] will find comfort in visiting his profile to remember and celebrate his life.
More than a digital tombstone to visit, memorialization status allows users to post on the dead’s timelines, and to comment on and engage with other users’ posts.
Friends and strangers alike continued to reach out to me online, and I likewise solicited them. I handed them maps of my grief — playbills for my performance of it.
In criticizing grief tourists, many other terrible names have been coined: the grief bandwagon, grief industry, feelings trade, hysteria paparazzi, we care culture of victimhood, serial grievers, rubberneck report, tragedy television, and pity picnic — to name a few.
Grief kept alienating me, and I kept stretching across it. I wanted to articulate it — for others to experience it secondhand.
As I’d known it, grief mainly left me with the sensation of spinning in place. I thought of the Mourner’s Passage, and how I’d originally understood the professional mourners as those who followed families to the cemetery. Couldn’t their whole human momentum have propelled the bereaved forward?
I asked the veterinarian if she could explain how the illness felt to him, and she said, Like he’s always out of breath.
I asked what a natural death from the illness would look like, and she said, He would slowly suffocate.
I remembered that in Spanish, the word for drown is ahogar — literally, to go home.
Something broke inside of me. The vet tech rushed into a run-on sentence. I moved toward Bug, who was peacefully loafing on the examination table, and pressed my forehead against his. How is that possible, I cried into his face. I looked up at the veterinarian, and imagined a tiny airplane sky-writing how over her head as she made the room quiet by waiting.
One week, two weeks max, she said. He’s going to try to be strong for you.
I learned new words for things.
Respiratory arrest is when an animal stops breathing. This causes the heart to stop beating, which in turn causes a heart attack.
Being aware means being able to understand what is happening, whereas being responsive means being able to react to a stimulus.
Cadaveric spasms are muscle twitches that may or may not happen after an animal has been pronounced dead. Pet guardians often confuse the spasms with signs that their pet has survived euthanasia.
It was a morning. He was having difficulty breathing. I gathered his favorite things and put on my shoes — ones he’d rubbed his scent on so many times before, so that anywhere I went, I liked to imagine, they’d all know I belonged to him.
He couldn’t say my name, but what sound ached through his mouth I recognized as his sound for me, only now, it was in minor.
He’s lost almost all lung function, the veterinarian said as he struggled to breathe. We have to do this quick.
I touched him and my hands knew his fur. His eyes were that color. I pressed his bean-toes to my lips. Instead of goodbye, I repeated, you’re okay, you’re okay. Then flinches and a sound like a light coming on. When his body finally released him, it felt like a favor.
Years ago, I traced my hand over a lover’s face and whispered, remember this, remember this, remember this.
I will, he said, but I wasn’t talking to him.
Outside, the sky looked bigger — big enough. The sun was bright with tinsel rays, its yoke so yellow you could stick a fork in it. Inside the car all of the sayings got said. Night was next. We made our way home without him.
People kept telling me that they were sorry for my loss, as if death were a matter of misplacing something — of it being put elsewhere by some supreme thing.
When you right-click on Mac, your options menu offers Move to Trash instead of PC’s Delete.
I’ve always felt as if my life were an audition for something else — that I would someday get a do-over in which I could recover all that I’ve lost and utilize all I’ve learned. It strikes me that this is how some characterize Heaven.
It is hard to have patience with people who say, He’s in a better place. There are moments I won’t let myself have.
My relationship with Bug was nonlingual — prelingual. We had sounds and tones we used with one another, and I never worried about language failing. You’re perfect, I never would have needed to say to him.
A great blessing in mourning Bug is there’s no I should have said or I wish I would’ve told him while he was still alive. I know nothing of this kind of regret.
Kind people have said to me, He’ll always be with you, and I know they mean something ancient. There are things I won’t try to write.
At the bar, I gushed with Julie about how the most beautiful relationships are possessed by a spirit of camaraderie — an us versus the world sort of thing.
I don’t know what else to do with my grief except get used to it — my eyes adjusting to the homesick dark.
I skim the surface of an unmistakable light. I send prayers out toward a full holy static.
Rachelle Toarmino is from Niagara Falls, New York. She is the author of the microchapbook series of paparazzi poems, Graphic (Ghost City Press, 2017-18), and the chapbook of embroidery poems, Personal & Generic (PressBoardPress, 2016). She is the cofounder and editor in chief of Peach Mag, where she recently edited the anthology, With You: Withdrawn Poetry of the #MeToo Movement. This essay was shortlisted for the Cosmonauts Avenue Nonfiction Prize with guest judge Ocean Vuong. Learn more about Rachelle’s writing and editing projects at rachelletoarmino.com.