May Sarton on Grieving a Pet
“It is absolutely inward and private, the relation between oneself and an animal.”
By Maria Popova
There is an ineffable comfort that our non-human companions bless upon our lives — those beings whose daily task it is to “bite every sorrow until it fled” — and with their loss comes an ineffable species of grief.
Two centuries after the young Lord Byron tried to put it into words in his soulful elegy for his beloved dog, the poet and novelist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) captured it in stirring prose in the wake of her beloved cat’s death, reflecting on the emotional rollercoaster of loss — the syncopation of grief and relief that is any death.
In a diary entry from the autumn of 1974, found in her uncommonly rewarding journal collection The House by the Sea, Sarton writes:
In some ways the death of an animal is worse than the death of a person. I wonder why. Partly it is absolutely inward and private, the relation between oneself and an animal, and also there is total dependency. I kept thinking as I drove home, this is all inside me, this grief, and I can’t explain it, nor do I want to, to anyone. Now, six days later, I begin to feel the immense relief of no longer being woken at five by angry miaows, “Hurry up, where’s my breakfast?” from the top of the stairs, no longer having to throw away box after box of half-eaten food because she was so finicky, no longer trundling up three flights with clean kitty litter — but, above all, no longer carrying her, a leaden weight, in my heart. She was the ghost at the feast, here where everything else is so happy. But, oh, my pussy, I wish for your rare purrs and for your sweet soft head butting gently against my arm to be caressed!
Complement with John Updike’s stirring elegy for his dog and Leonard Michaels’s playful, poignant meditation on how our cats reveal us to ourselves, then revisit May Sarton on how to cultivate your talent, the relationship between presence, solitude, and love, the cure for despair, and her timeless ode to the art of being alone.
Published March 27, 2023