It started out like most other Covid social distance days. I woke up in that quarantine-what-day-is-it mood, did some light yoga, and had some overnight oats. I went for my daily nonnegotiable fresh air walk, coached some clients, and helped my dad. As I hung up the phone, I heard two unusual-sounding coughs. I jumped up and ran toward the sound to discover my 15-year-old cat Bella taking her last breaths. Gut punch — drop to my knees — a scream I don’t recall.
She had been sick three weeks ago with some sort of mini stroke, but was much improved on medicine and new food that was supporting her heart and kidneys. The vet told us she had a heart murmur and early heart failure, but her behavior seemed so back-to-normal that we thought we had months not weeks. In fact earlier that morning, she was lying in the sun, purring, and even jumped from the floor onto a table.
Bella and her brother Saki were adopted from a cat sanctuary in Saco Maine in 2006. The boys and I decided it was time to adopt a cat and went there after a family Cape Cod vacation. Two of us fell in love with Bella, a beautiful 1-year-old orange Maine Coon, while the others really wanted the grey double-pawed kitten. Saki was 2 months old and bouncing around like kittens do. We were told they were rescued from hurricane Katrina, and just knew we had to adopt them both! (To any of you reading this who are considering a cat adoption, getting two cats was one of the best choices we made. They always had each other as companions, especially nice when we went away for a weekend).
Saki and Bella were yin and yang: Saki the fidgety, playful rule breaker—Bella the polite and proper lady. They suited us and each other perfectly, each physically healthy with complementary dispositions. We got lucky. As they aged, we knew there would come a day when one would be without the other. But we always think we have more time with those we love than we do.
Since Bella died, I am feeling completely flattened by her loss. I just never expected it to hit this hard. Walking around in a bit of a fog, slogging back and forth in my emotional ocean, it occured to me that I’m grieving Bella, but maybe all the pandemic death too. Waves of grief are hitting with a force. Saki is wandering around equally uncertain about what doesn’t feel quite the same anymore.
The old me used to dwell too long in heavy emotions or avoid them altogether. The new me is grateful to practice emotional agility. Coined by Susan David PhD, South African psychologist and founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital of Harvard Medical School, emotional agility reminds us to learn to live with the full spectrum of our emotions as they happen, to walk with them rather than avoid them.
Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life. — Susan David, PhD
She says that emotional agility is more than only the acceptance of our emotional spectrum. The accuracy of how we label our emotions matters too. “Our emotions are data. They contain flashing lights to things that we care about. When we are open to our emotions, we are able to generate responses that are values-aligned." Rather than being swallowed up by an emotion, or trying to move away from it, be curious about the message contained in an emotional moment. Have the courage to poke around in it.
I cared deeply about Bella, perhaps more than I even realized. The absence of our loved ones ignites a special power of gratitude in us, and that healing power comingles with the pain. Maybe the grateful feeling helps to neutralize or balance the discomfort. But it does help.
Emotional agility reminds us that allowing ourselves to feel the way we feel means we get to choose. It is our choice for how long we will swim in the rising tide of our emotional discomfort. And it is up to each of us when we are ready to choose joy. Opening the heart lets the sun shine in.
Certified Health and Lifestyle Coach, Sheryl Melanson, partners with people to transform limiting habits into mindful choices that express their values, create action plans and recalibrate their lifestyle to optimal well-being.