Our late cat Oscar

You have the right to be sad

It wasn’t a happy holiday for us. One of our cats died on Christmas Day. We had our orange tabby Oscar for over 15 years. Around ten in the morning, he wandered into the bathroom, a place he doesn’t normally go into, and rested on his side gasping for air. I tried helping him up, but he fell back down. With a final gurgle, he went still. Our son and granddaughter started sobbing. My wife fell silent. Our distraught daughter rushed to our house.

And I did what I normally do. I got super calm, super focused, and searched for an animal hospital that would take care of our cat. And when the worst was confirmed, my wife and I had to make decisions about what to do with his body and how we wanted his remains returned to us. We chose a lovely cedar box with a brass plaque. When we get his water cremated ashes, we will put the box up in his favorite spot.

It wasn’t until hours later that I could finally mourn. And then it was a quiet retreat. I sat in my office alone, not wanting to talk to anyone and keeping my feelings to myself.

Sadness is hard for me, and it’s hard for many people. Sadness, much like anger, is a difficult feeling to experience ourselves and to see in others. We live in a society where we are supposed to be happy. (Disney had a film about this.) It’s worse for men because we are taught sadness is a sign of weakness. I talked about this in an interview with Knee Brace Press:

The stigma in our society against talking about mental health is especially bad for men. We’re taught from an early age to “man up,” “grow a pair,” and “stop acting like such a wuss.” The only acceptable emotion is anger, and asking for help is considered a sign of weakness. If you look at the CDC data for 2021-22, men die by suicide at four times the rate of women. At especially low points in my youth, I also had fleeting thoughts of ending myself.

We’re not only discouraged from talking about our feelings by distant fathers and podcasters who tell us to become “based sigma gigachads” or some other gibberish like that. We also hear it from those who say, “What right do you have to be sad? You’re a privileged white cishet male. What about Gaza? And Ukraine? You shouldn’t cry over a stupid cat!”

Our sadness doesn’t diminish other people’s anguish, and their suffering doesn’t make our own grief invalid. If more people with privilege connect with their own emotions, they would be more sympathetic to the suffering of others. Grief is universal, and we’ll all experience it. By expressing grief and comforting others, we can build empathy that leads to a more compassionate world.

We can learn a lesson from a TV show that was popular when I was a teenager, Happy Days. The Fonz was the coolest character in the show. We carried lunchboxes with his picture on it and mimicked his double thumbs-up. “Hey!” He was a man’s man. But in one episode, we saw him cry.

If our role model of masculinity and coolness in the 1970s could cry, so can we.

You have the right to be sad. And angry. And joyful. And afraid. You have the right to whatever emotions you feel. And by allowing ourselves to embrace our grief, we can see and comfort the grief in others. In doing so, we can develop the empathy we need to build a just and humane world.