TW: Pet Loss
A month ago this past Friday, we had to say goodbye to our beloved 16 year old kitty. He was super social with people and our other cats, insisting on greeting and inspecting everyone and everything that came through our doors. He was demanding, mischievous and rambunctious, especially at night (some cats = nocturnal). He was a funny goofy guy who was great with kids and other animals, and he had a noticeable presence. In many ways he was the quintessential cat that thinks they’re a dog.
I wanted to write about this because I think many people adore their furry family members, and many feel devastated by these losses, and the ways they happen, even as our rational brains recognize they have limited life spans. Yet sometimes people minimize the loss, or feel guilty, often comparing the loss of their pet to the loss of a person. I’m here to say that the loss of a pet can be as intense as the loss of a person, in some cases, more so. Just ask any vet and vet team who experience this on a regular basis, as they accompany and hold space for our pets and us during difficult and sometimes tragic times: no easy feat.
It has been well documented that people who are subject to more rejection by family, such as LGBQT folx for example, often bond deeply with their pets, and thus feel those losses very deeply. I would venture to add that pets very much allow us to feel loved and accepted, all the more so when we have to earn their trust. They also allow us to fill the role of caregiver. Some people regard their pets as their children. Therefore people who may have more obstacles to becoming parents, and people who don’t have children (whether that’s a choice or a travesty) may also have deeper bonds with pets. However you view them, the loving relationship with a pet can be very significant. Pets can fill empty spaces we don’t even know we have. Loss can also compound loss.
I once lost a cat I’d had for close to 20 years while I was in the midst of my recurrent miscarriage phase (otherwise known now as the Lost Years). This crushed me. I’d had him since I was 20 and he was 6 weeks. He was my first pet as an emerging adult, and we were imprinted on each other. Even the vet said he had never seen a bond quite like ours. I had to take 2 days off work just to weep. And two days wasn’t nearly enough. What helped me the most during that time (other than supportive family friends, co-workers and clients) was to create a list of all his quirks and all the little things I wanted to remember but was afraid of forgetting. I put together a small photo album and put my list in there. It took time though to come to terms with his absence and to be ready for another kitty.
Animals love us almost unconditionally (well, their conditions are pretty straightforward: food & treats, water, affection/snuggle-time, playtime, walks for some, etc etc). Many human relationships are more complicated. Even though we speak different “languages” than those of our furry companions, we often have implicit understandings built on daily routines and loyal bonds. There is a reason for the many memes about staying home with the dog or cat etc, versus going out. Steadfast companionship, appreciation, mutual affection and being needed are all important aspects of human-pet relationships. So too is knowing when it’s time to end an animal’s suffering, and we may question if we made the right decisions at the right time. Losing our animal companions, whether suddenly or after an extended decline, can sometimes trigger a crisis.
I have found that creating art (especially making alters, or photo boxes), journaling (or a combo like art-journaling, or scrap booking) and framing photos can sometimes help, but everybody is different. Some people can’t see photos or images without crying, and might need to appear as though they are keeping it together in order to be able to function in life. Holding a small memorial can bring closure and help “legitimize” the loss. Or, memorializing your pet by creating a special image or collage of them, or hiring a local pet portrait artist can help. Give yourself time. This does not need to be done before you are ready.
Lastly, be kind to yourself. It’s okay to seek support when grieving the loss of a beloved pet. Sometimes a therapist can help make sense of the feelings about the loss, especially when loss triggers other losses or family of origin issues. See: https://www.rainacowanarttherapist.com/tips-for-contacting-a-therapist/
Consider asking your vet or veterinary team for support suggestions, or look to online groups and resources, a few of which are: