When a Pet Dies
"Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened. " Anatole France
“Remember our stories
when fur and bones
and tail of me are gone.
Share them with some new mouser,
who’ll need to learn where blue jays live,
where rabbits hide…
who’ll share your couch
and bowls of milk,
who’ll be your friend…
though maybe not
as good a friend as I.”
From “Old Cat” by Barbara Libby
We are going to be talking today about the grief we feel when a pet dies. If you have ever had a pet, there comes a very sad day when we have to say goodbye. Most pets have a short life span compared to us humans and so we may face this ritual many times over in our life. We love our pets so much. This love is evident here on Health Central with how you all talk about your furry friends. One of the most popular posts on My Depression Connection was a Midweek Muse about our pets . So many of you chimed in to tell the stories of how your pet helps you to cope with your depression. It is little wonder then that when a pet dies it can be a devastating loss.
Why is it that our pets are so cherished? I think it goes back to the notion of unconditional love. When people disdain you or abandon you, your pet is always there. Your pet doesn’t care what you look like or if you just gained ten pounds. Your pet doesn’t care that you make a ton of money or if you are a success at your job. Your pet will never tell you to “Buck up and get over your depression.” Your pet doesn’t expect you to be anyone but you. They are with you for the good times and the bad times.
One of my favorite cats was like this for me. Don’t laugh but her name was “Puttertat” and she was an indignant looking black and white tuxedo cat full of attitude or shall I say “cattitude?” This cat was there through all my trials and tribulations of my young adulthood. I got her when I was just a teen and living with my mother in a basement apartment. She was there when I was dating my high school sweetheart. She was also there when I broke up with him seven years later. My cat was there through my first minimum wage jobs and also the day I landed the first job of my career. She was there through my many years of schooling: High School, college and even graduate school. She welcomed me home after I got married. And I held her on my lap like a child when I went through years of infertility. She was also there the day I came home from the maternity hospital with my baby boy. And when I became pregnant again with my second son, this is when Puttertat decided that it was time for her to go.
It is always the balance of things for birth and death to coincide. I remember when one of my closest friends was pregnant, her aunt was dying. We all sat on her living room couch together. Her aunt was gaunt and pale, her short gasps made possible through the help of an oxygen tank. And my friend, sitting beside her, was rosy cheeked and bursting with belly. The contrast was both bittersweet and unsettling. I thought of this image when my cat was dying. My belly, full of life, burgeoned out before me as I squatted down and peered into the eyes of a creature who was slowly losing hers. It was absolutely heart breaking. But I was also reminded that life does go on.
How does one say goodbye to a true friend who has been there through everything?
I can tell you that it isn’t easy. It helped me to be there during my pet’s last moments. I wanted my cat to know that just as she was there for me, I would be there for her when she had to go. And when it happens, when that leap is made from life to death, you feel it. You feel the emptiness and mourn the little spirit which once inhabited the now lifeless body. You wonder how it is possible that something so loved is now gone.
After your pet dies I can tell you what doesn’t help. I would not recommend going out and getting a new pet right away. You need time to grieve. I did that once, went out to look for a new cat after ours had died, and it was a huge mistake. When we went to the animal shelter we began to cry over any animal that looked like the pet we lost. We knew right then and there that the time was not yet right. We needed to go through that mourning process so that we could give a new pet a fair chance to be loved and cared for in their own right without comparisons to the pet we lost.
It does help to have some tangible items of the pet to hold and remember them by. I put a bunch of my cat’s favorite toys and things she liked to play with in a special box. I would take them out and touch them as I cried for her. It seemed to help the mourning process along. And it also gave me something to remember her by.
Another thing which can help in the grieving process over the loss of a pet is to give to an animal charity in your pet’s name. There are so many animal shelters or animal societies which need money or volunteer time. You will feel good knowing that you are helping to save the life of another animal out there who may otherwise be put to sleep.
Sharing stories about your pet can also help you to feel better. I always like to tell the story of how my cat liked to team up with our other cat to get her own cat food. She would climb on the counter, open up the cabinet door where her tender vittles was kept, and swat the box down to the floor. Then she and her partner in cat crime would tear open the box and the packets to get their prize. When I would catch her in the act she would look all wide eyed and give one loud meow as if to say, "Who me?" That image has stayed with me all these years after her death and it still makes me smile.
There is no one right way to grieve over the loss of a pet. I can only tell you that it is a process which needs to unfold in its own time. As time passes you will feel less sadness but you will never forget your pet. The love you have for your best friend will always be there. In time you may once again find a special place in your heart for a new friend. Despite the inevitable loss, it is always worth it to allow yourself to bond with a pet. Feeling love is something which extends beyond life. Our pets teach us to live and to love long after their death. It is a lesson which never ends.