The lonely grief of losing a pet

Why the death of our animal companions can feel particularly challenging

written by fiona

My grey tabby cat minou laying on me, having inserted himself between me and my laptop. I am smiling at him and he seems to be smiling at me, paws draped over my shoulder.

published on October 26, 2022

“This time last week he was still here” I think to myself. That statement will only be true for one more day. Then I’ll have to switch to “last month”, then “last year”. Does anyone else do this? I don’t know what purpose it serves, but I had the same recurring thoughts after my Dad died, now a full 8 years ago, which feels like forever. Time is relentless, and while it offers healing, it also creates an ever-widening distance between me and the being that I loved. The memories will fade and before long it won’t feel so wrong that my beloved cat, Minou, is no longer waiting for me to come through the door. And there’s something really sad about that, on top of everything else.

Despite having grown up with lots of pets, including several cats, this was the first time I had arranged and was present for a death. It is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done (which I know says a lot about what a privileged life I’ve led thus far). Until his last checkup with our vet, Anne, I’d been holding on to the hope that Minou would recover. He’d had surgery to remove his few remaining teeth to stop a gum irritation issue, but then the left side of his face had swollen more and only seemed to be getting worse. He wasn’t healing this time, and our vet said she was almost certain this was now a tumor and that I should enjoy the time I had left with him.

Those words extinguished my last hope and I started crying. Offering a tissue, Anne told me that when Minou stopped being himself, when he was no longer eating, or enjoying a cuddle, or when he no longer met me when I came home. When enough of those things he always did stopped happening, that’s when I should call her and arrange for him to be euthanized. That I would have to witness him decline, losing little bits of himself along the way, was a grim prospect.

I’d been dreading this moment ever since I adopted him, and often acknowledged that I was going to be completely devastated because I loved him so much — though I’d imagined the devastation being at least a few more years down the road. My friend Tyler understood that same future-self trauma when he adopted his dog:

“The minute we got Gnudie I recognized it. And I was like, ohhh this thing is going to wreck me one day!”.

The realization that there was nothing more to do and that Minou would soon die was followed almost immediately by overwhelming waves of sadness. I recognized this familiar, exhausting pattern of grief — bouts of tears, often triggered by a thought, but sometimes just welling up randomly. It seems disrespectful to compare this to grieving a human death (and the death of a parent no less) but I can’t deny that the feelings are strikingly similar.

Of course there are notable differences. My Dad’s death was sudden and shocking, with no time to say goodbye, but with Minou I knew the end was coming. In some ways this knowledge made it harder and easier. It meant that I appreciated and was more present for each moment I had with him, but it also meant that those moments were bittersweet, because I was keenly aware that it was one of the lasts. Every time he would do something, a little voice at the back of my head would say “is that the last time he does that?”.

Author and podcast host Sam Harris has a nice meditation on how acknowledging the finitude of existence can help us be more present especially during mundane or tedious moments that we might want to distract ourselves from. We do everything a finite number of times and we never know when the last time we do any of those things will be. To remind ourselves of this can add poignancy to even the most frustrating chores.

But sometimes we do know, and that knowing is its own unique kind of heartbreak. This time last week I emailed Anne, shared my observations and told her that I thought it was time. She agreed, and said she could come to help Minou pass on Friday evening, in just 2 days.

The next evening Matt’s colleague Daniel, who was visiting from Hawaii, came over to our place for a drink. Minou greeted him when he arrived, as he did with all our visitors, new and familiar. Seeing this, I got choked up, realizing in that moment that this would be the last time he made a new friend.

Minou on his last day, cuddling with us on the rug.

And then suddenly it was Friday evening. Matt and I had spent the last couple of hours laying on the rug in the living room, cuddling with Minou and he was sitting on my lap when Anne arrived. Matt got up to let her in so I could savor that final snuggle.

The next moments came too quickly. Anne prepared the needle, out of sight in the kitchen. And then, a memory I wish I didn’t have, my arms wrapped around Minou when the needle went in to his belly. He squirmed so hard I found a scratch on my stomach the next morning.

Now, there was no going back. We had only a minute or so to cuddle him before he lost consciousness. That’s when Matt and I both broke down.

After confirming that his consciousness was gone, Anne let us listen to his heart through her stethoscope as it faded. She said that every creature dies a little differently and that Minou was going calmly but taking his time (which was so him, always wanting to linger for more love).

When his breathing had stopped and his heart was faint, Anne said we should open a window to release the soul — a spiritual instruction I wasn’t expecting, but followed. The harsh sounds of the street invaded our sombre moment.

I’m grateful that Anne came to us, that we didn’t have to weep in public on the SBahn, and that I could make the moment as peaceful as possible — with music and candles, and familiar blankets. Though, I’ll admit I’m haunted by that final moment every time I look at that spot on the rug where he died. “It was the right things to do” I remind myself.

I wasn’t with my Dad for his final moment, which I regret, but in some ways this death feels harder. With a human you usually have other humans to share the burden of grief with — I had my siblings and my Mum who were suffering through the same loss, though each in our own way. But with a pet, the only one who truly understands the depth of that loss is you and anyone else who lived with and cared for that creature. And whoever shared more of that responsibility (in this case me) will feel that loss more acutely. In this way, grieving a pet can feel very isolating. Only I will miss that gentle little paw in my face at 8am, reminding me it’s breakfast time.

Another distinction is the purity of the bond. Human relationships, even the good ones, but especially those with parents, can be challenging. Certainly with my Dad there were a lot of complicated feelings surrounding his death. He was an alcoholic in his final years and our relationship was strained as a result. With Minou though, as with most pets, it was perfectly uncomplicated and only delightful. Even the things about him that to others might have seemed challenging — that he needed eyedrops regularly, for example — were outweighed by the bucketfuls of joy and warmth he would bring each day. His rare “naughty” moments, where he would knock things off the table or scratch tissues out of the tissue box to get attention only made me laugh. He was only good vibes and now they are suddenly gone.

Minou sleeping on our bed in between the pillows, his body  wrapped around my head.

The level of intimacy also plays a factor in how alone you feel when a pet dies. There are few people who are with you for such personal moments. Minou was there, sometimes awkwardly, for all of it — unlike other cats he always wanted to be close. Now it’s like a key part of my day, and my home, is suddenly missing. I’m forced into a new routine, only one that’s lacking in many small moments of joy. Change is hard, especially when it feels like a shift to something less good.

Cole Imperi, a Thanatologist, describes this aspect of pet loss perfectly in her Ologies episode on Death and Dying

“Anyone who loses a pet can understand how hard that loss can be. Who else shares our bed, the couch, bathroom time, meals? The absence of a pet is often felt more strongly than the absence of a person because we often share more physical space with a pet throughout each day and week than we do with most of the humans in our lives”.

I keep reminding myself that I’m so lucky to have met this beautiful soul and to have spent so much time with him — he was a saviour during the lonely days of the pandemic — and that the hurt is a good hurt, because it means I loved him a lot.

Other things that have helped? Friends and family sharing photos and stories of Minou — photos I didn’t even know existed. It makes me happy to see him cuddling with others, he was so loving to everyone he met. I feel a little less alone to know the fond memories that other people have of him.

I don’t have a tidy way to wrap this up. I’m still in the thick of it. But I think Allie Ward said it better than I ever could:

“As you go about your days, just remember that nothing is permanent, not the sun, not the moon, not anyone or anything that’s ever lived. So, the best we can do is just live a life of love and have an easy exit. And if you get those, you’re pretty lucky.”

written by fiona

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