October 13, 2022

A Journey of Unimaginable Grief: How to Cope when a Pet Dies.


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Over the last two weeks our family has lost two cats out of four.

Different road, different car, different cat—same heartbreak.

A family unit of grandmother, daughter, son (half sibling to daughter), and granddaughter has lost the grandmother and the granddaughter (Oreo and Angel). The oldest and youngest of the Clowder (a group of cats), leaving behind the mother of Angel and son of Oreo.

I remember two weeks ago, having lost only Oreo, searching for consolation, saying to myself, “At least she was the oldest.” That no longer fits, and never really did.

So, what now? A deep introspection to process life lessons for all involved, attendance to synchronicities, dream analysis, and hypervigilance to responses of other animals in the household. All at some level of intellectualizations that require dashes of spiritual beliefs and may offer us some coping strategies in loss.

However, we must also make sure we “feel” and do not simply “think” the loss. What is it like to no longer see your furry friend where you expect them? Are there less bowls to feed your co-residents? What differences do you observe? What is the most apparent emotion?

When the news landed, my first emotion was “knowing” and yet “denial”—a denial relived over and over:

I eat dinner and there’s knocking on the door. My partner comments, “Is that another Amazon delivery?” I deny but wish it had been. He’s no longer outside for a simple package retrieval, not his first rodeo, and many packages had been retrieved. I continue to eat, but I know that my body is in “fight or flight” with paddling duck feet yet still seemingly in a state of “rest and digest” with my automated fork lifting. Balanced, yet wobbly. I hear the door. I’m not sure I saw him. I say, “It’s a cat, isn’t it?” He sobs. I move toward him to hug him and say, “Which one?” not wanting to hear the answer.

For a fleeting moment I thought “not…” and I can’t bear to say the name of which one of our four. Imagine the guilt in having such a thought. One of our cats is more homebound. I spend each day with her, and it seems I may have feared the loss of her slightly more. The complexity in that immediate response. There is no way I would want to lose any of our cats. I was never consciously aware that I had a favorite. Yet, I cannot deny that thought.

Then we have that thought that doesn’t fit with how we think we should feel. It contravenes with how we might like others to see us or societal rules. So, do we have less right to grieve what we have lost when the loss we have had was perhaps not our greatest fear? Even though we might not have known that it was not our greatest fear, until it simply wasn’t. And then the pain we feel for something that does not take the sadness spotlight may not touch upon what we may feel, if our greatest fear were to manifest in the future. Tuning back into the feeling, there is “lack of” or numbness.

With Oreo, this was due to the heightened emotion of family members who needed validation. With Angel, it was due to disbelief in the time proximity to Oreo’s death—exactly 14 days and approximately the same time and discovery of departure.

For Oreo, the news came through that knock of death on the door, a bang that reverberated until the next shock that superseded the knock. Since the shock, subsequent knocks brought heart palpitations and a need to wander up the road to see where her body was found. For Angel, the news came in an email from a local vet when her body was found. Details were not given, simply that subject line “Angel” with a note that read “please call reception.”

Due to work, I saw the email after closing time and we had the longest night, waiting to confirm what we already knew. Then, there were organizational matters (aka distraction) in telling people, arranging pickups, and booking crematorium—the same crematorium as two weeks ago, feeling some need to justify this to their staff, but with no possibility to do so. Next was a need to know their experience, walking to the scenes of death, Googling “cat head injuries in road traffic collisions.”

No amount of distraction made telling my youngest child, Brooke, any easier. For nine of her 10 years, Oreo had been a bedtime companion, a co-trampoline bouncer, and a “happy-to-join-your-selfie” friend. The pain of her departure from this earth was met with a resonant scream, followed by silence, withdrawal, and a guarded watchfulness of the other cats and the road. When Oreo left us, Angel immediately took her place as Brooke’s prime companion, channeling the spirit of her grandmother with ease. Onto the trampoline she hopped like never before, but now the trampoline is a lonely space with two rather than six feet. The paws are on pause, position vacant.

The crematorium provided a compassionate cocoon, letting us grieve at our own pace. We had time to be with our loved ones and choose how we would honor the memories of their earthly presence. This was more sensitive than I had often experienced in human passings, at hospital bedsides.

The death of a pet can be a truly traumatic experience and can create an empty cavern in our lives and hearts. It can be like losing a close family member. An article published in a 2002 issue of the journal Society & Animals notes the death of a companion animal can be as devastating as the loss of a human significant other.

As humans, the bond we have with animals includes no judgment, trust, acceptance, authenticity, forgiveness, support, dependability, and shared experience. Most of these qualities we seek in human connections, but often find lacking. Pet care teaches us a sense of responsibility. We need patience, boundaries, kindness, and playfulness. The biggest gift they offer us is the opportunity to develop, should we so choose, a capacity for unconditional love. We will still share our homes and hearts with animals who chew our things, urinate, defecate, vomit, bring in dead bodies, or leave muddy paw prints on our floors. We may feel anger or frustration in response, yet this conflict soon dissipates when we look into their eyes.

In her book, On Death & Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief. These stages are not linear, and we can jump between them.

Denial is a normal part of grieving. With cats, this can be more apparent, as often they go wandering for hours, or even days, so it can take some time to actually process the fact that they will not return. We must be sure to connect with our feelings and express them, however we need to. Maybe that’s expressed through repeating the story over and over, knowing there won’t be a different ending, yet it becomes so familiar it offers some safety. 

Anger may follow as to the where, how, and why our pet died. For me, in the instance of a car hitting them, it may be to assume the driver was going too fast, but we have no way of knowing the reason or actuality of the circumstances. What if the driver had a dying animal in their car and was rushing to the vet office? What if they had just learned of a parent dying?

Compassion is a good antidote to anger, and I would like to believe that most people would be horrified with the result of their actions, whatever the cause, and they have to live with this for the rest of their life, which is also sad. Anger can lead to internal bargaining such as, “If only I’d had another day with them, I would’ve…” or “If only I’d come home early, maybe they would have been inside, and the accident wouldn’t have happened.” This gives us the perception of control as if we can prevent future tragedies. We want to feel that we have the power to do something different next time when, in reality, none of this can be controlled. 

Next comes the sadness that comes in waves, often linked to happy memories mixed with the longing for what can be no more, followed by the final stage of acceptance when life returns to normal. We will still feel waves of sadness and times when we miss our beloved pet; however, the crashing waves that hit the shore lessen and become more like an incoming tide as the sands of time wash away. 

They key is in not telling ourselves how we should, and should not, be feeling; no one else should take this role either. It is absolutely fine to laugh through our grief, yet people can feel guilt for this. There are funny things that happened, and there are many happy, joyous memories to share. Connect with others who value the bond of a pet and those who have experienced loss. Create rituals that can support healing and find a way to say goodbye—maybe plant a tree, journal happy memories, print photos, or chat by the fire.

It is essential we engage in self-care and realize that we need not feel guilty about focusing on ourselves. Research shows surviving pets can also experience loss when another pet in the household dies, and they may become distressed by our sorrow. We need to maintain our daily routine for the sake of ourselves, and them. 

Grief is an individual journey. No two people are the same, and no two losses are the same. Although heartbreak can be a common denominator, sailing the waves of sorrow brings each of us into unchartered waters every time. 

In our ocean of uncertainty, reflecting upon how our pets would accept how we are feeling right now is a way for that unconditional love to be their legacy. After all, they have been our anchor and taught us self-compassion—the most remarkable gift. 


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