This post was written by Catfé manager Marie Perreault
I always say that grieving the loss of an animal is a special kind of grief. Not “good” special; special in that it is unlike any other grief we experience as humans.
The first animal I ever lost was my sweet Santiago. He was the first cat I ever rescued; my emotional rock in college (some of the hardest years of my life) – the one who started it all. He was my best friend, my confidant and my snuggle buddy. He allowed me the privilege of his love and trust, and he kept me company many lonely and lost nights.
Santi died very suddenly. I had already been asleep when my roommate pounded on my door. “Marie,” he said – his voice quivering – “Santiago…something’s wrong; he just made a horrible noise. You should come now.” I ran past him down the stairs to the dining room where my other roommate (a fellow animal lover) was standing over him. I knew the moment I saw him on the table that he was already gone. My whole body went limp; my face, motionless. People were talking around me but I heard nothing. My body floated over to the couch, I plopped down and immediately began to sob like I had never sobbed before. Santiago was just four years old.
When I say that losing an animal is a special kind of grief, that means a few things. For one: animals are emotionally advanced beings. They help us in ways that humans can’t. It’s a connection unlike anything else in this world, making the loss extraordinary and deep.
Secondly: we are our pets’ voice and their advocates. This fact often leaves us feeling guilty after an animal’s passing, wondering if we could have done more for them. Maybe we could have noticed more or taken them to the vet sooner. This is completely normal, but we should rest assured that we provided our animals with a loving home and a chance to live the life they deserved.
Lastly: not everyone understands the deep relationships that often develop between a human and an animal. This can make it difficult for others to empathize with our grief. When Santiago died, some people close to me had a very difficult time understanding my need to put my life on hold – to miss sleep, or even class. And every time someone would come visit and ask where Santi was, I would begin sobbing all over again, reliving that terrible night. Every time I came home and he wasn’t laying on my bed (or being a little stinker trying to sneak out the front door), a wave of sadness would wash over me.
Years later, that sadness still hits me sometimes. Losing a pet leaves a hole in our homes, our lives and our hearts. Some people in our lives may not “get” this, but the important thing is that we have these feelings, and they are valid. When I lost Santiago I had no idea that I would go on to become the manager of a cat shelter and experience animal loss regularly. And, boy, can I tell you – this season we have experienced a lot of loss as a shelter. I can tell you first hand, It doesn’t matter whether the animal is at home or at work. It hurts. It hurts like getting a baseball thrown at your nose.
I cry for every cat we lose at the shelter, just like I cried all those times for Santiago. I always say the only unpleasant part of having a pet is when they eventually pass. Not when they pee on your favorite blanket, or throw up on your rug, or scratch your favorite chair. That’s all part of the experience. Unfortunately, though, so is loss. As Prince would say, “Life is a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.”
So after all this grief, my advice is this: love them without hesitation every minute you have them. Because, I promise, they will love you back just as hard. And it will make the inevitable loss slightly more bearable, because you got love along the way.
Feel your feelings. It’s okay to cry; it’s okay to be angry; it’s okay to feel nothing at all. It’s also okay to give yourself time. As I stated above, Santiago’s loss still stings years after his passing. There is no timeline for grief – you must be patient with yourself.
Lastly, take care of yourself. Do whatever you have to do to distract, comfort, and care for yourself. Eat, and drink water, even if it’s only a small amount. See family and friends. If you’re feeling ready, visit some shelter animals, or make a donation to a shelter in your pet’s honor. Take a bath, read a book, or watch a funny movie. Create a shrine with your pet’s ashes, paw prints, spiritual components, pictures, or even their favorite toys or blankets. This can be very therapeutic and helps you to remember them in a healthy and tangible way.
If you can’t accept this advice right now, I understand, but I urge you to find something that works to alleviate some of the pain for you. I at least hope that reading about my experience brings you comfort and helps you to feel less alone. I don’t really know what I believe spiritually, but this I do believe: our pets are always walking beside us, sleeping with us at night, and laying on their favorite spots on the couch. Whether they passed five minutes ago or 10 years ago doesn’t matter. They may be gone physically, but emotionally we will always have the love and memories they shared with us.
I will leave you with this poem: “Our hearts still ache in sadness, and secret tears still flow, what it meant to lose you, no one will ever know” -Unknown
National suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Lap of Love Animal Hospice grief line: (855)-352-5683
ASPCA animal grief line: (877)-474-3310
Online Support groups:
For more resources and information visit: www.petloss.org