I am highly allergic to cats but there is something about this green-eyed American Shorthair that makes me disregard my sneezes and pick her up to nozzle and stroke her. The joy she brings to outsiders like me and to her human family is clear when she arches her spine and rubs against your leg. She is playful, yet gentle and loves to sun herself next to the family’s pool outside their Texas home. She is eight years old and her name is Lilly. Family members have grown accustomed to her being near the back door as they arrive home each day, or as she curls up against them on the sofa at night. However, their routine changes forever, when without warning, Lilly has a seizure and dies on their kitchen floor. The veterinarian tells the grief-stricken family that their beloved cat has died from complications of heart worm. Tears flow as they share their stories and mourn the loss of their pet.
Their grief reminds me of my first experience with death when I was eight years old and my pet gerbil died. I also revisit my loss of having to find a new home for our Golden Retriever Cody, after my husband’s death. My first and last experiences of pet loss were devastating to me then, as the loss of Lilly is to my dear friend Patty now. We humans form relationships, not only with people, but also with our animal companions. In our humanness, death brings pain when we experience the loss of any relationship.
The Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has a pet loss hotline and resources for grieving the death of a pet. One of the books listed is one I recommended to Patty entitled, Healing the Pain of Pet Loss, Letters in Memoriam. It is a rich treasury of letters sent to author Kymberly Smith in response to her request for stories from people who had lost an animal. Realizing that the best advice comes from those who have lived through the experience, this book has letters from those whose pet died of natural or accidental causes, euthanasia, loss from disappearance, or from forced separation.
Reading the book and trying to support my friends who have had pets die, I recognize that many of us become insensitive to people who have recently lost their companions. We often downplay their pain, feeling as if our human loss of life is so much more significant. For many of us, the death of a pet is not comparable to the loss we have felt when losing a loved one; however, we must recognize the deeply rooted bond that many of us have with our animals. Think about the death of a service dog to a blind person or beloved pet who has lived with an isolated elderly person. These deaths and all of our pet’s deaths are significant and life altering, and grief is a normal part of the process. Accompanying others on their journey is important and just as significant as the times in which they grieve a family member or friend.