When I finally euthanized my beloved cat, Ali, a knife slashed my heart.
I’m not much of a crier, but when I said goodbye and handed Ali over to the vet, my face collapsed into a full-out bawl. My boyfriend led me to my apartment – I couldn’t see through my tears – where I crawled into bed and sunk into grief.
By the next morning, my mourning was over.
I awoke feeling happy and light — almost levitated — because Ali had been sick a long time, and the decision to put her down was torture. Grief had passed, and happy memories emerged like sunlight behind a thundercloud.
I remembered the afternoon I rescued Ali from a psycho-biology lab and brought her to my studio apartment, my first home out of college. I remembered our first trip to the beach, and her blank look when I demanded she release the sparrow struggling in her teeth.
I remembered stroking her soft, white fur – Ali was short for Alabaster — and how her purr drowned out the city din when she curled around my head at night.
But these fast, fond memories unnerved me. How could my bond with Ali be so quickly and easily broken? Was I so shallow that after only a day of wailing, my feelings for my dead cat were reduced to, “Good times. Nice to know ya”?
Did ice water run through my veins?
“You gave yourself permission to grieve,” says Diane Snyder Cowan, director of the Bereavement Center for Hospice of the Western Reserve, in Cleveland, Ohio. “By being able to express yourself, you had a cathartic release. Many people don’t understand the grief associated with a death of a pet. They hide their feelings among people who say, ‘It’s only a pet.’ Their grief is disenfranchised.”
I thought a lot about grief after Ali’s death and decided that I recovered so quickly because, unlike my connections with humans, our relationship was so simple.
“I love you; you love me.”
Not, “I love you, but you make me feel less-than.” Or, “You love me to control me.”
My feelings for Ali were pure, unadulterated by resentment, regret, and guilt – the baggage that makes mourning people so heavy and difficult to wade through.
Of course, many people have more complicated relationships with pets, which makes their mourning a longer and harder process. Pets, for some, are sole sources of love and comfort, and living without them is like living without oxygen.
Sometimes, a pet’s death dredges up buried feelings about humans who have passed.
“I’ve seen people who have suffered many human losses, but it wasn’t until their pet passed that they sought therapy,” say Anne Cattarello, a Boulder, Colo., counselor specializing in pet loss and bereavement counseling.
Whatever fuels pet grief, it’s often hard to accept how much it hurts, and to share that pain with someone who won’t smother it under platitudes like, “You can always get another cat.”
Luckily, the helping community is beginning to pay its respects to pet grief. Therapists are seeking training in pet mourning, and pet loss support groups are springing up around the country and online.
If you’re a DIY mourner, here are some ways to work through your grief.
1. Talk with other pet lovers who have lost a cherished animal and understand the impact of a pet’s passing.
2. If someone says, “He was only a dog,” don’t slink away angry and hurt. Reply, “To me, Sparky was more than just a pet.”
3. Create rituals to help mourn your pet, like having a backyard burial or placing a framed picture on your nightstand or fireplace mantle.
4. Resist the impulse to get another pet too soon. Give yourself time to heal before plunging into another important relationship with an animal.
5. Understand that children often mourn in spurts – cry a little, play a lot, cry a little more. Give them space to express and understand their feelings.
6. Remember that pets mourn pets, too. Give your surviving animals extra hugs and playtime.