Last year I had to help my 15-year-old cat, Mr. Jazz, cross to the Bridge. While it was a heartbreaking decision, the truth is he had been dying for months, and despite all that I did to help prolong his life, helping him cross was ultimately the kindest thing I could do for him.
Because I knew his time with me was limited, I was able to prepare myself, and our final moments together were touching and incredibly loving. After he was gone, I missed him dearly and my grief was profound, but I felt he had lived a long and happy life and I was able to make relative peace with it.
Life is not always so kind, however, and sometimes we are taught brutal lessons that come out of nowhere, that are entirely unfair and difficult to comprehend. Especially when it comes to the loss of a beloved pet to circumstances that are completely unexpected, which is what happened to me recently with my cat Harley.
Unlike with Mr. Jazz, there was no grace period where I got to say goodbye. My fianc├®, Dan, and I had brought her to the vet to follow up on some symptoms of asthma, and when we brought her home she was seemingly fine. Minutes later, we found her in the grips of a life-threatening epileptic seizure, something she had never experienced before, and we had to rush her back to the vet. The news was grave, and we had to make the gut-wrenching decision right there.
It was an unspeakably horrible moment that I will never forget, and we literally only had minutes to tell her we loved her and say goodbye to her. It was not a beautiful Hallmark moment like we had with Jazz, and there was no pretty pink bow to tie up the loose ends in a poignant package so that we could put our minds at ease as we remembered her. All we had after we left the vet’s office were feelings of anger, guilt, bitterness, confusion, and utter despair.
I share all of this not to bring you down, but because if you have lost a pet, you know all too well that not all deaths make sense or are fair or have peaceful endings. The loss of Harley and the profound sadness I am struggling to deal with is the pain that so many of you can relate to.
I am trying to function without her as if I am OK, but that is far from the case. The world continues around me with alarming regularity. The hardest part is trying to be normal, because I see her everywhere. I can’t let her go, and she haunts my every waking moment. I know I am clearly in denial, and until I make peace with her crossing, I am my own worst enemy. But right now, that’s how it is: I have received sympathy cards that I can’t open yet, I have emails that people have been kind enough to send me that I can barely respond to, and Harley’s ashes that Dan picked up a few weeks ago sit next to Mr. Jazz in a pretty and functional box that I can’t even look at right now.
I wish I could make the pain stop, but unfortunately there is no quick magical formula to healing the heart, and I know this will be a long and difficult road to recovery. But whether you are grieving the loss of a pet who has lived a long and full life and who died peacefully of old age in her sleep, or a pet who died as a result of a chronic illness, was hit by a car, or died for reasons unknown — or was even lost, which is also like a death in many ways — it is never easy to let go, and the grieving process we go through is unique every time.
All you can do is understand that your grief is your own and that no one can tell you how or when to get over it or when it’s time to move on. The grieving process is a highly individual experience with no rules or timeframes as to how you should or should not process the pain. You just need to be patient and let the grieving process happen. If you are someone who accepts life and death in a more clinical fashion, it might only take you a matter of weeks to accept the reality of the death. For others, the process can take years to completely get over, if you even can get over it.
Just don’t ever feel embarrassed to grieve or let anyone trivialize your feelings. If you want to cry, scream, or yell, then do it. There are millions of people across the world who have also experienced the loss of a pet and understand your pain.
Sometimes a perfect stranger can be your best resource toward healing. From blogs to websites to chat rooms and forums, seek out people who understand and appreciate the magnitude of your loss and may be able to get you through your own grieving.
At some point, the pain you feel should soften and will be replaced by the memories of the love and time you shared with your pet. Hopefully you will look back with a smile and be thankful that for however long or short the time was, that this incredible, devoted, and precious being was a part of your life and enriched your days and nights with their individually unique personality, devotion, and companionship.
Whether we like it or not, that’s just how it is with pets. We open our heart and homes to them, but they are with us for borrowed time in the scheme of our lives and we can never predict the future. Treasure each and every moment you are blessed to have with them as if it might be your last, because it truly might be. If nothing else, my beloved Harley has brought me even closer to my other cats. I have never been one to take any of them granted, but now, well, let’s just say that my appreciation and love for them has reached levels that even astound me.
Have you ever had to deal with the sudden death of a beloved cat? Tell us your story in the comments.
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Deborah Barnes lives in Florida and is the author of the book, The Chronicles of Zee & Zoey ÔÇô- A Journey of the Extraordinarily Ordinary. She is the creator of the award-winning blog Zee & Zoey’s Chronicle Connection, which covers the everyday journey she shares with her cats as well as cat-related topics humorous and serious.