Lessons in pet bereavement: More than ‘just’ a cat

Emma Heasman is a freelance copywriter who works from her home office. Stone was born in 1994 and died on Friday 22nd July 2016. She was Emma’s best friend, house mate and colleague (i.e. keyboard warmer and chief distractor) for almost 22 years. Gareth loved her for nearly as long.

I can hardly believe that it’s a year today since our beloved cat, Stone, died just weeks shy of her 22nd birthday. That’s 365 days since I last stroked her, 365 days since I last heard her meow, 365 days since we last cuddled up side by side. A year that’s gone in the blink of an eye and yet stretched out for an eternity.

I knew losing Stone would be hard. Looking back, I spent the last two years of her life in a state of anticipatory grief – seeing the end hurtling towards us but not being clear about when it would hit. The stress and responsibility were crushing, as was the feeling of impending tragedy. There were days when I couldn’t think of anything else. 

People told me we would know when she’d had enough, that there would be a definitive moment when euthanasia would feel absolutely right, but I’m not sure that was true. There was no single moment, just a gentle decline into extreme old age that edged a little further towards us day by day. 

All I know is that we eventually reached a tipping point where her bad days started to outnumber the good. 

Her final week

During that last week of Stone’s life, the vet thought she might have a urine infection at first but it soon became clear we were dealing with something altogether more serious. 

I slept on the sofa with her each night and fed her tiny bits of food so she didn’t have to get up. When she did wake, she spent hours pacing, trying to poo or wee, but her brain had simply stopped giving her bladder and bowels the signals they needed to work. 

She was restless and lethargic at the same time. Still interested in life but trapped within an increasingly fragile body. She lost a third of her body weight in just four days – we could see her heart fluttering against her skin, a determined tattoo beating out her intention to stay for as long as possible. But the truth was that she couldn’t get comfortable. Increasingly, her legs would buckle and she would fall over, struggling to get up. 

In the end, we just couldn’t bear to watch her suffer for a minute longer than necessary.

Even knowing this, I still question the timing of our decision. In her final hours, Stone ate a whole pack of ham, she drank water from her pint glass (she would never drink from a bowl – what did we think she was? Some kind of animal?!) and she even found the energy to walk around the garden. 

Was it too soon? Would she have rallied round for a few more days, weeks or even months? 

I suppose the answer comes back to that tipping point. The day she died was a better day – not a good one – but probably aided by a steroid injection, the vet’s last-ditch attempt to buy us some time. Would the days that followed have been bad or worse than bad? We’ll never know. We just couldn’t risk it.

Stone’s passing was unbelievably peaceful and dignified – aided by a deeply compassionate vet who came to our house to do the deed. We stroked and kissed Stone and told her how much we loved her and how grateful we were that she chose us. After the injection, her heartbeat simply faded away. A gentle sigh escaped her lips. Her eyes fixed on me until the end and then their sheen imperceptibly dulled. It may sound strange, but it was the best of deaths, the most any of us can hope for at the end of a life well lived.

Even with that cold comfort, I don’t think I could ever have imagined how hard or what a journey into grief this year would be.

Guilt and more guilt

I’ve felt a lot of guilt this year and wondered if I’m dysfunctional because I’ve felt more grief for Stone than for some deeply loved relatives and friends. What does that say about me? Is that wrong?

I suppose, rationally speaking, Stone was – in every way that matters - a member of our immediate family. My partner, Gareth, and I spent almost 22 years prioritising her needs, feeding her, sleeping next to her, cuddling her on our laps, letting her in and out of the house, stroking her. That’s nearly 8,000 days. They say you need to repeat an activity 27 times to make it a habit. When you repeat something multiple times a day for 8,000 days, it becomes more than a habit. It becomes a part of you.

I also felt guilty because, for the briefest of moments in the silence after she died, her fur still warm under my fingertips, I felt relief that I didn’t have to worry about Stone’s life ending anymore. The train that had been hurtling towards us from the day two years before when she stopped being able to climb the stairs had finally hit. At last, the unknown had revealed itself. I was able to stop thinking, “When will it happen?” because, finally, it had happened. It was like being in a horror film and, at last, seeing what was stalking us. My fear was tangible, the worst had happened. Now I just had to survive, a second at a time.

Of course, the relief only lasted for a millisecond. I would give anything to go back to a world that has Stone in it, even if it meant waiting for the train to hit again.

A disenfranchished grief

Despite Stone’s massive significance to our family, this year I’ve learned why pet bereavement is often referred to as a disenfranchished grief. I have learned that it exists in a state of unbearable loneliness. I suppose all grief does. But when a person dies, we have rituals, we send cards of condolence, recount stories from our shared times, make food for the bereaved, bring the loved one back into the room with our memories. The funeral is attended by friends and family. If the bereaved person cries or gets angry or retreats into themselves, we acknowledge their loss, even if we don’t fully understand the weight of it.

It wasn’t like that when Stone passed. 

We were sent two cards – one from my brother and one from my parents. Beyond that, no-one mentioned her. There were days for months afterwards when I could barely function. I would look for Stone and she wouldn’t be there and the terrifying permanence of knowing that I will never see her again would hit me like a physical blow. But no-one noticed. I was screaming in the middle of a crowded room and no-one could hear me.

Immediately following her death, when peeling myself off of the sofa and stemming my constant flow of tears seemed all but impossible, I tried to take a few days off. I work for myself though and when I explained to a client why I needed a couple of work-free days, they quite honestly told me they didn’t ‘give a shit’ that my cat had died and that it wasn’t like I’d lost a member of my family. In fact, they told me they weren’t interested in ‘excuses’ with an almost audible eye-roll. Needless to say, they’re not a client anymore. Still, after that, I didn’t mention Stone to any of my clients but my work suffered in those long months of grief. My life suffered, as did all our lives.

I tried to talk about Stone and frequently found myself bringing her into conversation but it seemed to make people uncomfortable. I found that very few people want to hear or expect you to talk about a dead pet. I’ve sometimes felt that I was embarrassing other people – or, in their eyes, embarrassing myself – and they perceived me as being strange or emotionally immature for being so bereft about an animal.

Dog trumps cat, apparently, but “It’s not like losing a person”

I’ve learned too that, with pet bereavement, there seems to be a scale for accepted levels of grief. Four different people said, “At least she wasn’t a dog; that would be much harder to deal with”. Really? I wasn’t aware that dog trumps cat in the event of a bereavement. Then let’s not forget that old chestnut, “It’s not like losing a person. You can replace a cat”.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so ridiculous. 

Yes, we could bring another cat into our family one day but it would never be Stone. A new cat wouldn’t walk to the shops or pub with 21-year-old me, or wait at the bus stop when it was time for 25-year-old me to come home from work. The cat who did those things can only live in Gareth’s and my memories now.

A new cat wouldn’t have specific meows for ‘Hello’, ‘I want to go out’, ‘Feed me’ and ‘Keep stroking’ or be the first animal my babies ever loved. Another cat wouldn’t drink out of a pint glass, only eat when we stroked her, wee over the plug hole of the bath in the case of emergencies, or only let Gareth or I tickle his or her belly. That unique combination of behaviours and idiosyncrasies belongs to Stone and only Stone. Animals aren’t interchangeable, any more than people.

Our love for Stone is so entwined with 22 years’ worth of memories from our 20s and 30s - a new cat couldn’t replace that. That’s not to say we couldn’t love again. We absolutely could and will one day, I’m sure. But there will only ever be one Stone.

A few people have said to me that cats are aloof and out for themselves and that’s why they’re not as mourned as a family dog. That was never our experience. Stone was the gentlest, sweetest and most loving creature I’ve ever encountered. As a kitten, she let my parents’ cockatiel ride on her back and my pet rabbit chase her round the garden. She snuggled up with our guinea pigs, let spiders crawl across her feet or children lay their head on her like she was the warmest, comfiest pillow in the world. She was never a cat with a killer instinct!

A kind of magic

It’s hard to explain what Stone did for me but it was something magical. All my life, I’ve felt a bit beige, a bit invisible, as though I blend so seamlessly into the background that one day I may just disappear. Inside, I’m a riot of colours and feelings but on the outside, there’s nothing to mark me out from the crowd.

But, as crazy as it may sound, Stone challenged that. She chose me. In a room full of people, it was me that she sought out, me she shadowed, my lap she slept on. She always looked to me for comfort and gave me comfort too. If I cried – no matter how far from home she was – she would sense my distress and find me. When I was crippled with depression, Stone was sometimes my only companion during the day and when I couldn’t sleep at night. She made me feel like I mattered, like she saw the truth of me. Her love was unconditional and I felt brighter for it.

I’m sure that’s part of what I miss so much – the unconditional love. Even though we love our children unconditionally, it’s only right that they grow, change and move towards independence. But Stone never did that. Her devotion and love for our family were constant – we were her whole life.

Living with grief

So, here we are, a year later. It took us months before we were able to move Stone’s pint glass from the living room. Gareth, the boys and I still struggle to sit in her spot on the sofa and subconsciously leave room for her, even now. Her blanket still sits folded on the arm of the sofa. We’re remodelling the house at the moment and part of me worries that Stone wouldn’t recognise it any more. My muscle memory of stroking Stone is so strong that, if I close my eyes, I can remember the feel of the short, velvety fur just above her nose or the softer fur under her chin.

Just a few weeks ago, I went out for a walk and realised that a stream of tears was falling down my face as it hit me for the millionth time that I will never see Stone again. How can that be possible?

The grief has become a part of me now – a dull, pulsing hole that I’m learning to live with but I don’t think I’ll ever fill. Sometimes the edges of the hole feel raw and gaping and I struggle to stop myself from falling in. Other days, I tiptoe around the edges of the hole, and the love inside – a vibrant ball of feeling that has nowhere to go - simply whispers instead of roars.

For months the pain was so raw that there were honestly times when I wished I’d never laid eyes on Stone (another source of guilt). I realised that we had voluntarily invited this shattering, inevitable bereavement into our lives 22 years ago, not only for ourselves but for our children too, and I felt so angry about it. I wanted the pain to stop, to be able to breathe again, to not feel as though I had lost a limb.

But, in my heart, I kept remembering a quote from the film Shadowlands:

“Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I've been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal”.

I have lived the truth of this quote since losing Stone. That beautiful girl gave us 22 years of unconditional love, devotion and joy. How could I ever regret that? The pain now is part of the happiness then. Grief is just love that has nowhere to go and I choose to see that love as the greatest of gifts.

Treat with compassion

If you’re reading this, you probably understand that a loved pet is never truly ‘just an animal’. If you’re not an animal lover though and a friend finds themselves grieving their lost fur baby, all I ask is that you treat them with compassion. 

Hug them. Offer to cook for them or to go for a walk. Send them a card. Recognise that the daily routines that have shaped their lives have suddenly gone – the habits of 8,000 days shattered with that final, gentle breath. 

Let them talk about their lost family member, because it is a family member who’s died in every way that counts. Recognise their grief. Validate it instead of dismissing it. You may not understand it but that doesn’t make it less real. Bereaved pet carers often feel like they have to suffer in silence, so please do what you can to give them a voice.

And please, please never rank your friend’s loss on a scale of what you perceive to be the acceptable amount of grief. The hole a family pet leaves isn’t directly tied to its size or its lifespan. It cannot be replaced, nor would we want it to be.