I’m Sadder About My Cat Dying than I Am About Humans I’ve Lost (and why that makes sense)
My cat Penelope died. She was almost 21 years old, and she lived a good life. She had slowed down in the last few years a bit, but was still surprisingly spry and healthy. If not for the fact that cats simply do not live past 20 almost ever, there was no reason to think that her time was up.
Then one night a few weeks ago, we found her lying on the floor looking strange, and it seemed like she couldn’t use her legs to stand up. Two emergency vet visits and a bunch of tests were inconclusive, and told us only that she’d most likely either had a stroke, or a brain tumor that had finally grown to a size where it was impinging on the motor areas in her brain, but we’ll never know for sure.
While trying to decide on the right thing to do, we fed her wet food off of our fingers; gave her water from a medicine dropper; futilely tried to help her stand; held, stroked and comforted her a whole bunch. Eventually we made the excruciating decision to end her life with euthanasia. After the vet left our home, we wrapped Penelope’s body in a blanket to lay in wake overnight, and in the morning we buried her in the yard and planted a beautiful shrub over her resting spot.
The grief experienced when a pet passes on is difficult to explain, especially to people who have not had a close relationship with a non-human animal. It seems impossible that I should feel sadder about Penelope passing than I have for humans who had a profound role in my life, but I think I do feel sadder, in a certain way. Here are some reasons I can think of that might explain the different, special, ultra-intense kind of grief we feel when our close animal companion dies.
1. The connection we have with our pets is very primal — very mammalian. Since we don’t have language as a way to communicate with these beings, we instead connect in very basic ways that put us in touch with those parts of our selves that are even more fundamental than our human-ness. We connect as two creatures that occupy space together; touch, groom, smell, each other; observe and internalize each other’s habits and patterns. While we don’t hear each others thoughts through words, we do hear each other’s inner experience through the raw sounds we each make and direct towards each other.
Not only do our pets learn something about interacting in the human world, but we humans learn something about how to be in the world of cats or dogs, or some other species. Usually we humans spend most of our days out among other humans, where we don’t experience the parts of our souls that our animal friends draw out. When we lose a pet, we lose a friend who connects with us in a particular way that nobody else does.
2. Unlike humans, animals exist almost entirely inside their own skin and fur. As humans, we extend our selves beyond biology by inhabiting the world of signifiers, signs and culture making… We write, we start companies, we record songs, we make up jokes, we knit scarves, we invent recipes, we collect physical possessions. All of these things persist after we physically die. Humans also (usually) leave behind a web of social, community and family connections. And all of these people have memories of our beloved deceased human, and we can take some comfort in knowing that the person we lost lives on not only in our own memory, but in the memories of many other people.
A pet has a lot less to leave behind when his or her body goes away. Penelope was a very cautious cat, socially. When guests came around, she usually hid. So only a few people besides her (human) mom and me knew her. But for Linda and me, Penelope was an everyday, every minute fact of our lives. For over 20 years, we planned our lives around her care. She was the most consistent feature, in fact, outlasting every other element of the household.
What we still have of her is knowing what her fur felt like when she rubbed up against us, the feeling of exactly how much gravity resisted when we picked her up (not very much), and habitual expectations of finding her sleeping steadfastly in one of her favorite spots when we walk in a room. Mostly she’s just gone. And It’s really sad.
3. There are no widely established rituals for grieving the death of a pet. There are no funerals, no obituaries, not too many community cemeteries for pets. We can invent our own little ceremonies and designate burial areas in our own yards, as we did for Penelope, but these are very private opportunities for marking the end of a life — not woven into the culture at large. At most, we share a picture of our dear one on social media, and get a bunch of online sympathy, but still there is no major public ritual to frame the sad transition we are experiencing, making the loss of their special presence all the more isolating and lonely.
4. The world does not accommodate people who have lost a pet, the way it does when a human loved one dies. Time off from work? Cancelling a promise you made to help your friend move? Bereavement arrangements from the airline? Not gonna happen. Even writing this out, I feel a twinge of “people are going to think I’m crazy.” Because it might seem crazy to have expectations for these kinds of support from the world at large, we don’t ask for them, and, either way, it leaves those of us who had strong attachments to a deceased pet without all the space needed to heal from our loss.
5. We don’t get to say goodbye. While — as described in #1 — not having a shared language to communicate with leads us to having a special kind of mammalian closeness with our pets, on the other hand, the lack of language means we don’t get to say goodbye to them in the way we often do with humans. Now, granted, humans often die without a linguistic roundup of things — unexpectedly in an accident, or at the end of a long decline, in which they are not responsive for many months before they finally go. But with pets, it’s always the case that we don’t get to finish our story together. I did not get to ask Penelope what the end of her life meant to her, or get to tell her what her life meant to me, or how excruciating it was to make that decision for her. She’s just gone.
Penelope had a bunch of nicknames. Peeps, Peebles, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Princess Paws, and many more that are too embarrassing to print. (Yes, they are even more embarrassing than the ones I listed). Her weight hovered around 5 pounds most of her life. To the few people and other animals she was comfortable with, she was incredibly affectionate and tuned in. She adored and revered her older “sister” Zoey, who passed a few years before her. Same with the one dog she ever really got close to, her toweringly large “brother” Arlo. For most of her life she was quick and nimble and playful. She had the ability to make the most normally-mundane actions, like drinking water or cleaning her face with a paw, seem like miracles of preciousness. There has never been and will never be another Penelope.
Writing this helps me understand why it feels so weird to say that I’m sadder over my cat’s death, in some ways, than I am for people close to me who have died. Of course I miss horribly my dad; and I lament my several same-age-as-me friends who died way too early. It’s not really a comparison of one versus the other. It’s just… different. And impossible. And is.
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