Saying goodbye to your pet
“It's so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”– John Steinbeck
A few weeks’ ago I lost my friend of fourteen years, Morwen. I was lucky to have had her in my life for so many years. She beat cancer (twice,) as well as a serious illness in her kittenhood, and, although I would have liked to have had more time with her, she slipped as gracefully from this world as she lived her life the afternoon of Friday, June 1. She had been fading for a few weeks despite four veterinarians and two specialists’ attempts to help her. A few days before she died, a small shadow was found in the bones of her pelvis confirming our fear that cancer had once again returned after a two year remission. We all fell apart, including the veterinary staff, even though we all had known, I think, in our hearts that this was coming and coming quickly.
With forty years at my back, I’ve seen my share of loss. I’ve lost friends and family to age and illness and time, as well as the more insidious drifting apart and loss of contact that we all experience as we grow older. Life is about letting go as much as it is about holding on to things. Change (and its sister, loss) are as inevitable as spring turning to summer and fall into winter.
We prepare ourselves, especially when we’re facing a long term illness or negative diagnosis, for the worst. We tell ourselves that we’ll make every day the best we can and savor each moment. We steel ourselves for the end of the journey and sometimes we believe we’re ready to face it, to let go, and that all our goodbyes have been said.
But loss is more than a moment. In its own way, it never ends. Grief lurks in corner of your mind and slides into every thought, every smile, every joyful moment. It’s the little needle that says that your friend always loved spring best or danced at the sight of the first snowfall. It’s picking up a toy or blanket in a store and thinking “Morwen would have liked this.”
I have several elderly pets, and knowing that death stops for no man (or cat,) I’d put together a folder some time ago with information about burial and cremation services, as well as things like memorial statues and donations. I had hoped, against hope, that it would be many years before I’d have to open that folder, just as hopefully my own will won’t be needed for many years.
Death brings with it not only a painful goodbye, but so many decisions. I have lost pets to accidents and illness, as well as had some who died, peacefully, after many years in their sleep. I’ve also faced the painful decision on whether or not to end a pet’s life who was in great pain – a decision that many pet owners’ will face at one time or the other. There are no right answers. You know your pet best and are the guardian of what they would want, it is your decision to decide when a life is, in essence, no longer worth living.
Regardless of your choice, you will likely be wracked with guilt – especially if a long illness or decline has been involved. You’ll feel a sense of failure and regret for things you didn’t know or didn’t try, as well as a profound sense of guilt for that sliver of your being that is relieved to not be faced with the day in and day out trials and heartbreak of fighting a battle you know has only one outcome. Others may criticize you under the casual callousness of “being helpful,” with comments that “at least it’s over,” “it was only a cat,” or “just get a new one.” They may be equally cruel in making suggestions for care you didn’t try or comments that “we all get old” and “you knew this was coming.”
No matter what anyone tells you, you are entitled to your grief. There is no measurement for loss. One loss is not greater than another, one heart more or less broken than its brother or sister. Loss is loss. Pain is pain despite what some people might choose to have to say on the matter. No one can look into someone else’s heart or soul and measure what they are feeling. So if you’re faced with someone who is obviously grieving, please consider their feelings (and not whether they are inconvenient to you or that their grief is something you don’t understand). If you are grieving, then grieve. Take as long as you need. There is no timetable on how long it takes to get over a lost love. In time, the memories that now may cause you grief will bring you joy. But today, it’s fine to own your sorrow. Losing a beloved pet is like losing a child. It’s the loss of something precious and pure, the end of a friendship that let you experience unconditional love.
Fourteen years is a long time. That’s longer than I’ve ever held a job at one company and longer than I known many of my friends. And although love is never really lost because it lives on in our memories and in the joys that we shared with another living creature, I think Edna St. Vincent Millay summed it up perfectly when she wrote: “Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.”
My preparation folder ended up being a godsend since I was basically a puddle after Morwen’s death. Thankfully, my veterinarian’s office handles death services (like cremations, memorial paw prints, and containers/boxes for burial). But it’s always a good idea to create a folder and have information on hand, as well as some idea about which you prefer (cremation or burial) before you need it. I chose cremation and now Morwen’s ashes are in a small rosewood box awaiting transfer to a beautiful urn crafted by the Pet Memory Shop. They offer small caskets, as well as urns and other memorial items and are very thoughtful and compassionate.
I also opted for a memorial statue of Morwen sculpted by My Pet Sculpture. Because Morwen was a very small cat, a sculpture which could include her urn wasn’t a possibility. But if you have a dog or other larger pet, then My Pet Sculpture offers life-sized statues that can accommodate your pet’s ashes and can be placed indoors or even outdoors at a gravesite in lieu of a headstone.
There are many companies that offer pet memorial stones and statues. A quick search online will give you a list of those with nationwide, as well as local services. I highly recommend having a discussion with your veterinarian, as well as your friends who have lost pets in the past so that you can choose a service that is highly recommended and kind to those in grief. Faithful Friends Pet Memorial here in Nashville were not only very professional, but went out of their way to treat my grief with respect. They are also spoken of kindly by my vet, as well as by several of my friends.
If you do choose to cremate, you may decide to scatter your friend’s ashes in a place they loved. If you do, just remember that there are often city regulations of scattering remains of any kind. So be sure to make sure that are no issues with your ceremony before you start. A quick email to the park where you plan to scatter ashes or to the city chamber of commerce is usually all you need.
Whether you are grieving or have a friend who has lost a pet, a memorial gift is a wonderful way to celebrate a pet’s life. Many animal rescue society’s offer memorial giving, including Best Friend’s Animal Sanctuary which will place a special message in their Angels’ Rest Memorial Garden for your pet or as a gift to a friend who has experienced a loss. There is no better way to celebrate your pet’s life than to donate to a cause that gives other animals a chance at life.
If you’re looking for other ways to comfort a friend or memorialize your pet, then you might want to consider a pet portrait. Many artists offer them. I can personally recommend Digital Teahouse. They’ve created both digital and painted portraits for several of my cats. There are likely artists in your area who offer this service, as well as many online.
Finally, you might want to consider opening your home and heart to another pet once you and your family (including your other fur babies) have accepted your loss. This isn’t an option for everyone. For some seeing a new pet “in the place” of their lost pet increases their grief. Certainly never give anyone a dog or cat as a “replacement” for their lost pet. But it has helped me, over the years, to know that I had other pets who needed my love and care. And I’ve always found that there’s no better way to lose yourself than in helping others. Foster kittens and puppies can be a great distraction and a chance to open your heart and home to an animal in need. When (and if) you do decide to bring another pet into your home, consider a rescue pet as an option. You’ll be giving an animal in need a chance to experience the love you shared with your lost pet.
I hope if you have experienced a loss that this article is of some help to you. Please know that you are not alone and your grief is real and valid. And remember: “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” – Helen Keller