Grieving the Loss of a Pet

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

Ten years ago my beloved cat, Cloe passed away. She was sick cat and not supposed to live one year. She lived fifteen. Cloe was my constant companion. Whenever I was ill, she lay by my side.

A Young Cloe

A Young Cloe

When pregnant and on bed rest for months, she was my best friend and confidant, often staying by my side for hours. After she died, I never wanted to return home as the house was so empty without her. To this day, thoughts of Cloe bring tears to my eyes. I have since adopted two cats which I love; but they will never be Cloe. I love them but not the way I loved Cloe. I feel guilty and heartless at times. Is this normal? Thank you for listening.

Cora

Dear Cora,

Of all the losses of living beings we sustain, loss of a pet may be among the most poorly understood and most devalued.  But surely our capacity to love deeply is not limited to our own species, and sometimes the circumstances of our life and history conspire to make these the most reliable and secure of the relationships we have.  Through thick and thin, our cats and dogs in particular may literally be by our side, in a form of attachment that is often less complicated than that of our relationships with other people.    To lose them, then, is to lose something simple and precious, even if the lifespan of most domestic companions makes this a probable outcome.

As I listen to your story, I also appreciate the extent to which it involved a very special bond based on mutual caregiving–you to Cloe across the course of her illness, greatly extending her life, and Cloe to you during the time of your pregnancy.  Such mutual bonds are not easily relinquished, nor should they be.  Still, if her death feels preoccupying after all this time, perhaps even inhibiting your investment in your more recently adopted cats or other beings, then reflecting on what you might need with respect to the loss and acting on those reflections might be indicated.

One direction to pursue is to consolidate and honor the meaning of her life for you.  For example, I have known grieving pet owners who have made beautiful photo collages of their pets, often of pictures featuring the pet with them and other members of the family, from the point that the pet was a new kitten or puppy to old age.  Such collages, or their electronic counterparts in the form of slideshows on our computers, validate the many ways in which our animals may accompany us loyally through life’s transitions, conveying a sense of completeness even in the wake of loss.

Another direction is suggested by AfterTalk, in which you might write a “Dear Chloe” letter, one that not only affirms your love for her, but that also describes the important developments in your own life over the last decade.  What are the high points she might have witnessed had she lived to a still more venerable age?  What might you tell her about the special characteristics of your other cats, or even your children, that she too might have loved?  Including her as a kind of witnessing presence in a life fully embraced and ongoing, rather than one only hollowed out by her dying, can itself be a gift of love, and one compatible with the special bond you had and that you can continue to cherish and fulfill in her physical absence.

Dr. Neimeyeer

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