The Loss of a Beloved Pet
In hopes of helping with traumatic and painful reactions.
Posted Dec 20, 2015
One of the truly heartbreaking events in our lives is when we have to watch a beloved pet slowly dying, and/or have to make the painful decision to euthanize them. As a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist for the last 30 years, I’ve worked often with patients who are going through this experience. I, too, have been there several times, and it never gets easier.
Today I had to make the agonizing call to put my precious cat Lily to sleep. I feel this is the right time for me to reach out to my readers about the difficulty of such a painful process, and how it often replicates trauma from a prior time in our life.
I’ll never forget the day I excitedly picked out Lily and her brother Tiger from their litter of adorable wriggling kittens. When I put Lily in the carrying case, she screamed bloody murder and wouldn’t stop until – wonder of wonders – I picked out her brother as well. Suddenly, the two of them became totally silent, snuggling like they were velcro’d together, and they stayed that way for the next 10 years. I’ve never seen two animals so bonded to each other. Every night when I came home from work, I could see their silhouettes in the window, watching the night sky together, as if Tiger had his arm around Lily. They were never apart, and I always worried about what one would do without the other.
I’m no stranger to the feeling of loss, as is true for most of us, and for me, it started very early. When I was just five months old, my father suffered a near fatal heart attack. My mother, brother, sister, and I all knew very well his next heart attack would kill him. Unlike today, there were none of the miraculous treatments available, so all we could do was watch and wait…helplessly.
By the time I was five, riding as a passenger in the front seat while my father drove, I knew how to stop the car in case he had an attack. As you can imagine, I worried constantly about his heart. Regardless, we all tried to make the best of things, and absolutely treasured the time we had with my father, who was the idealized center of our world. He made our lives exciting and fun, and taught us many things, knowing he wouldn’t be around for long.
Sadly, my father died when I was eight. My family was devastated, and like many families, we didn’t know how to talk about it. We learned to stuff our feelings and our tears, in an effort to minimize the trauma we were feeling, not knowing that’s the worst thing we could have done. I’m quite sure that’s why I became a psychotherapist, because I know how important it is to learn to talk about painful feelings (See Counting My People).
As I mentioned, many of you have had traumatic losses in your life, including the loss of a pet, and trauma is a peculiar thing; it doesn’t go away, particularly if you don’t share it with others. So trauma has a way of compounding itself, so that the next losses seem to pile up. Each time a person has a new loss, it’s common for them to feel re-traumatized, not knowing that it’s because they’ve kept so much inside. The experience of re-traumatization doesn’t have to be a directly personal event. The way we as a nation responded after 9/11 is a perfect example of the feelings of loss, helplessness, alienation, and shock that can engulf us. Much of that can be traced back to individual experiences each one of us has had in our personal lives.
When it comes to the love and attachment we form with animals, it seems to bring out the best in us. Moreover, many of us tend to remember the important transitions of our lives by which pet we had at the time. They’re an important marker of our life’s journey.
Animals will always be dependent on us, and won’t grow up and leave home. In addition, we can feel that we have some kind of control in the relationship, so long as we take good care of them. However, we have no control over their lifespan, and as we see them growing older or sick, it’s a very painful process. Especially for someone like me, who has issues about loss – and maybe for you as well.
Eight months ago when Lily became very sick with liver shunt disease, she stopped eating and had to have a feeding tube surgically implanted. That meant that I had to spend five hours each day force-feeding her with blended cat food through a syringe. Eventually we got it down to three hours, but I discovered that the bonding time we had reminded me very much of that time I had with my father. As I’d learned to treasure every moment with him, I did the same with her. Tiger, her brother, was present and helping at every feeding, grooming her and talking to her when she screamed. I didn’t know cats did that.
Whenever Lily was in the hospital, Tiger, who’s a very vocal cat, was silent and glued to me. He stopped eating every time she stopped eating. When I came home today, the carrying case had no Lily in it. A few hours later, Tiger started throwing up, with nothing in his stomach. How much do animals feel, or how much can they sense about what’s going on? Do they grieve? What do you think?
So what I’ve learned from my life experience is that it’s important to grieve. When you have to make a decision about putting an animal to sleep, tears (and lots of them) are necessary to get through it, as well as the understanding from others who know the depth of this particular kind of loss. I think we “know” when the time has come to release our beloved animals from pain.
I knew without question when I looked into Lily’s eyes today and she was unable to do the eye blinking that we always exchange with each other. It’s a cat’s way of saying “I love you.” And so, sweet loving Lily softly drew her last breath snuggled in my arms, and I hope she could feel my love.
*I owe much gratitude to Dr. Sam Trivedi and his very professional staff at ASEC animal hospital in West Los Angeles, as well as to Dr. Cynthia Quezada who has helped me so much in this process.