We were already a three-cat household when we heard faint cries from our backyard on a rainy November night.
Convinced it was more than just wind, we dragged ourselves out of bed and investigated. It turned out to be two tiny kittens.
We made a blanket shelter for them inside our open porch, hoping their mom would return. But she didn't. And over the course of days, we moved them from the basement bathroom to the main floor guest room, where we kept them away from the swipes and hisses of Grendl, Puck, and Pyewacket—our resident feline matriarchs.
There was no way, we told ourselves, that we could manage five cats. Five. Cats. So we began efforts to find permanent families for Mrs. Grey and The Boy. It was pretty easy to get the little girl rehomed, but no one seemed to want a black male—except us, it turned out, as he was quickly winning us over.
Fast forward from 2012 to today. Our old ladies passed one by one, leaving Horatio Oscar Edgar Bannister to be the king of our castle. Unlike his sisters, who were mostly aloof and occasionally downright rude, Horatio, aka Birdman, became more than a companion: He was and is like our child
He runs to us when we call him and greets us at the door when we get home. He sleeps curled up with us at night and follows us around the house during the day. He's considered when we make even the shortest of vacation plans. He came into our lives when we needed him and, because we are otherwise childfree, he is the center of our worlds.
Because domestic animals have shorter life spans, all pet owners know they will likely have to say goodbye sooner than they want. While I don't like to think of it often, I worry about the day when we lose The Boy. I sometimes hope he will outlive me to bring comfort to Ben if I go first. Other times, I hope he doesn't so Ben and I can comfort each other, together.
It's going to be that hard.
And that's what this is all about. Over the past months ... years ... I've seen my friends lose their beloved pets and have felt compelled to help others, whether they're not pet owners or don't view their pets as family, understand the gravity of it.
Though many get that it's not "just a dog" or "just a cat," not all grasp just how long and how deeply people can grieve for their pets. I asked a few friends to relay to me their experience, so I could share it with you. Here are their stories.
Libby Fox and her husband, Burnie, lost their dog Scout after just nine years. Though Scout had been ill for almost six months, it still came as a surprise. "We knew it was coming, but it wasn't supposed to be that day," Libby said. "It was devastating. It sounds dramatic, but that's how it felt."
For some, the loss of a pet can be, in almost every way, the same as losing a human friend or relative. As a supporter of a friend grieving their pet, you should consider taking a similar approach if you sense intense sadness.
Libby said, "All grief should be respected, and grief isn't a competition. Losing a pet, one that has been made a part of the family, is very similar to losing any member of your family. A friend said, 'I know how stupid-hard it is to lose a pet. Maybe because they love us so perfectly.' That rang true to me. Scout loved us with every fiber of her being. No conditions, no agenda, no expectations, just pure unadulterated love."
Kurt Carlson and his partner, Christopher, have been pet parents for their nearly 20-year relationship. They've weathered the passing of Lilly, Sophie, Spencer, and, most recently, Daisy. It's been just over six months since Daisy died. Some days, Kurt is still overcome by the pain of her absence.
"Losing Daisy has been difficult, because she was still relatively young for her dog breed—just over 8.5 years old when the cancer was discovered; many English Pointers live until they're 15 or 16—and I was not mentally or emotionally prepared," Kurt said. "Daisy's passing has left emotional scar tissue on my soul."
Some pets do that to us. For Ben and me, losing our first three cats was hard, but they were old, it was expected, and they hadn't left an indelible mark—though Pye and Ben were much closer, and I'll admit to not being as sensitive as I should have been. I just didn't get it—and I still feel bad about that.
Of his experience, Kurt said, "Daisy really was special. In addition to being highly intelligent, she was one of the kindest, gentlest and sweetest-dispositioned creatures that I've had the pleasure of knowing. We do not have human children; thus, our animals really are our 'fur babies' and I think that adds a layer of depth to the grief. It truly feels like a member of our immediate family died, and there are constant reminders because she is noticeably absent from the everyday parts of our household routine."
And then there's Amy L Charles' agonizing story. You may know Amy as Serendipity Media's Editorial Director. If you know her personally, you also know she is a devoted Saluki mom and has raised, and presented in dog shows, several of this breed, from pups to adulthood. Most striking was her kinship with Zafirah, who fell ill swiftly and had to be put to rest while Amy was traveling for work.
"It's been three years since I lost my precious Zafirah, unexpectedly and heartbreakingly," Amy said. "Her death—and my not being with her—was devastating. Zafirah was the firstborn of my first Saluki litter and the longest-lived. She was born into my world, my hands, my heart. We went through so much together: puppy kindergarten, memorable victories in the show ring, an ailment that almost killed her and the surgery—which I held her paws throughout—that saved her life ... We did it all together."
It's not every pet that touches us so profoundly. But many do, and it often comes from the strong connections made and the ways they can imprint themselves on our lives. They are our companions and comforters; they are bringers of joy and purpose.
Amy said, "I will always grieve Zafirah's death. It broke me to not be there with her and for her. Memories of Zafirah bring more smiles than tears now, though the tears still flow freely on occasion. It's easier to remember the wonderful moments and it's a treasure to have friends who remember them with me."
These accounts give a window into the feelings of pet owners and the impact pets can have on our lives. The next time a friend is grieving the loss of a pet, remember to be gentle—and conscious of their potential heartache.
Stay tuned for Part Two—coming soon—for advice and ideas on how to be a friend and consolation in times of mourning.
Allison Kay Bannister, a West Michigan resident since 1987, professional writer since 2002 and GVSU alumna, recently launched her own freelance writing business. Allison enjoys travel, art, dance, food and exploring world cultures—and, of course, writing about all these and more.
Main photo courtesy of Allison Kay Bannister.