No one ever talks about the somewhat hidden shame of pet grief. Sure, if you’re Miley Cyrus you can publicly mourn your beloved dog without too much mocking. Or, if people are mocking, Miley doesn’t care. For the rest of us in the so-called real world, it’s very hard to actually experience pet grief in any sort of public way without potentially inviting, at the minimum, a closed-door snarky comment, or, for those more bold, a not-so-subtle eye roll.
I realize that, for many, a pet is something to teach their children responsibility or to placate them during a particularly pet-friendly holiday. However, to some of us, these furry friends are our family members. For my husband and me, our beloved Oreo, our ‘little lion,’ was a part of our entire relationship. As a perhaps naïve young man, my husband decided to get me a kitten for Christmas, just 9 months into our relationship. Perhaps the timing was more poignant than either of us ever considered, as Oreo served as our child for the last 18+ years. And, as many parents must do at some time, we had to let Oreo go. Sadly, we had to do so for very different reasons than most parents when their little one reaches the age of 18.
We all know that length of time is not an effective indicator of how meaningful a relationship is, but it is such an important thing that can help a non-pet person potentially understand why the well of pet grief seems to not run dry. As a teacher of high school seniors, I found myself looking around my classroom this past week and thinking, “My Oreo was older than all my students. Of course I’m devastated.” However, my conscious understanding of this does very little to make my grief palatable for the more casual acquaintance.
While I shun those who dress their pets in various holiday attire and overly involve their pets in obviously human activities (birthday parties, anyone?), I can understand the sentiment when one refers to her pet as her child. Those with children would never say such things, and those without children would never say such things to those with children. But, let’s be honest. If you’ve shared more than 18 years with a pet, as my husband and I did with Oreo, how is that wildly different than a child? We changed our life when he arrived, taught him how to behave in a way we thought appropriate, basked in his accomplishments, tried to remedy his shortcomings, and shared some of our most important life moments with him. Of course, as we saw him declining, those were some of the most heart-wrenching moments we have experienced on this earth. Where pet grief takes a deeper step into the shadows is the human element involved. Losing a loved one in any circumstance is challenging; when you are the deciding voice about when that loved one’s time is up is what creates a whole different level of anxiety and guilt.
I know that my husband and I made the right choice about sparing our little lion any more pain and suffering. However, looking at his sad little eyes as I put him into the cat carrier before his final trip to the vet is something that I won’t forget. Others who have loved (and lost) pets in this way know the heartache that this situation creates. We have our own grief support group, spoken or not. However, it’s far too often the case that our grief is marginalized with such phrases as, “Oh, the cat…”
When you lose a loved one, it shouldn’t matter.