The heartbreak and hurt of saying goodbye to a pet

My cat Oliver died earlier this month and I am still grieving. I feel his loss in a visceral way — in the pit of my stomach and the pain in my heart. I feel it physically whenever I look to see him greet me from his beloved corner across from my bedroom door and he’s, of course, not there.

Oliver was not particularly elderly when he passed away. He was 12 in human years, which means about 64 in feline ones. When he was five weeks old, my dad rescued him as an itty-bitty kitty from a back porch where he had been abandoned by his feral mother. He was tiny. Like, fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand tiny and required bottle feeding around the clock. My mom joked that it was like having a newborn all over again. I was 21 at the time and home from NYU for the summer. I thought the latest addition to our family (at the time we had two other cats plus two dogs) was cute and all, but I was more concerned with crushes at work, partying with friends, and getting back to my “real life” in New York.

I was 30 when Oliver and I finally became close. I had returned to my suburban home from almost a decade-long stint in New York and a couple of failed attempts at starting over in Vancouver and Toronto. Ours was a gradual love affair. At first, he would jump up on my bed and stay for a cuddle or two before hopping back down, licking himself and returning to his favorite perch on the armchair in the kitchen. Then the cuddles turned into sleepovers, and before I knew it, I had a new roommate.

Maybe roommate is an understatement. If Oliver had been a person, I would have considered him a stage five clinger. He greeted me every single morning by either jumping on me, or waiting for me to leave my bedroom wherein he would greet me with a whiny meow that I am pretty sure meant, “It’s about time you woke up!” He would follow me up the stairs. He would follow me down the stairs. Like the Gilmore Girls theme song goes, wherever I lead, he followed. He’d even follow me into the bathroom and wait for me to complete my business. If I happened to close the door without him inside, he would bat his paws underneath the door, evidently – excuse the pun – pissed. Another trademark “Ollie” move was when he would jump up and wrap his paws around my legs, literally clinging onto me, demanding to be picked up or rubbed down.

Oliver and I were best buds. So when my BFF got sick, and I knew our time together was running short, it seriously wrecked me. Nothing can prepare you for the loss of a loved one. And that’s what pets are: loved ones. They are family. Some people, those unfortunate souls who have never known the love and devotion of a pet, might not agree with that sentiment, but if you consider family as being the group you live with on a daily basis, interact with, compromise for, share with and love, then pets are most definitely family. For the diehard pragmatists out there, research even shows that the death of a pet can be just as devastating as the loss of a human relative. But I don’t need a study to tell me that. I have lost three dogs and, now, three cats, and each death left me utterly gutted and despondent for months, sometimes even years. What is so significant about the loss of a pet is the loss of love for and from a warm, comforting, non-judging soul; a constant companion who was responsible for nothing in his life but giving and receiving unconditional love to you.

I am lucky, though. I have another cat, my darling Dylan, who is still with me. However just like human relationships, the bond you share with a particular pet is unique and never to be repeated. When I first moved home, I was recovering from a breakup that left me insecure and gun-shy about my ability to give and receive love. It wasn’t until I looked into Oliver’s big green, adoring eyes that I knew and understood my true value and worth. Ollie looked at me like I was the bee’s knees. He accepted me totally and absolutely and loved me for me. All of me. A bad mood didn’t scare him away. He would prowl into my room, rub against my legs, and, of course, my mood would instantly lift. I could snap at him and he might give me a look, but an hour later he would be back for a cuddle. He instantly forgave me and loved me. I could be crying or screaming or being entirely insufferable, and he would still greet me in the morning with his meow. Still cling to my legs. Still follow me wherever I led. For someone who had been living under the impression that love was conditional, that it could easily be snatched away with a wrong word or a bad day, Oliver changed my life.

The night before his passing, I nestled down beside him and rubbed underneath his chin, a favorite spot that was guaranteed to illicit a purr. And though he was sensitive to touch at this time, purr he did. I listened to his purring for what seemed like forever (but not nearly long enough) and I reminisced about our time together, from the moment my dad brought him in a shoebox to our snuggles in bed with the apropos Gilmore Girls playing the background. This very sick grey-and-white tabby cat had saved me. He helped me believe in true love again. He helped me to love me again. And for that, I will always remain eternally grateful, eternally his.

So that’s why before I bid him good night, knowing with a heavy heart what the next day was going to bring, I simply said to him, “Thank you.”

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