Lately, I have had many patients come to see me to get grief counseling over the loss of a beloved pet. Their grief aroused my grief over my past losses. The thought came to me that we have a lot of attention focused on loss of a parent, loss of a child, loss of a spouse, or the loss of a friend, but it seems that there is little support for those who have lost a member of their fur family. For me, I have lost both an adult child and pets. I love my pets as much as I love my now grown children.

When I provide grief counseling for those who have lost a four-legged friend my patients often demean their feelings about their loss. I’ve repeatedly heard statements like, “I don’t know why I feel this way, after all it’s only a dog;” or, “I feel so silly that I feel so depressed because my cat died.”

I think that it is healthy to mourn and grieve the loss of a well-loved pet. They become part of our family. We all could probably disclose that sometimes we wish some of our human family members would study their furry pet’s behavior and use it as a role model for how they could adjust their own behavior. I’ll admit that I much prefer my two kitties to my grumpy and ever complaining uncle.

Two years ago, I lost three adorable fur family members within a year and a half. When I first got my kitties, I lived alone. They were my family before I met my husband, Tom. They became my “pseudo children.” After Tom came on the scene, my three kitties became “our pseudo children.” I want to share with the Open to Hope readers how I handled my grief when my feline “children” departed.

Maxicat was my first kitty. He grew to be a 15-pound gorgeous Maine Coon. About six months after Maxi came to live with me, his half-brother, Murphy, joined him. What I didn’t know at the time was that Maxi wanted to be the ONLY kitty. Murphy didn’t like Maxi, but they did sleep on separate corners of the same bed. In an attempt to rectify this unfriendly situation, Oscar joined us. He was one of the sweetest kitties you would ever know. He was a mink, seal mitted, Ragdoll kitty who was so lovable that if you were home, Oscar would be right next to you, purring.

While Murphy didn’t like Maxicat, he loved Oscar. They napped together, ate together, and groomed each other. Maxi became the odd man out. It was sad to watch. We tried to fix this situation by giving Maxicat lots of extra pets and love. It wasn’t a fix. I couldn’t make up for Murphy and Oscar’s treatment of Maxi which included snarling, growling, and hissing. It reminded me of the sibling rivalry behaviors I used to watch between my three human children.

Despite the feline quarrels, I received so much love from my kitties. Through surgeries, going to graduate school and writing a dissertation, and assorted other life challenges, Oscar, Maxicat, and Murphy were with me purring their love. They were my “forever” kitties. Then old age set in.

Oscar was the first to get sick. I just couldn’t believe that he wasn’t up and running around with Murphy. As soon as I noticed that something was wrong, we went to the vet. Oscar was hospitalized and I visited him every day while he was there getting diagnosed. When I was told that Oscar had cancer, I encountered shock and denial. I was advised that Oscar was not going to recover. I was supported to “put him down.” (I hate those words.) I needed time to decide what to do. I took Oscar home.

Oscar got sicker. It was so difficult to accept that my little Ragdoll boy was going to leave me and the human family who loved him. I called the vet, and she came over. Oscar was wrapped in a new warm blanket. He looked like he was in pain. He was euthanized. I held him as his little spirit ascended to a happier place. It was one of the most emotionally draining and painful events of my life. I agonized with the responsibility that was put in my lap – the responsibility of directing the end of a life. Oscar was put in a little carrying case. The worst part of Oscar’s death was unexpected. Murphy tried to get in the carrying case with Oscar’s body. That image of Murphy’s grief is permanently in my visual memory.

Grief captured me in a very subtle way. I didn’t want to go to the gym. I didn’t want to go to work. I didn’t want to interact with others. I wanted to just be quiet in my grief. I wanted to be with Maxicat and Mr. Murphy. I isolated. I didn’t want to talk on the phone. This was a total change from the gregarious person I usually am. I told myself I had to snap out of my grieving. Then Maxicat got sick.

Maxicat had a heart problem. It was incurable. I went to the veterinary hospital every day, hoping that some sort of surgery would fix him. Maxicat was panting for breath. He couldn’t get better. Six months after Oscar’s passing, I held another beloved family member as he was euthanized. I left the hospital with Maxicoat’s empty blue carrying case. I felt the deepest, darkest emotional vacancy I had ever known.

As I entered my house with Maxi’s empty case, Murphy greeted me. My heart broke. There was the last of the original fur family, looking to me for some type of explanation. I had none. That night, Murphy snuggled next to me in bed. He never did that. He burrowed in the crook of my elbow and purred us to sleep. That became our “good night” custom. Even though Murphy didn’t like Maxicat, I felt his grief because he wouldn’t leave my side. We grieved together. He had his humans and the house to himself for the first time in his life.

One loss upon another seemed like it was just too much. I felt I had to get out of the house. I dragged myself to the gym. It was an activity I had been avoiding since Oscar’s death. When I returned home, I noticed I felt the teensiest bit better. How could that be? I had just lost Maxicat! Maybe I didn’t actually love him as much as I loved Oscar. No, that was not it. Forcing myself into an element of self-care was what made the change. I made myself talk to Tom about how I was feeling. He was also suffering because he had come to love our fur babies as much as I did. He spent a lot of time loving Maxi. Talking with him helped. We committed to take walks with each other after work. That helped immensely. My formula for grief became the gym, talking about my feelings, and taking a walk after work.

One evening after dinner, I asked Tom if he thought that Murphy needed a “baby” to keep him company. I felt that Mr. Murphy was lonely during the day when we were at work. We came to no definite conclusion that having another kitty would benefit Murphy in any way, but that started the search for a baby for Murphy.

I had heard about the ragamuffin breed of kitties. They are a cross between Persian and Ragdoll cats, or between Himalayan and Ragdolls. I researched their temperament, their life expectancy, and examined “ragamuffin kittens for sale” on line. Before I knew it, I found a photo of this little ginger colored male that simply stole my heart. I showed it to Murphy. He snubbed me.

Tom and I discussed the idea of getting a baby for Murphy with our friends who have cats. The unanimous suggestion was to get two kittens in case something happened to Murphy. That was an impossibility! Mr. Murphy was immortal! Who said that I learn from the past? The idea of having a new furry baby changed my mood. I began to return to myself.

I named the “baby” before we ever got him. Biscuit. He looked like a little Biscuit. We called the breeder and inquired about what was entailed in buying Biscuit. Then, Tom asked if Biscuit had a best friend. He did! Ted E. Bear was his brother and his very best pal. What a heart melter, right? A month later, I picked up our two new babies at the airport and headed home with what I thought was going to be a stupendous surprise for Murphy. At last, Murphy would have some companions and he wouldn’t be lonely. Was I ever wrong!

At first, Murphy was very curious. For hours, he would stand by the enclosure that housed Biscuit and Ted. E. Bear. He studied these two 12-week-old kittens as if he was studying for the bar exam. Day after day. We included Murphy in every activity we did with the new fur babies. We hoped that Murphy would come to love them as he had loved Oscar. He didn’t. But he came to like Ted E. Bear. This was very difficult for Biscuit because he and Ted E. Bear were best friends and Biscuit also loved Murphy. The triangle from hell! From this I learned that we cannot solve feline problems with human thinking!

About the time that the kittens had been with us a year, I walked into my bedroom and found Murphy gasping for breath on my bedroom floor. Like the times before, when there was a health problem with my kitties, I went into shock, denial, and depression. I rushed Mr. Murphy to the vet. He was diagnosed with aggressive cancer. I was devastated! My sleeping partner was going to be leaving the humans who had loved him since he was a baby. How could I bear it? I now had a formula: the gym, talking it out, taking walks after work, cherishing memories, creating a kitty wall of photos, and bringing new life into our house! That’s exactly what I did after Oscar and Maxi’s death. It’s what I did when Murphy left.

Grief, and how we embrace it, is different for everyone. I am still grieving Murphy and the loss of Maxicat and Oscar. I miss them every day. They were my “boys.” I now have Ted E. Bear and Biscuit E. Bear who were the bridge from great loss and grief to love, licks, head bumps, and tummy rubs. They will never replace my original fur family. They have created a different fur family. I am so grateful. They are loving and huggable. I treasure every day we have together. I don’t take them for granted.

If you have lost a fur family member, how did you take care of yourself?  If you have a fur family now, create a plan for self-care. I unknowingly walked into mine. Two babies really helped me with my loneliness and my grief. Loved ones come and go. It’s part of life. That doesn’t mean that grief has to drive the rest of your life. We can hold grief and happiness at the same time. Be open to hope. Be open to acceptance. They are the healers.

 

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Ann Schiebert

Dr. Schiebert is a psychologist in the Emergency Department (ED) at the medical center of one of the country’s most respected major HMO’s. There, she evaluates for safety, determines types of treatments, assesses capacity and cognitive impairment, and provides feedback and support for families of patients in the ED. In addition, Dr. Schiebert also works in the medical center’s Chemical Dependency Department where she treats patients challenged by trauma, chemical dependency, codependency and dual diagnosis. Ann has penned a series of books titled Let’s Make a Contract. She has three in the series thus far, having to do with getting teens through substance abuse, getting them through high school, and the forthcoming title for adults, getting through unhappy romantic relationships.

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