Why dead pets matter by Olivia Lichtenstein

The Guardian | 12.05.15 | Olivia Lichtenstein

When their cat Sox got ill had to be put down, Olivia Lichtenstein and her family were not prepared for how deeply they would mourn.

Francesca with Sox the cat.  (Photo courtesy of the Author)

The house feels quiet and empty, pulsing with that deafening silence specific to death. We are a family in mourning. Last Friday morning, five of us got into the car and drove away in the sad knowledge that only four of us would be coming home. We were taking a much loved family member to “Switzerland”, otherwise known as the vet (we hoped a little gallows humour might render the impending ordeal more bearable.) Sox, our cat, who had been diagnosed with cancer four months previously, was now in pain – the time had come to do the “kind” thing.

Fourteen years ago, our son, Oscar, and I chose Sox for Francesca, our daughter. Oscar was 13 then and his sister was eight. Or rather, in the manner of these things, he had chosen us: we peeked into a basket of kittens and he pushed his little black and white face inquisitively into ours. “That’s the one,” we said together and brought him home to hide for Christmas.

My son’s cat, Daisy, seduced by sweetmeats from the next door neighbour’s granny, eventually moved out after a slightly tense meeting to formalise her new living arrangements, leaving Sox in the exalted position of sole cat.

As the years passed, Sox became ever more firmly stitched into the tapestry of our home life, a constant presence whose personality enriched our family mythology. It’s hard fully to understand the connection between humans and their pets, but few would argue that cats and dogs are unusually perceptive. Sox could certainly sense when a trip to the vet was imminent; we had to make his cat basket appear by stealth and take care what we said in front of him. At such times, he was referred to as “the gentleman” – as in, “What time is the gentleman’s appointment?” “Do you know whether the gentleman is currently residing beneath the bed?”

At other times, he was known as the Colonel, his whiskery demeanour somehow deserving of this respectful epithet. There was a lot of playful nonsense associated with Sox, who was integral to the rituals of family life.

My husband, Simon, who hadn’t wanted a cat because he didn’t “trust” them, could be overheard talking to Sox when he thought they were alone. No one could have a cuddle without Sox appearing and joining in; it took him just 30 seconds to smell one out.

He seemed to sense sadness and would stay quietly by one’s side at such times. He managed to have a separate and distinctive relationship with each of us. He was a constant and enduring presence throughout my children’s teenage years and beyond. Pets are always there, always happy to see you and, unlike children, don’t slam doors and roll their eyes when you speak. Sox’s passing marks the end of an era.

Earlier this year, with some prescience, Oscar, now 27, said, “I don’t know what I’ll do when Sox dies – I won’t be able to bear it.”

I’d been wondering what a cat’s life span was and during the nightly ritual of reading in bed while stroking him I found a lump on his rib. Exploratory surgery soon sealed Sox’s fate – it was cancer.

Simon, whose love for Sox grew in proportion to his decline and whose attentiveness to him was surprising and touching, couldn’t bring himself to enter the vet’s practice. Oscar, Francesca and I kissed Sox and thanked him, having elected to leave the room for the fatal injection and dying of the light. The young vet looked like she was about to cry herself – even if it’s your job, it can’t be the easiest way to start the day.

Grief is grief, however you cut it. It’s still the same familiar ache that swells from gullet to gut and fills the chest
The euthanasia permission form I had to sign revealed that Sox was 14 years and 16 days old – this precise knowledge bore testimony to the continuity and simplicity of his life – one home, one owner, one vet. Afterwards, we stroked his still warm fur and whispered our goodbyes.

But no one could have prepared us for the grief – a grief I feel almost foolish to speak of but am encouraged to on discovering how universally it is felt. Grief, it turns out, is grief, however you cut it and comparing readings for pet grief as opposed to human grief on the griefometer serves little purpose. It’s still the same familiar ache that swells from gullet to gut and fills the entire chest cavity, which only that old cliché time can heal. Worse things have happened to us and far, far worse things are happening to others as I write, but you can’t help what you feel.

Here and there in the half light I imagine the flick of a familiar black tail and cast my eyes towards the floor, anticipating the soft pad of Sox’s paws. His loss lights a touch paper to past losses: my father knew Sox, so somehow here is another link cruelly severed to that happier time when my father was still alive.

I remember visiting the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice some years ago. The house has a pretty garden, a small cemetery where she buried her beloved cats and dogs with a small monument dedicated to them. I remember finding it a little ridiculous – all that trouble for some dead animals. Now I understand. It’s a big thing to lose a family pet: there are books about pet bereavement, pet loss support groups, therapists offering counselling, delineated phases in the pet grieving process. In ancient Egypt, cats were revered and so important to Egyptian society and religion, that some received the same mummification after death as humans.

I may have been blasé about pet death before, but I get it now, and so do others. A colleague rushed out to buy me sympathy roses – a gesture that touched me more than I can say. Pet grief stories have poured in from all quarters – tears well in the eyes of hardened lawyers, TV journalists, postmen and shopowners as they are reminded of their own pet losses and eagerly share their stories about their departed Rufus, Holly, Megan and Rex.

A few days ago, I was in my daughter’s room and saw an unfinished letter on her desk. I reproduce it now with her permission:

My darling boy,

I hope you know how much I loved you. Having you has been one of the most rewarding things in my life. I’m confused about what tense I should be writing in because I’m finding it difficult to accept that you aren’t here any more. Right now I’m frightened to walk downstairs, knowing that you won’t be there. It feels lonely and dark. The kitchen is worst of all – that was your place. Well, really it was all your place.

How can I bear it that I’m no longer a cat mummy …

Pets, they say, are good for children as they teach them about life and death and prepare them for the inevitable human event in the future. The trouble is, it feels too much like the real thing. Will we get another pet? We’re not sure we’re strong enough. And we have ashes to scatter and a commemorative plaque to plant in our own garden first.


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