The stages of grief, for a pet or a person, can be the same
Pet owners know how painful losing a pet can be
The grief process is never easy, and no less so when a beloved pet is involved, like my dear Sadie-Mae, whose watchful presence I miss like crazy. She was the one I picked first from the litter, over 18 years ago – this tiny black and white fur ball, with an alert little face highlighted by a bright pink nose. She chose her sister, who quickly became the main attention-getter. When people came over, Sadie-Mae would hide under the furniture, as her sister insisted on teaching all guests how to play spongey-ball – they threw it, she retrieved it, and the game continued until this energetic little creature called it quits. By then, Sadie-Mae would have figured out it was safe to emerge from her hiding place and meet the people. But on our own, Sadie-Mae was much more adventurous, exploring areas where her sister didn’t dare to go.
When they were kittens, both loved to sit at high altitudes, like on top of the cupboard above the fridge just beneath the kitchen ceiling, or on the back of my favorite wing chair in the living room, usually with a tail hanging down near my face. That lasted until they grew too big to share those spaces. Ultimately, they resolved the issue – Sadie-Mae took over my lap, and her sister sat on the wing chair, or in front on the footstool, always watching.
Anyone who’s loved a pet has many stories of shared moments …
Anyone who’s loved a pet has many stories of shared moments, but that’s not the focus here. Sadie and I lost her sister over four years ago – overnight. It was quick, and hopefully painless, and it took both of us a while to stop missing her. Perhaps because we still had each other, the grieving was a bit easier.
Surprisingly, with her sister gone, Sadie-Mae seemed to take on some of those spunky qualities. No more hiding under furniture when people arrived, she’d walk right up and silently ask to be petted. Sadie-Mae loved to be petted, brushed, and talked to. She thrived on attention. She became quite chatty, sometimes annoyingly but always endearingly so. She’d greet me when I came downstairs in the morning, eager for her morning tummy-rub routine. She’d meet me at the door when I arrived home – a loving presence, always.
I didn’t want to let her go
A loving presence, until the last week of her life, when she became stand-offish, and didn’t want to be petted or even touched. That was when I knew, in consultation with a vet, that it was time. She’d been periodically incontinent for about two years, ending up with puppy pads and a litter box in the living room (something I swore I’d never do!). Rugs and furniture were discarded – relatively easy choices when faced with the ultimate alternative.
I now know this was how I hung on to Sadie-Mae. I didn’t want to let her go. None of us do, when it comes to these furry friends. The word “friends” doesn’t really do them justice. They’re family.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – which can occur in a different order and for differing lengths of time for each person. I shifted between denial and bargaining for parts of the last two years of Sadie-Mae’s life, as the incontinent episodes became more frequent. Until. Until it was time.
I’m thankful to live in Toronto, a city large enough to have a vet who makes house calls, so my dear Sadie-Mae’s last minutes were not fraught with the added stress of a trip to the vet’s office. It had always been an ordeal for both of us to get her into her crate or carry-bag. And yet, she loved to sit in small enclosed containers – boxes, bags, baskets, hats.
When she was gone, I was left with the memories …
When she was gone, like grieving pet owners all over the world, I was left with the memories – the wonderful, funny, loving stories, and the visual reminders of her former presence. This latter category became my focus. I gathered up and cleaned her re-usable things and took them to the Humane Society, sobbing loudly as I returned to my car.
But I couldn’t pack up my old wooden floor, which featured many discolored blobs and varnish-free scoured spots from years of cat upchuck and other accidents. You could say I became somewhat preoccupied with this floor – some might even say “obsessed,” but I wouldn’t, because I’m familiar with obsession and this wasn’t it. This was grief.
How I expressed my grief — I sanded my floor. By hand. The internet provided lots of information about sandpaper grades, and what to do. Of course, none of them suggested sanding a floor by hand – you’d have to be a bit nutty to attempt that. Or in the angry and depressed stages of grief. Inch by inch, each day I sanded a little more, shifting furniture as I went along.
I had not turned to excess food to help me cope with the loss
Weeks passed before the first part of the room was complete. By then, I began to recognize a few things. First, that I had not turned to excess food to help me cope with the loss of Sadie-Mae – no small observation for a recovering binge-eater. Second, that the sanding activity was an expression of my anger and sadness over the loss of my beloved friend — it was pet grief. And third, that I’d expended this pet grief energy in a constructive way.
Once I got the connection between my pet grief and sanding, I contacted a professional person to put polyurethane on the half of the floor that I’d sanded. He returned several weeks later to sand and coat the other half of the room. Shifting furniture and other belongings back and forth, discarding no-longer-needed items, and living in each half of the room for several weeks at a time was both discombobulating and comforting, and helped me reach the final pet grief stage — acceptance. Sadie-Mae was gone, and life would never be the same.
So I now want to thank that little feline spirit, wherever she may be, for the joy and love and companionship she brought into my life. Sadie-Mae, wherever you are now, I smile when I think of you.