Saying Goodbye: Reflections on the Loss of a Pet
By Cheryl Burns
It wasn’t all that long ago that I was writing an article for this very column. It was a piece about pet adoption featuring stories about how our two cats joined our family. As I sent it off, I hoped it captured some of the love and joy that pets can bring. Between the time I wrote the article and when it ran, our world had shifted dramatically.
It was an otherwise unremarkable day in May when my husband noticed some swelling in Smoky Tiggs Burns’s neck. After checking to make sure that it wasn’t something normal (we later thanked Sweet Potato Bailey Burns for serving as the “control group kitty”), we called the vet. She saw us that day. After examining our sweet grey girl, she uttered the words we all hope we’ll never hear from a doctor, whether they’re caring for a beloved person or a pet: “it’s cancer.”
The next week was a whirlwind. Smoky deteriorated quickly. She needed her lungs drained. Twice. Just seeing her shaved coat was enough to start our tears. The initial test confirmed cancer, but we had to wait a few days for the details. Was it bad, or was it worse?
It was worse. Large cell lymphoma, especially when it affects the T-cells, can be rapidly fatal for cats. It can kill in a matter of days. I remember telling the vet who’d diagnosed Smoky that we’d made an appointment to see a feline oncologist. Our appointment was less than a week away, which seemed pretty fast for such specialized care. She told us to get in sooner.
In some ways, we were quite lucky. We were able to make decisions based more on our hearts than on our wallets. We knew from the start that we could only prolong the inevitable. It would be months, not the years we’d hoped to have. (We’d had her for almost 7 years and think she was 11 or 12 years old.) We saw several vets, probably about a dozen appointments in all, and even on the best of days they’d remind us that the outcome wasn’t in doubt. We’d lose her.
We were able to prolong her life for several months. And they were good months, both for Smoky and for us. The treatments made her tired, but chemo isn’t as hard on cats is it is on people. She never seemed to be in pain. Another cat mom who’d faced the same diagnosis told me that “treatment gave us the time we needed.” A simple statement that held true.
It was late September. I’d made the hard decision to leave the job I’d held for five years for a position that offered a long-term remote status. I was looking ahead to a week between jobs, and I’d promised myself I’d avoid stressing about the new job and overanalyzing whether I’d made the right decision. But I didn’t feel right physically. Fast forward a few days and my husband and I were holding down opposite ends of the couch. COVID. While, thankfully, we never required hospitalization, it certainly was not the relaxing week of rest we all dream about before starting a new job.
That same week, even through foggy eyes, we noticed Smoky took a sudden turn. Always a loving girl who enjoyed sitting near or on her people (especially her dad), she hid away in a small cat tent and barely acknowledged a loving hand. We rushed to one of the vets (this ordeal involved several, and we’re grateful to them for their care and teamwork). He told us it was time, but we already knew. In an incredibly kind gesture, he offered to put her to rest in an open-air gazebo so we could be with her despite being sick. But she passed on her own as he started the catheter. He brought her body to us, curled on a blue towel. We kissed her goodbye.
What can I tell you about pet loss? It hurts. You know that going in. Rationally, you know you will probably outlive your pet. You fall in love anyway. Knowing it’s coming doesn’t make it hurt any less, but I’m glad we had some time before she passed.
Advice? Admit the truth. If you’re like us – and if you’re reading this then you probably are – your pets are family. And the grief hits as hard as you’d think. Let yourself feel it. Acknowledge it. If I hadn’t already been between jobs, I’d have planned a few days off to process and grieve. Crafting a little memorial, a dedicated spot to remember, helped. (Writing does too.)
Remember that other pets will feel the loss too. Sweet Potato always wanted to be BFFs, Smoky kept her distance but loved her sister. I’m certain Sweet Potato knew Smoky wasn’t well. Still, for several weeks, she’d sometimes look for her sister. It broke our hearts even more. Always an emotional sponge, she became incredibly clingy. We granted every request for attention. In turn, her love helped us remember joy.
Months later, it still hurts. I won’t deny the tears falling now. But, and this is something I’ve found true when mourning people too, time makes the love and the good memories feel stronger than the pain. We were lucky to have her. Rest in peace, sweet girl.
A few resources that might be of help in dealing with pet loss:
Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, and Robert Segal, “Coping With Pet Loss” HelpGuide (Oct. 2021).
“How to Grieve the Death of a Pet,” The Cleveland Clinic (Oct 2021).
“5 Tips to Help Pets Deal with Grief,” PetMD.
Cheryl Burns is a Legal Editor. She divides her time between Northern Virginia and Central Pennsylvania. She’s a proud King Street Cats volunteer. And she still tends to say that two cats kindly allow her and her husband to share their home.