The Humanity In Losing A Pet

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 27 2015 @ 4:45pm

In an essay sharing how the death of her cat was easier – and better handled by caregivers – than the death of her parents, Margo Rabb recalls the end of that final trip to the vet’s office:

In Juliet’s office [at the clinic], they let me stay on their couch with Sophie’s body for as long as I wanted. My husband left work and met me there. “How long do you want to stay?” he asked me, staring at her body on my lap. “Forever,” I said. I pictured myself wandering around the city, still holding my dead cat. Maybe my friends wouldn’t notice. Maybe they’d mistake her for a fur stole. When I’d told them about Sophie’s diagnosis, weeping, sometimes I felt ashamed to admit that I felt such deep grief over a cat. I wrote in my diary: “The strange thing is it’s not dissimilar from the grief I felt for Mommy and Daddy — how the grief displaces everything, and nothing feels the same anymore.”

The experience left her looking for answers:

Was it because Sophie was an animal that her loss was easier to bear, and easier for [my veterinarians] to give comfort? Or was it luck and the lack of it, to have encountered gentle care for my cat and harsh care for my parents?

In “A Natural History of Love,” Diane Ackerman writes that pets “help bridge that no-man’s-land between us and Nature.” When I think now of Sophie’s last days, I think that, because she was an animal, her loss felt more a part of the natural order, with its inevitable seasons and cycles of life and death. Humans spend so much of our lives railing against the idea of dying, or pretending that it doesn’t exist, or dreaming of eternal youth, or wishing to prolong our lives — and maybe it’s that fighting that made the experience of my parents’ deaths feel unbearable and inhumane, and made the death of my cat seem exceptionally human.

Meanwhile, a Dish reader wrote recently:

We just had to say goodbye to our 14-year-old golden lab, Honza. The experience reminded me of the wonderful thread you started in the summer of 2013 when you had to say farewell to Dusty. My wife dug out the thread and sent it to me this morning. Having read it again, with tears streaming down my cheeks, I was amazed at how similar the situation we encountered was to those of your readers and I hope by writing this it helps to dispel the grief, because it is intense. I cannot believe how hard this has hit me. I’m a northerner, for goodness sake, and am not supposed to react like this.

IMG_0262

Maybe it’s because even her name had deep meaning for us. Honza is a Czech nickname given, seemingly automatically, to anyone named Jan. In 1999 we invited into our home as an au pair a delightful young man called Jan who always introduced himself as “Honza”. He came to befriend our Asperger’s suffering oldest son and provide the companionship he was failing to find among his peers. It worked beyond our wildest expectations, and after 18 months with us he was woven into the fabric of family life. Concurrent with his departure, in September 2000, we had to let go of our first dog, Guido, whom Honza (the man) had helped nurse in his final months. My wife immediately went on the hunt for a replacement and found a golden lab puppy, funnily enough, in my home town in Lancashire. My mum brought her down south in a shoe box on her lap, and because the house seemed lacking somehow without someone calling, “Honza”, every few minutes her name was quickly established – (when Honza, the man, heard we had called a female, Honza, he christened his female cat “Andy”, but that’s another story).

IMG_0269Suffice it to say, Honza (the dog) was a great hit. Our middle son, Alex, rapidly formed a rapport with her that lasted until the end. She was, in his mind anyway, “his dog”, and she always treated him more as a fellow puppy than a human. Once she went wandering and a kindly neighbour took her in but without her collar on (for some reason), she had no idea who Honza belonged to. I’ve never seen my wife so frantic as we all headed into the night to find her. It was Alex’s shouting that she eventually responded to. Her barking led us to the right house and all ended well.

Honza also gave my wife great comfort during my all-too-frequent business trips away. In an all-male household, she felt she could watch “girlie TV” with Honza at her feet, and it was my wife who walked her the most, going for miles along trails and country paths together.

Starting last year, she had increasing trouble walking and her appetite varied. And then a tumour appeared on her left hind leg. In recent weeks, as the tumour grew and the stiffness increased, her spirit stayed buoyant and even, maybe, increased. While I was busy counselling preparedness for the end to everyone, she seemed to contradict me at every turn. We got through Christmas with our usual house full, but by New Year’s I noticed a deterioration. The accidents increased as she found it too difficult to get up. On Friday, Jan 2nd, we went out with friends. On the way back we agreed it was now only a matter of “weeks”. The tumour had grown again and was now weeping.

The boys took their last photos with her and she was fed her favourite snacks. Then unnamed (34)Alex carried her to the car. At the vet’s she was remarkably calm. In fact, once inside the reception area, she looked great and I commented that the vet would probably recommend we keep persevering with her treatments. However, once inside the little surgery, she could barely stand. And after the tube was placed in her veins, she just flopped down. We sat down with her as the vet administered the dose. As Honza was looking up at me and then, finally, Alex, there was a last wag of the tail. Everyone drew comfort from this last act as though she was telling us that “it’s ok”.

Several things struck me about the experience and those posted by your readers. As a bloke, I really didn’t want to be there. I’m glad I was, but my first instinct was to avoid it. One of your readers said that most women stay but only 50% of men. Maybe it’s the fear of breaking down in front of strangers, but I understand why men want to avoid it. Also, the calmness of the whole thing. To me – and I’m no David Attenborough – it was that she was with her pack. In the wild, I guess, when you can’t keep up the pack, it just leaves you behind. But Honza’s pack stayed with her. That’s why she battled on through pain and discomfort, and I’m sure she was comforted by the fact that she wasn’t abandoned at the end.

So farewell then, Honza. Your passing has saddened us all, but you will always be with us.