A Series of Small Doors Closing

TW: Pet loss/grief

A stranger on the internet is grieving the unexpected loss of her elderly cat right now.

So many times, my social media feeds share these bright pinpricks of sorrow, and I’m often at a loss as to how to respond. As an empathetic person, it’s easier for me to be weighed down by posts where someone shares heartbreak than I am buoyed by people’s happy stories. Many times I respond with sympathetic words. Sometimes, for the sake of my own mental health, I scroll by without replying, especially if the person grieving is someone I really don’t know at all.

This particular person is so bereft that I want to make things better for her and yet words are inadequate. Grief must be processed. First it overwhelms you. There’s shock, loss, and the crushing pain of knowing someone or something that you loved will never be there again. You may be the type to rage against it. To fall into despair. Eventually, it recedes. Other traumas occur. Happy events occur. We aren’t designed for sustained grief any more than we’re designed for sustained stress. Our mind will do its best to pretend it’s not there after a while.

I often say animals are the perfect vessels for our affection because they give so much of themselves and love us unconditionally in a way few things on this planet can do. Losing that kind of love, the kind that is glad to see you simply because you walked through the door (and have opposable thumbs to open cans of food), is brutal. If you’ve loved an animal for a long time, it’s been through the good times and the bad times with you. It’s not just a dog or cat. It’s the purring cat who settles on your chest when you’re reading a book, or stretches out a paw just to touch you. It’s the dog who rests his head in your lap at the end of a bad day. It’s the animal who follows you into the next room simply to be where you are. It’s the thousands of photos on your camera roll and all the memories that go with them. It’s a vessel of love that taught you the meaning of joy and how to live in the moment. To have that ripped away–regardless if you saw it coming or not–that’s losing the best part of yourself. 

The path you walk with grief isn’t linear, however. Nor is it the same for everyone. People talk about the five stages of grief but no one really seems to mention that you can skip stages or revisit stages more than once. To me, grief is not a stage but a creature that haunts your footsteps as you walk a trail that has entered a darker section of woods. The sun struggles to break through the trees. The path ahead isn’t clear, and it branches in different directions, sometimes even doubling back on itself. There’s a way out, but you have no idea how long it’s going to take, and you’re walking it alone now, alone except for this sense of something tracking you.

At first, even walking seems impossible. You’re stumbling over roots, or your boots become mired in mud. Breathing hurts. This does get better with time, but just how long it will be before the path evens out again depends on so many things: where you are in your stage of life, what kind of support system you do or do not have. Eventually, that grief creature feels less threatening. You’re never exactly friends with it–but there comes a time when you can nod at it in passing and keep going. There are other times when Grief will nod back with a smile, and then just as you come abreast, it will sucker punch you in the gut and laugh because you didn’t see it coming–six weeks, six months, six years later. Grief doesn’t care. It’s both durable and patient. It can’t be rushed.

As I’m getting older, there’s a new element to my grief: the shutting of small doors.

My friends and I are all getting up there in age. We’re reaching a point in our lives where we have to consider the wisdom and logistics of another pet. More and more of my friends are choosing to remain petless now. I don’t want to think about this stage of my life. My animals have been my chosen family for most of my adult life. I wouldn’t be here now without them. The idea of not having a pet in my life is devastating, and yet at some point, my hand may be forced and another door in my life will close.

I went through an incredible period of loss from 2017-2018. During that time, I lost four cats (two elderly house cats, and two ferals that I loved just the same), my beloved dog, my mother, my uncle, my brother, and my first horse, whom I’d had for 30 years. The punches came so hard and fast I didn’t have time to process one before the next one knocked me flat. 2019 gave me a breather and then we all know what happened starting early in 2020, ha-ha thank you very much, pandemic. In 2021, I lost my last horse, and another door shut for good. I didn’t process grief. I walled it up inside me. I don’t recommend doing this, by the way. It has a terrible way of damaging the foundations, leaking toxic material into the framework and rotting the floors. I walk around in a state of self-protection, closing out those I love in an attempt to prevent any more pain. Don’t do that. Don’t miss out on the joy of what you do have for fear of losing it. That path means you lose it twice. I’m working on dealing with it now that I’m no longer in survival mode. But I suspect healing is going to take rebreaking of metaphorical bones that didn’t heal right in the first place.

Last week, I euthanized my last elderly cat. He’d been doing well with kidney and heart disease right up until the point that he wasn’t anymore. It was the right decision. Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier, however. So the pain of some random stranger on the internet is really biting me hard today. I’ve had cats since my freshman year of college. I’ve been incredibly fortunate because my dogs and cats have always gotten along. But my current young dog, a marshmallow in so many ways, discovered a nest of baby bunnies last summer, and since then, he looks at young cats with a whole different gleam in his eye. I’ve decided not to risk introducing another cat–and potential tragedy–into the house at this time. I’m looking at being catless for the foreseeable future, and it’s with tears that I shut another door.

I don’t know what this internet stranger’s circumstances might be. I don’t know if it is possible for her to ever get another cat or if she even would consider one at some point down the road. Some people run out and get another pet right away. Some people know they need more time to process and plan for another pet at some point in the future, and knowing there will be another pet brings them comfort now. Some people decide there will not be any more. Some say there will not be another–and then the right animal, one that needs them as much as they are needed–shows up at the right time. Like navigating grief, choosing to open up your heart again to something whose life is much shorter than ours is an individual decision. Sometimes Grief says one thing, and two weeks later you feel differently. I just know she’s hurting and she’s reached out to the internet for help in how to navigate this pain. Some kind people have shared that they still feel the loss of a beloved pet and that she’s not alone in her grief. Others have made gentle suggestions of things she can do to help her find solace. (One troll suggested they enjoyed having a clean house and being able to vacation whenever they wanted but clearly this person is being a vicious little guttersnipe on purpose, so I hope no one gives them the attention they clearly desire)

I had words to say, but didn’t feel I could adequately convey what I wanted in 240 characters on Twitter. I started to send her this link, but that felt intrusive, so I told her the post existed if she wanted to read it at a time when she was ready. I hope she realizes her cat knows she was loved and treasured, and that is not a small thing. We don’t get enough of that in this world. Choosing to love another pet won’t diminish the presence of Grief shadowing you on that path, but it does mean you won’t walk it alone.

And I hope she can take some small comfort in these words, should she come across them.