Years ago, I bought Grieving the Death of a Pet by Betty Carmack because the topic interested me. When I lost my cat of eight years, I picked it up again to once again find comfort in it. The first few weeks after Lucy’s death, the personal stories of owners who had also suffered loss filled me with such uncontrollable grief that I had to put the book back on my shelf. Eventually though, I was finally able to read Grieving the Death of a Pet in its entirety.
In the chapter about love, Carmack addresses the bond that develops between owner and pet. I grew up always being around dogs. Even those dogs that bonded most with my dad were still like friends to me. I talked with them and we hung out together. As an adult, the care I could provide increased, and in turn so did the depths to which I could bond with my dogs and, later, other pets. For that reason, Carmack’s first chapter had the potential to be obvious and unnecessary. Of course my pet is a friend. Of course my pet is a family member. But, I also remember the sting of those who trivialized my loss when they said, “It’s just a pet.” For that reason, I appreciated that Carmack validates the belief that pets are as integral to our lives as family. We might grieve for people and animals on different levels, but grief for pets is natural and normal.
Carmack’s subsequent chapters also proved just as helpful. When I first read Carmack’s book, I’d suffered only the loss of three dogs. Since then I have lost two more dogs, three guinea pigs, and one cat. What struck me most, after losing my third and last guinea pig along with my first cat, is how different grief can be from one loss to the next. After Bumblebee (my guinea pig) died, I cried for hours. I then went nights without any sleep before I finally willed myself to move forward. After Lucy (my cat) died, I also cried for hours and even resorted to Benadryl to help me fall asleep for a few nights. Yet I was quick to pack up all her stuff, and within a few days the grief came in waves instead of a continual onslaught. Did I love Lucy less? No. Instead, there are so many factors that enter into one’s ability to handle the loss of a pet. How much guilt does one feel? How much time did one have to say goodbye? How many tough decisions was one forced to make? How much did the pet suffer?
Grief is a complex emotion, which means there is no one way to experience it. Grief may be accompanied by disbelief, anger, or guilt. Some people may feel their pet’s presence even after death, in hearing the jangle of their collar; others may feel the house is achingly quiet. Some people may immediately decide to acquire a new pet; others may wait years, or give up on pets altogether. Some people may spiral into depression as a result of the sudden life change from being a caretaker to being aimless; others may fill the void by finding ways to memorialize their pet. Reading Carmack’s subsequent chapters, I felt reassured that the many facets of grief I’ve felt over the years are normal. What connects every pet owner is not how they grieve, but the fact that grief is a beast that can take days or months to tame. Tame, not vanquish. There will always be a part of our hearts that hangs onto our pets in heaven.
I haven’t touched yet on the personal stories of pet owners that Carmack includes. Without these stories, Carmack’s words are just that: words. By integrating real-life stories into her powerful message of hope, that message gains an emotional poignancy. Even months after Lucy’s death, I still found myself grabbing for tissues as I read these stories. Imagine being a pet owner who loses their dog through ignorance of the dangers of heat. For those who are well-educated in pet care, this might seem like a no-brainer. Yet part of what twists me up inside about losing our cat is the nagging doubt that perhaps my ignorance played a part. Yes, I did request an appetite stimulant when she lost interest in food, but I also thought that her finickiness was just part of being an old cat. Not until this past fall did I start to think perhaps there were bigger issues. What if I had instead starting asking questions a year ago? Would that have changed Lucy’s fate? We live and learn, even when it comes to our pets. If nothing else, these stories prove this.
Not that all the stories are about mistakes. Some are glowing reports of owners who did everything they could, but in the end found themselves powerless to stop death. Now that time has passed since Lucy’s death, I appreciate the bond I feel when reading of others who have lost pets, whatever their circumstances. I’am also inspired by all the ways one can pay tribute to a pet. Carmack’s book has deservedly been around for ten years, because it is the full package of how to handle the death of a pet.