How to Help Someone Cope With Losing a Furry Family Member
For Merlin (1997-2012)
Merlin wasn’t “just a cat.” He was the mainstay of our household. With all the changes in life, the one thing we could count on was Merlin … for more than 14 years.
I so rarely publish articles on personal topics — usually I prefer to keep those topics, well, personal. But this week, I had to do something I swore I’d never do. I had to say “yes.” As pet owners know, that’s the hardest word to say when you have to make the decision to end your furry (or non-furry) baby’s life. The moment comes when you’re hit with the reality of the pet’s health and future. So then, are you prolonging his life or prolonging his death? Each situation is different but each outcome will eventually be the same. At some point … some moment … we must say goodbye. Friends and family members, when they try to comfort us, are well-meaning. But sometimes, they just don’t know what to say and end up saying the WRONG thing. The best thing we can do for someone who is grieving the loss of their pet is to LISTEN. First, I’ll tell you my story and then offer some tips on how to help someone in their grieving process.
My husband and I are not blessed with “real” children. In 1996, we were (unsuccessfully) trying to have a baby and took many fertility tests with several doctors, only to be told our problem was “unexplained infertility.” No reason given, just “unexplained.” Fertility treatments weren’t an option nor, at the time, was the road to child adoption. Everyone is different but for some people, when being told they cannot create a baby, they have to “mourn the dream” before they can move into new directions.
It was 1997 when Jeff and I were visiting a pet store; looking at bird cages. (We had two canaries; I wanted to “upgrade” their living space). A local animal shelter had cats and kittens up for adoption. We saw the two kittens — charcoal gray and gray tabby — they were about 3 months old and from the same litter. That was it … Merlin and Abby came to live with us in November of 1997 (and yes, we still had our lovely birds … but in an “unreachable” place).
We lost our AbbyCat in 2003 at age 6; she had three kidney surgeries but then succumbed to an infection (in the vet hospital). We were devastated, of course. She was a small kitty … should we have put her through so much? The doctors thought she could survive the ordeal and we were committed to helping her; we loved her so much. Jeff and I have always made promises to our furry family members that we will do what is in our power to keep them happy and healthy for all of their days. If there was a chance, we would take it. God decided to take her home. We miss Abby.
Merlin missed his sister ... and we had to find another feline to fill that void. I wasn’t ready but we went to our local shelter. Jeff and I were “chosen” by a small tortie (tortoiseshell) female who told us “you are going to be my mommy and daddy.” And so we took her home. Merlin welcomed Cady; they became good friends.
We lost Cady in the late winter of 2006; she was about 8 years old. The doctors told us she had a ranula on her tongue, which is a type of cyst in the salivary glands. They told us this type of thing was more common for dogs and rarely seen in cats but it was keeping her from breathing well or eating. Cady underwent surgery to remove the ranula and was doing well but she eventually stopped eating. We brought her to the veterinary hospital and while she was being treated, she went into cardiac arrest. I had to tell the doctors to “let her go.” She, too, was a small critter and she’d gone through so much. But she was my Angel Kitty … she helped us heal from our loss of beloved AbbyCat. Cady was a sweet little cat who loved to play and wrestle with Merlin. We miss Cady.
Merlin missed Cady and so it was time for another addition to our household. Jesse came to live with us in March of 2006. Jesse was … and still is … her mommy’s “Jesse Girl.” She soon became Merlin’s best friend. They spent the next six years snuggling, kissing, wrestling and loving each other. Jesse misses Merlin.
But now, we miss Jesse. (2013)
Wanting to expand our little family, Candy came to live with us in 2008. She is a small, black and white “sweetheart” kitty; we call her our “strange little cat” because she’s so different, temperament-wise. But her difference makes her totally adorable. Candy is blind in one eye but that doesn’t stop her. She and Jesse tolerate each other but Candy came to love Merlin, who would always be very patient with her moods. Candy is sitting on my shoulder and purring in my ear as I type this. Candy misses Merlin.
Merlin, as well as his friends, was an indoor cat — a “spoiled rotten housecat” as our vet would say. In his 14 ½ years, in addition to routine care, he underwent three bladder surgeries, a couple of “dentals” and treatment for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. This picture was taken during his cancer treatment at age 14; he was doing well and acting like himself. Merlin was the kitty we knew and loved. We were … are … fortunate to have had a positive outcome to his cancer treatment. It was so important to Jeff and me to know that we had done the right thing because … it could be done. It was not Merlin’s “time” yet. The treatment worked … he was back to the kitty he was supposed to be. We loved him so much.
During his veterinary checkup in early February (2012), our veterinarian noted that Merlin had lost some weight … so it was time to take him off the special diet food we gave him and let him eat anything he wanted, and as much as he wanted. Merlin loved this … he ate everything, was a happy boy and his actions were that as they have always been … snuggling, purring and content. He did everything in his daily routine. Whenever he saw Jeff and me, Merlin would start purring. That was normal.
A couple of weeks later, we noticed that his skin color changed; we took him to the vet hospital immediately. He was stable and still purring when we saw him but the doctor told us that the problem could be an infection of the liver, kidneys or another cancer … they didn’t know. Bottom line was, we could hook him up to machines and poke and prod him for several days but they weren’t convinced Merlin could come through it all. Jeff and I couldn’t put him through it. We held our baby as we said goodbye. Merlin was purring. We held our baby as he took his last breath.
We know that we did the right thing but … we are still numb. This isn’t real.
How to Help Someone Cope With Losing a Furry Family Member
Mourning a beloved pet is a personal journey. You can help someone with their grief by doing just one thing … listening. What does this really mean? When you first hear the news, just let your friend or family member tell you the story, let them talk about it. Let them provide all the details they have to give; they have to talk about it. DO NOT start talking about your experience with your own pet. DO NOT tell them that “it was time” before you actually hear the whole story. Maybe it was time but maybe it really wasn’t ... it could have been a fluke. Maybe your experience with your own pet wasn’t the same type of situation. There will be an opportunity for you to tell them all about your pain during the time you’d lost your own pet. This is not the moment … let the person who’s lost their furry family member tell YOU about it. He or she needs to speak. You can help best by listening.
It is really that simple. In my case, I appreciate the love and concern we’ve had from our friends and family. Sometimes, though, it’s been very frustrating to have someone interrupt my story with how it was “time to put my baby down” even though they didn’t know why. I didn’t even get the story out. Or to have them cut me off with their own experiences. I think experiences are very important and we do learn from others. But each person must grieve in his or her own way. In Merlin’s case, it didn’t become “time” until our doctors told us there wasn’t much they could do.
What You Can Do For Others
When someone is grieving over the loss of their pet …
- Listen to the story. Don’t interrupt.
- Ask this question: “How do you feel about your decision?” Don’t pre-judge.
- Ask them about … the good times he/she spent with their pet, silly nicknames, silly stories, etc. Start a positive dialogue. Look your friend straight in the eye to show you are listening.
- Encourage him or her to get a notebook and write down the pet’s life history … from adoption to the very end. Write about the stories and fun things. Write about the memories. For some people, this could be helpful in the grieving process … we don’t ever want to forget!
- Determine when — or if — there would be a time to tell them about your own experience. Do they need to hear it? Does it have to be now? Is this information helpful to them or is it what you need to do to help yourself? People tend to want to share their experiences; this is natural. Consider when would be the best time for you to do that.
- Create a special (simple) memorial for the pet. We always appreciate knowing that someone else cares. It could be a donation to a shelter or a special keepsake. Even a condolence card goes a long way.
The Future For Us
Yes, there will be another kitty, at some point. Jeff and I advocate shelter adoptions; in fact, our local humane society is my “pet” project. We know there will never be another Angel Kitty like Merlin but there will be a place for a new family member, when the time comes for him to choose us. For now, though, our house seems quite off-balanced. Jesse misses Merlin. Candy misses Merlin. Mommy and Daddy miss their “Large and Floppy Big Kitty.” And so we mourn him.
Thank You …
© Copyright by Teri Silver, 2012. All Rights Reserved
Update: March, 2012
My husband and I were unexpectedly adopted by two male gray kittens; they came from an area humane society. We weren't ready to make a commitment but somehow, that just didn't matter; Joey Blue and Mickey asked us to be their "parents." These little boys were born in November, 2011 (It's been many years since we had kittens in our house!) Jesse and Candy aren't happy about it but they're getting used to it ... and so are we.
We love our Merlin and miss him ... Oh, he would have loved these little guys! It's hard not to call them the silly names we called Merlin, but there will be some overlap. They are similar but different. What a nice combination!
Joey and Mickey are very affectionate, very playful, very loving, and very-much loved by us, already. They could never "replace" Merlin, but they add so much to our lives. And, as Jeff says, it is our job (in life) to care for animals and love them for as long as we can.
Update, July 2013
It is with great sadness that I note the passing of our JesseCat. Jesse developed a medical issue that we originally thought was cancer. It turned out to be asthma or some other kind of bronchial matter coupled with a problem in her bloodwork and the prognosis wasn't good. She had lost weight but she was as happy as ever over the last couple of days I spent with her. She knew it was time to go home.
We miss Jesse.
Unexpectly, we were adopted by a tortie kitten; just over 4 months old. We call her Shayna Maidel, which is Yiddish for "pretty girl." Shayna, Joey and Mickey are great friends ... Candy tolerates her. Candy is still the boss of the applesauce, or so she says.