Over the past week, I’ve Googled people’s experiences in knowing when it was time to say goodbye to their companion animals, and how to do so in a way that best supported the animal. This is the third in a series of four essays/posts I’m writing in the hopes they will help others in the same situation.
Grief is a highly individual experience, and I’m a firm believer that there’s no one ‘right’ way to grieve. Some people cry for months; others never cry. Feeling sad—devastated, even—is normal when someone we love dies. Our routines are disrupted. My only suggestion is that if your grieving interferes with your day-to-day life, if you’re having trouble taking care of yourself, please consider talking to someone trained in working with people whose companion animals have died. Most veterinary schools offer a pet loss support hotline. There’s an awesome list of animal bereavement hotlines here. What follows is my experience—neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong,’ just the ‘what is’ in this moment, and for the past week.
I’m no stranger to loss. My mother died when I was nine, and my three best friends—along with countless acquaintances—died in a 22-month period in the late 1980s, and more recently, my father. By the time I was 28, I’d been to more funerals than my (then-) 88-year-old father. I don’t see physical death as the end of everything, game over, power down. But I’m still pretty attached to forms, bodies and personalities—my own and others’.
It has helped me immensely that Hedda lived to old age. In human terms, she was hovering around the century mark. For once, I don’t have to grieve a life cut short, or lament that we didn’t have enough time together.
My Grief Reactions
One of the things I experienced in the 1980s was that grief makes us gentle. It breaks open the heart. And that gentleness wants different things than the active, doing-oriented mind.
The night Hedda was euthanized, I felt peaceful. Sad, but peaceful. Maybe it was shock, and maybe I’d done a lot of the grieving beforehand. I was a little out of it; I put on sweatpants to take a walk and only later realized the sweatpants were threadbare, possibly indecent, in back.
The next day, waves of grief rose over me. I allowed them when they came, and eventually they passed. Because I cried so much in advance, I haven’t cried huge amounts since, but sometimes these thunderstorms of grief rage through me, and…I just let them.
I’m the type of person who isn’t necessarily expressive in my grief (although I certainly have been, at different times in my life). These days, the more intense the emotion I feel, the more ‘internal’ I become. I need to witness and experience my own internal processes, in my own time.
On the flip side: I began babbling. People would ask, “How are you?” and I’d tell them. On and on and on. I wasn’t even aware of doing it, until I saw my own state reflected in their eyes…and I didn’t like what I saw. That made me even more inclined to keep to myself.
I lost track of time in a big way. It wasn’t just “What’s the date today?” but I had no idea whether it was Friday or Tuesday, or even how to figure out whether it was Friday or Tuesday.
I’ve been irritable (and that continues). My skin is very thin these days. I don’t have a lot of patience for things like sudden noises or people making snarky comments. My frustration tolerance is low. I want what I want, and I want it now—whether that’s a bottle of shampoo, a cup of coffee, or peace and quiet.
My thinking process seemed to be (and, to some extent, still is) slower. My creativity and critical thinking both felt blunted. This feels on the upswing, but it’s clearly part of my process.
I noticed my brain wasn’t working very well. I’m mildly dyslexic, but for several days after Hedda’s death, my dyslexia became pronounced. Instead of just confusing certain letters or numbers, I mixed up words and inverted entire sentences.
Old, old, old feelings I thought I’d processed decades ago are coming up, things like shame and unworthiness. It takes more effort than usual to process these (my process is to feel what it feels like in the body, then ask whether the stories that give rise to these feelings is true. It doesn’t eliminate them right away, but it helps put them in perspective. By questioning them, I prevent them from taking any deeper root in my psyche).
For a full week, I had trouble with sensory integration. I’d look at things like, for example, items in the grocery store, without being able to process what they were or whether I might like them. I would hear sounds and be unable to determine where they were coming from. It’s not that my body feels foreign, exactly, but I have to be extra-careful with it, so I don’t slip or hit my head or something. My mind has been…absent, attuned to my inner world rather than the outer world. That’s not a good pairing with an icy road.
I notice that I kept (and keep) switching between past and present tense when talking about Hedda. I recalled that in Dr. Daniel J. Siegel’s brilliant book, Mindsight, this tense-switching was a sign that an event hadn’t been integrated into the personality on a neurological level. That makes sense, given how recently it happened. (He goes into much more detail, but I can’t recall the specifics at the moment).
Usually, I listen to some kind of audio on my phone throughout the day, whether talks by Eckhart Tolle, or Tara Brach’s podcast, or Stephen Fry performing Harry Potter… but lately, I’ve just craved silence. I can’t explain it—and sometimes I think audio would help distract me—but I’m honoring my need for silence.
I haven’t slept through the night fully. I still wake up at 6am, though now I go back to sleep without having fed her.
I feel immensely grateful that my grief is (for the most part) so subtle. Even when the waves come, they show up as sudden decreases in my energy level. I become lethargic and just…sad. It’s not something I need to fix or change; I just need to be with it until it passes.
My Coping Mechanisms
The most obvious coping mechanism for me has been writing. I’m a writer; I process feelings and experiences by writing about them. These four essays—I really do hope they help someone (or multiple someones) down the road, but the act of writing them has helped me immensely.
Texting is a wonderful invention for people like me, who crave connection without necessarily having physical proximity to others. Many friends continued to text throughout the several days following, to see how I was doing. I appreciated that immensely.
This experience has also shown me that I have some really amazing and kind friends. Animals tend to bring out the best in us, but even so, I’ve been blown away by the support. I’m not a big Facebook fan, but on that Friday, when I woke up after the nightmare, I began posting updates, and I was stunned at how many people responded. Not just old housemates, and men I’d dated in Toronto (they were Hedda’s biggest fans), but also people I’d forgotten I had ever connected with on Facebook.
When Hedda died, I posted a tribute that received 68 reactions and 40 comments—hardly viral, but more than anything I’ve ever posted. Every single one of those was a balm for me, a witnessing of Hedda’s life and of my loss. It was really powerful. Every. Single. One. (Also, it appears to be true that the Facebook algorithm will propel births, deaths and weddings to the top of your friends’ feeds.)
And then there’s the illustration at the top of this post. It was sent to me by a friend with a caption ‘from’ Hedda that ended “p.s. I love you more than tuna.” I was speechless at his thoughtfulness. After I stopped crying, I thought, “Wow, that would be a great book title.” So now we’re collaborating on an illustrated book for people grieving companion animals. That, too, is a way of healing for me.
If my tub didn’t have a crack in the enamel, I’d be taking hot baths. Those are far and away my favorite self-care soothing measure. Especially bubble baths. With Epsom salts (don’t knock it—I’ve used them since I was in my 20s). But alas…
With one exception, I’ve made myself get outside every day since Hedda’s passing. I’ve also asked one of my sisters to make sure I get out every day. She lives in Florida. I live in BC. But still, she can text and ask if I’ve gone out.
I love walking, and to some extent, I had curtailed the amount of walking I’d been doing because I wanted (and felt I needed) to be home with Hedda. It’s also super-cold here right now. Well, super-cold for BC—low 30s and upper 20s. But the sun has been out, which was a huge relief after 54 days of rain in October and November. When I go outside, I’m reminded that everything is okay. Even if I miss Hedda, everything is okay.
I’ve also made an effort to re-up my giving practice. As much as I need to focus on what’s happening internally, it helps me to keep an eye out for others, to get out of my own head and grief, even for just a moment.
And I’ve eaten entirely too much sugar, especially in the form of dark chocolate mints. And miniature Snickers. In summer, I usually have a distaste for sugar, but right now…bring on the comfort. I don’t really drink (I bought a bottle of wine, but nearly a week later, it’s still sitting on top of the dishwasher, unopened), and I may be one of the only people on Vancouver Island who doesn’t smoke pot. I know this grief, though. I’ve been through grief like this, and no amount of Hägen-Daz, merlot or any kind of drug can make it better.
Only time can do that.
What About Her Stuff?
I haven’t rushed to clear the apartment of Hedda’s things. That didn’t feel right. I’ve slowly cleaned up things like the puppy pads and her food bowl—but her water dish is still in the office, as is her sun-bathing and bird-watching cushion. I may never move that. Her heating pad is still on the bed, and I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve been sleeping with her favourite toy—a Kong catnip frog—clutched in my hand every night.
On the second day without Hedda, I bought a string of white Christmas lights (my only décor) and hung them above the bed. I’ve always found the soft light they project to be comforting, and it seemed like a nice way to honor her.
Of course, I still feel her around me, and the remaining items are good reminders that in spirit, she’s with me.
I returned her unused medication to the vet, thinking they could use it. As it turns out, legally, they have to dispose of it. Because of certain bylaws in my town, I’ll have to take her old litter boxes to the dump. I plan to keep the current litter box and clean it for my next feline companion. I’ll also keep the ramp, though I’ll probably donate her carrier. When I bought it, a soft carrier was considered the height of luxury and pampering. Today, though, hardshell carriers are considered preferable, because they allow an animal to feel stability under their feet.
The last thing I’ll move is the heating pad, and I’m not sure when.
Epilogue: One Month Later
I’m updating this post a month to the day after Hedda’s death, because my equanimity has been on a bit of a roller coaster. During the first couple of weeks, when I was writing these posts, I had a creative outlet for my grief. I could write about Hedda, and in doing so, I kept her alive in me.
Then I finished the essays. I began working on a collaborative book for people who are grieving companion animals, which was also healing…and I finished that draft.
Then there was silence.
So much silence.
All the silence.
And not in a peaceful-feeling way, but in a heart-wrenching vacuum of sound kind of way.
It took me three weeks to remove her heating pad and toys from the bed, though I still have her favourite toy (and I kept the others in a small Rubbermaid box—when I look at them, I remember her enjoyment of them, and it makes me smile. Perhaps all the memories are inside me anyway, but it helps me to have visual reminders that can trigger positive feelings.)
It took another few days to dismantle her litter box, and to gather her old litter boxes and long-ago-shredded toys for disposal.
I’ve kept her favorite cushion, which is directly in the line of morning sunlight/bird view, on the floor of my office. Sometimes I look over, expecting her to be there.
For the most part, the adjustment has been smoother than I anticipated. But when the waves come up, they are big. A few days before Christmas, I felt extremely lonely—something I rarely, if ever, felt when she was around. I couldn’t bring myself to text friends as they were all heading to their holiday gatherings, so (in what must have been a survival move on the part of my psyche), I posted an update on Facebook and received a huge amount of love and support, which kind of blew me away (and also, mediated my generally negative feeling about social media).
Since then, I’ve been aware of experiencing more loneliness, and it’s not a comfortable feeling. I’ve heard (though now I can’t find the link) that, for women, living with a companion animal boosts emotional well-being as much as having a partner. (Although it’s possible to have fights—as anyone who has ever lived with an animal can tell you—the nonverbal nature of the relationship distills it down to the essence of two beings witnessing each other.)
So there are two aspects to my grief: Missing the specific personality of Hedda, and missing the constant companionship of another being. I’m not ready, emotionally, financially or practically, to adopt another cat. I’ve always said I’m not really a cat lady, but a “Hedda lady.” Yet I’m taking steps towards welcoming a new kitten—and that helps to mitigate grief, too. I haven’t had a kitten in 20+ years, and boy, my place is soooo not kitten-proof. So I’m making notes and small adjustments here and there, learning as much as I can about what kittens need (20 years ago, there wasn’t much info on feline development. Today, it’s almost as complex as canine development.)
I’ve also been taking steps to repay the money I borrowed in Hedda’s last week, believing that my friends would probably be pretty upset if I got a new kitten before repaying them. One has allowed me to barter repayment; the other refused my partial repayment and told me to pay him back after I have a new kitten. I am in awe of my friends’ generosity and kindness.
I guess what I’m saying, in my verbose way, is that grieving Hedda hasn’t been as smooth as the original post might lead you to believe, but it hasn’t been as painful as I feared. The emotions have been yet another lesson in allowing myself to feel whatever comes up, and to feel it fully. When I can do that, the emotion often dissipates. Grief is one of the few emotions that’s tied to a fact rather than a story (a being was here, and now they’re not). I feel very fortunate that, in this situation, while I sometimes have doubts about whether I did the right thing at the right time, for the most part, my mind doesn’t tell me, “She should still be here.” And that makes the pain more tolerable.
Someday, when the time is right, I believe she will guide the right kitten to me.