This is my written notes for my talk at the 2011 Pet Memorial Sunday celebration hosted by Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation. I know I wandered a bit from what is here, but this is the basis of it. I’ve never had the opportunity to speak in this forum before, and I was more than gratified—and surprised—by the compliments I received afterward.
THE JOY OF PETS
I was very honored when Deb asked me to speak on this subject. I am one of Deb’s families, several times over, and am so glad I found her.
Among other things I do, I have the pleasure of creating commissioned portraits of others’ cherished pets, though often the choice is made to create the portrait when the loss is imminent or may have recently happened, or a family may decide a while after that a portrait is an appropriate remembrance.
When I create a portrait I not only use photos, I also use stories, and even if I get to meet an animal I want to hear about my subject’s personality from the people who love that animal. Part of what I do in creating a portrait is working with families around their loss and I am honored that they choose to share that with me, that they trust their thoughts and feelings in my care.
As a person who’s rescued and fostered cats and kittens for about 25 years I’ve also seen my own share of loss, both in sending fosters off to good and loving adoptive homes and in the losses of the cats who came to share my life.
Of those cats who shared my home and became a permanent part of my feline family for some period of time, I have lost 13. I say now that it is never easy, but I have learned to prepare myself for the experience and know what at least seems normal for myself.
I’m going to tell a little story of my own loss and redemption, of loving again after a loss. It has a happy ending.
In 2006 and 2007, I lost my four oldest cats, three of them among my longest-lasting friends. During that year of loss I fostered a litter of kittens born to a neighbor’s cat, found homes for three and one stayed with me. I didn’t want a kitten because caring for geriatric animals in their end stages is time-consuming and emotionally exhausting and I felt I had no time for a kitten. But the little black sweetheart seemed to understand my distraction, and after my Stanley, at age 25, finally let go of his love of this world, I turned my attention to my Lucy, my new life, and the remaining four of my feline family.
But when I had Lucy spayed three months later, she was diagnosed with feline infectious peritonitis, a form of it that is always fatal, and I lost her three months after that.
My heart was broken. I was beyond grief, I was simply numb after all that loss, so quickly, and in part unexpected. After a house regularly full of about nine cats, I had only four and for a house that rescues and fosters animals, that is empty.
And those four were between the ages of 12 and 17, and one of them had a serious heart condition and I was aware that I could lose him unexpectedly at any time. They suddenly looked to me like potential sources of pain, and I knew that I needed to do something quickly to save myself.
The day Lucy died, I saw her mother, who belonged to a neighbor who never bothered to have her fixed, in my yard, the petite black kitty laden with another litter of kittens in her belly. The thought flashed into my mind that I needed to take her in, her and her kittens.
No, I thought, the last thing I need is a litter of kittens, especially if one of them might also have FIP. But the idea persisted—get this kitty off the streets and get her fixed, especially if she might be carrying FIP. I called my veterinarian hoping she’d tell me “No, it’s too dangerous, you have enough cats, you’ve had enough loss, don’t do it.” Instead, she paused and then said, “I think that would be a good idea.”
I discussed with her and other veterinarians the risks and we determined I could safely do this. I asked the neighbor to just give me the mother cat this time instead of just the kittens. She said that would be fine.
By the time I had the space ready the kittens were three days old. I gingerly carried the box upstairs and opened the lid. The mother cat looked up at me and stepped out, calm and collected. I placed the kittens on the fleece bed in the cage and she went in to clean and nurse them.
I was afraid I’d be afraid of them too—looking for signs of illness, but after tentatively petting them a few times I picked up each one, then picked up all of them in one big handful and kissed them. I did that repeatedly several times a day, something that’s not really advised with newborn kittens, and that mother cats don’t really care for, but their mom watched me with understanding, and the kittens grew quickly, normally and strong.
I forgot to look for signs of illness, and there were none anyway. When it came time to spay and neuter them all, I had though I’d finally have my moment of fear because that was when Lucy was diagnosed, but by then I had forgotten all about FIP.
And in the process I invited their mom, Mimi to join my household, and all my seniors joined in watching the kittens and beginning to teach them how to be cats. Mimi and her babies are still with me, all involved in a study of FIP, and my newest subjects for art and writing.
That type of total immersion in loving again is an extreme case, but I know that for me, bringing that family into my life was the only thing that could heal my broken heart in the way it did. Now I could not imagine my life without them, just as I couldn’t imagine my life without any of the cats who came after other losses.
And that’s because, like everyone here, I find it necessary to share my life with animals, and once we do, we always do, though our time of healing is different for each of us.
If we even consider adopting again, we may feel we are betraying the pet we’ve lost, that we may be trying to replace the cherished companion who is gone or worst of all that if we move on that they will be forgotten.
And while the loss is fresh, the memory of the pain of loss is just too real.
But our bonds of love are never the same in any two relationships, and our hearts are big enough to hold a lifetime of loves. As I look through all those years of photos and see all the ones I’ve lost, I don’t remember their loss, I remember their love, I remember the years they spent with me.
I’ve known people who’ve gone right out and adopted another pet, others who waited months or years, or simply waited until another animal in need showed up on their doorstep, and still others who have never adopted again, preferring instead to remember and cherish the pets they’d lost. For each of them, the decision was right.
The important thing was that it was their decision, they were comfortable with the situation and they felt it best honored their pet.
As your period of grieving progresses, you may find your home feels empty, and you miss not only the pet you’ve lost but the companionship in general, the sharing of your routines and your space.
But mostly, we choose to live with pets because of that bond we have with them that we can’t even have with another human, that total devotion and unconditional love that is the gift we share with an animal.
And our precious animal companions remember how we filled their life when we adopted them—surely they’d want that for another animal. And, in life, they always wanted, and often worked hard for, our happiness as part of their love for us, and they would be the best to know that the love of a pet is essential for their human, and would not want us to be sad and lonely.
As much as you loved, so deeply do you grieve, but the grief wears away and leaves only the love, like a diamond. Look back through your photos and see your lifetime of pets, and what do you remember? Not the grief, only the love.
You know the kittens and mother cat in this story as Mimi and the Fantastic Four. This is how we began, and probably one of the reasons I didn’t work too hard to find a home for them when the time came—though a family of adult black cats is not the easiest to place, but in truth, I’m glad for that. I will always remember that time of intense grief and the joy of healing and loving again, every time I look at them.