Pet Loss and Disenfranchised Grief

I just returned home from burying my beloved animal companion of the past 12 years–my cat Thor–on my parents’ property. I am exhausted, and tears have freely commingled with sweat and snot on my dirtied, makeup-smeared face. I look like a parody of a zombie meant to spring out upon unwary, cash-paying visitors to “haunted house” attractions in this Halloween season. Everything about me feels “off” today because it’s plain that my visible manifestations of grief, what used to be publicly acknowledged as mourning, are no longer welcome in this death-denying, youth extolling, commodifying, grinding capitalist world where productivity comes at the expense of our collective humanity. A grinding world where, especially when it comes to the loss of a treasured companion animal, one is met with snide remarks of “Get over it–it’s not like a person died” or “It was just a cat. The city is crawling with them; just go get yourself a new one.”

This grinding world is the locus of disenfranchised grief, which noted grief expert Dr. David Kessler defines as “a type of grief that other people might deem as ‘less than'” (You Can Heal Your Heart, p. 136). Pet loss is the most common form of disenfranchised grief; the losses women experience after undergoing an abortion or experiencing a miscarriage are even more glaringly absent from any form of public discourse.

I was supposed to have driven back to my workplace in downtown Chicago immediately after Thor’s burial to resume, for the remaining four hours or so of the workday, jumping through the hoops held aloft by my dysfunctional pharmaceutical advertising clients. But I spontaneously and steadfastly refused. I careened off the Kennedy Expressway and headed home instead, announcing in a perfunctory email to key stakeholders that I would be working remotely this afternoon. That I would still be calling in punctually as always for various project status meetings between now and 7:30 p.m.

But, frankly, I don’t feel like it. Not one jot. I don’t want to play the compliant-cog-in-the-machine game. Not now. Not Monday, either.

I’ve come home to a profound Absence, and it’s striking me in the middle of my chest, causing me to lose my footing and clutch the walls in my foyer to steady myself. The wound caused by this Absence is biting and deep, as if it were caused by the very pick-axe my 77-year-old father used to break up the soil in the corner of his and my mother’s backyard that now serves as Thor’s final resting place. The pick-axe that my father, after furious whacks into the ground followed by my shoveling, set aside from time to time so he could lean against the fence in the northeast corner of the yard and sob openly, blowing his nose into napkins that he’d tucked into the pockets of his denim coveralls. My father mourns my Thor also, as does my mother. They accepted him as a grandson substitute. They loved him dearly, as has anyone who has been in his joyful, unconditionally loving presence for even a few minutes–even people who would steadfastly announce that they were “dog people” instead, people who weren’t fond of cats.

“Describe what Thor’s presence in the home has meant to you,” said our therapist to my fiancé, Daniel, this past Wednesday night in our weekly premarital counseling session. “Anna has obviously had a much more extensive history with him than you have, so what did Thor mean to you?”

Daniel’s response was instant, as were his tears as he spoke: “Thor was the fireplace of our home: a source of great warmth, of cheer. Even though I wasn’t there from his kittenhood to raise him the way Anna was, I’ve always felt like he was more than a cat to me–that he was like our toddler, a loving and lovable child. And now that warmth is forever gone; it’s so…so…devastating!”

Thor on his favorite chair in 2012, when I lived in Chicago's Jefferson Park neighborhood.

Thor on his favorite chair in 2012, when I lived in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood.

The very painful decision to have Thor euthanized last night was something that Daniel and I struggled with for weeks. Thor was diagnosed almost exactly a year ago with stage IV pancreatic cancer. At the time (October 10, 2015), the doctors predicted that his tumors, already metastasized to his liver, would kill him by Thanksgiving 2015. Imagine everyone’s surprise that Thor survived an entire year. His will to live was strong. He was fueled by the best possible nutrition and oceans of love–of that I’m certain. He just exuded the life force, plain and simple: irrepressible, resilient.

However, there was no denying the clearly discernible clinical symptoms of the gradual shutting down of Thor’s body. Aside from the protrusions in his abdomen caused by the cancer, the extreme weight loss, the increased thirst, and the rounds of uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea (often with small pools of blood in them) throughout the day and night in the past two weeks were the irrefutable hallmarks of the onset of renal (kidney) failure. Thor’s condition took a drastic turn for the worse last weekend. Daniel and I took turns mopping up the floors after each discovery of a puddle of vomit or diarrhea. It seemed that Thor just couldn’t process what he was eating anymore. It was heartbreaking. And yet, he remained playful, energetic, affectionate, and eager to receive rubs under the chin and hang out with Dan and me–purring at full speed–as we binge-watched the French supernatural thriller series, Les Revenants (stupidly translated in English as The Returned), on Netflix. (A series I highly recommend if you’re into moody, atmospheric shows that challenge your thinking.)

This past Monday, I began fielding referrals for veterinarians that perform at-home euthanasia. Thor’s regular veterinary office gave me a couple of leads, as did a friend of mine who chose to euthanize his cat this past spring. Even our premarital counselor gave us a referral. I left voice mail messages with some, while I spoke to others who answered their phones immediately. With each conversation, I broke down crying, asking about the given doctor’s availability for this coming weekend; I had hoped it would be this coming Saturday, October 8. Amazingly, everyone save one doctor said they were booked until November. I said Thor couldn’t wait that long. The doctor who was available this month announced that he could only do it the evening of October 6, as he was leaving the country for an extended vacation with his wife the following day.

Terror placed a vise grip around my heart: That’s too soon! I can’t have Thor die on a weeknight! My mind raced. How should I respond? I texted Daniel, and he told me to follow my heart’s conviction. If I wanted to wait, I should wait. Try to get more referrals. See if another doctor could come on the 8th.

Instead, I replied to the doctor who suggested October 6 that we would have the procedure that night. 7 p.m. was fine. As I hung up the phone, I felt my heart drop into my stomach. Queasiness stayed with me for the remainder of the day and night. When I got home from work and discussed my results with Daniel, Thor began playing with a catnip-stuffed toy at our feet. We both immediately broke into sobs. Did we make the right decision? Are we on the verge of killing him prematurely?

Thor at 6 months of age, shortly after being neutered. Ewa Beach, Hawaii

Thor at 6 months of age, shortly after being neutered. Taken in 2004 in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, where I rescued him.

To complicate our grief even more around pet loss, we’re often clearer on treating them humanely. When they’re in pain at the end of their lives, despite our wanting them to stay around, we will often choose to euthanize them to make sure that they die in a respectful, dignified manner, surrounded by love. But sometimes it makes the loss a little harder when we wonder if we did the right thing at the right time. –David Kessler, You Can Heal Your Heart, p. 136

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday at my job semi-functional and visibly distressed. My colleagues noticed that I was not even remotely interested in engaging with clients during site visits. Even when meeting with the CEO on Tuesday to present market research findings for a client’s imminent product launch, I spent more time forlornly gazing out my 47th floor conference room window overlooking Chicago’s West Loop than actively interacting with the CEO. My agency’s vice president noticed, and late on Wednesday afternoon, she pulled me into her office. Not caring to uphold even a semblance of composure, I started sobbing as I told her about Thor, about how Daniel and I are agonizing over the decision to have him euthanized, of my sheer sadness that I won’t have adequate time to spend saying goodbye before the mobile veterinarian arrives on Thursday night to put Thor to sleep.

She seemed to empathize, stating that she and her husband recently had to euthanize one of their Labrador Retrievers, and it was the most heart wrenching thing she’s ever had to do. Her husband, a devout Reformed Jew, insisted that family members and friends close to the dog had to perform the time-honored ritual in Judaism known as sitting shiva. She said it helped her to achieve a great sense of closure and set her on the path to healing.

I said I would need time off Friday morning to bury Thor on my parents’ property outside the city. She said I could, and that I could work from home on Thursday or even take the day off to ensure I had enough time to be with Thor before the veterinarian arrived. I thanked her wholeheartedly for her understanding and empathy; she asked to hug me, and so we did.

I worked from home yesterday and set aside time during my lunch break to go to JoAnn Fabrics and purchase the yards of organic cotton cloth I would use as Thor’s biodegradable shroud. I also bought glass-encased candles in Thor’s colors of orange and white; one would ultimately be placed at his head and another at his tail when it would be time for me to sit in vigil with him.

It's easy to see why Thor was my Hawaiian

It’s easy to see why Thor was my Hawaiian “Big Kahuna.” He loved to show off his tummy and have it rubbed. Photo from 2012, Chicago

I was supremely agitated all day yesterday and the weather only added to my apprehension. Normally, I love and welcome thunderstorms, but the one that took all afternoon to brew and, not surprisingly, began to unleash itself as the veterinarian announced that he was en route had me feeling incredibly edgy. Thor, however, took everything in stride, and acted like his usual, extroverted, affectionate self. He climbed atop my lap as I typed at my desk, he jumped onto his favorite ottoman in the living room and began to purr with full force, he ate exuberantly, and he even had the energy to spy on the neighborhood birds with little Hela as his would-be hunting companion.

Hela (left) and Thor spy on the birds feeding below.

Hela (left) and Thor spy on the birds feeding below.

Thor's sweet gaze. This picture, taken yesterday along with the photo above it, breaks my heart.

Thor’s sweet gaze. This picture, taken yesterday along with the photo above it, breaks my heart.

I openly started crying, so horrified that Thor is being sentenced to death. And he doesn’t see it coming, I thought. Not in the slightest. I’d posted about my dilemma on Facebook, and many well-meaning, spiritually anchored friends–of many paths and traditions, not just Pagans–responded, stating that animals towards the end of their lives always let their owners know that they’re releasing themselves from this world and their own physical pain, that they’re at peace with the deaths their humans have agreed upon in advance. “Commune with Thor,” many said. “You’ll see that he’s okay with this arrangement and he’s here to say goodbye to you.”

“Are you ready to say goodbye, dear Thor?” I asked him, as I held him on the balcony while he playfully pawed at the tendrils of potted plants growing nearby. “Are you done with this life? Are you okay with the doctor coming to do what he’s coming to do to you? Will you willingly descend into the duat?”

A hovering bee caught Thor’s attention and he wriggled out of my arms to follow it across the balcony.

No, was the answer I got to my questions. He’s not ready. He’s living fully in the moment, which is what cats do. He is loving this day, loving being alive. Death is a horror and you’re visiting it upon him, my mind said.

I started sobbing. Daniel just couldn’t come home soon enough, I thought.

When Daniel did arrive he did his best, at first, to hide his tears from me. But when I reported that Thor was very active and playful all day, that he acted as though he had no idea that his life was about to end in less than two hours, Dan burst out sobbing, and he announced he had been worried all day that Thor was being put to death too soon.

“Let’s call the doctor and reschedule,” he said, grabbing a tissue to blow his nose. “Let’s wait until it’s obvious that Thor isn’t functioning anymore.”

We started pacing. Thor hopped onto his favorite ottoman and began to groom himself. I felt nautious, wholly gripped by fear.

The storm was well under way as the clock struck seven. A car we didn’t recognize pulled up to the curb immediately in front of our door. A lanky, dark-haired man extracted a traditional doctor’s bag from the back seat of his car. It was the mobile veterinarian.

His demeanor was kind, relaxed. He saw Thor right away and remarked, matter-of-factly, that it was definitely Thor’s time to die. Full-blown renal failure was imminent. He stroked Thor’s fur, commenting that he had concerns about finding a vein for the injection site. Thor was so dehydrated it could be difficult.

We were asked to wrap Thor in a towel, as sometimes in cases of pets with conditions like Thor’s involuntary voiding of fluids can occur during death spasms. I lost all composure and started to shriek-cry upon hearing that. Thor decided he didn’t want to be around this stranger with probing fingers any longer and he leapt off the ottoman and headed for the dining room. I darted off after him, soothing him as best as I could as I scooped up his bony frame (Thor, once 22 lbs., weighed only 8) and wrapped him in the towel and set him back on the ottoman.

The veterinarian fished for a stethoscope, a syringe, vials of the death-dealing sedatives, and long tubing. I sat down on the ottoman and held Thor firmly but gently. The doctor felt his left forepaw and found a suitable injection site. Thor yowled in pain at having the needle of the syringe stuck into him. I started sobbing; my tears fell onto Thor’s head. Daniel knelt to my left and silently wept.

“Hold his chin up–hold it up,” the doctor said.

Thor issued a soft growl…and then he went limp in my arms, his head falling into the crook of my elbow.

“He’s gone,” the doctor said. He pulled the stethoscope back out, feeling for heart rate. “Gone,” he reiterated. “Time of death: 7:18 p.m. Goodbye, Thor. Your mommy and daddy gave you a good life.”

I clasped Thor to my chest and rocked back and forth, my body shaking with grief. I wailed. I keened. I let both men in the room become terrorized by my wild, mascara-streaked face.

The doctor knelt by my side to speak eye-level with me. “This may be of little or no comfort to you now, but you absolutely made the right decision at exactly the right time. He would have gotten so much worse, and been in unbearable pain. This was a merciful act.”

Daniel shook his hand and handed over the check for the payment.

“A merciful act,” the doctor repeated.

And he left our condo to the accompaniment of my ongoing wailing.

I continued to sob and shriek uninterrupted for 45 minutes straight, growing more and more alarmed as I felt Thor’s body become increasingly cold to the touch, and the cold was spreading.

“Oh, my Thor! My beautiful boy! Don’t go, don’t go!” I gurgled between sobs.

Daniel kept his vigil with his head bowed, silently crying, as he knelt by my right side.

I had the presence of mind to ask Daniel to open all the windows, despite the downpour of rain, so Thor’s soul could fly out.

It was nearing nine o’ clock when I announced that I was going into the temple room to ritually invoke Bast, Sekhmet, and Nephthys as I purified and anointed Thor’s body and prepared it for burial. The Presences of my Holy Goddesses were palpable–not just to me but to Daniel, as he noted afterwards that he felt Bast in particular “swoop into the room” after I’d sung my tearful litany of praise to Her in Egyptian.

I fumigated Thor’s body with sweetgrass, procured from a pow wow here in Chicago not even a month ago, and myrrh incense. I anointed Thor’s forehead, paws, cancer-ravaged abdomen, and spine with myrrh oil. I placed drops of fresh water onto his tongue, that he never thirst. I placed one of his favorite treats onto his tongue, that he never hunger. I lit the candles at the east-west axis of his curled body. I prayed. I cried. I recited memorized passages from The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (The Book of Going Forth by Day) and The Pyramid Texts, that Thor not be swallowed by any traps in the duat, that he cross over in peace. Isis behind him, Nephthys before him, Selket at his right side, Neith at his left side. No terrors of the night shall assail him, and the Holy Eye of Ra protects him.

I singled out Bast as Merciful Mother for a series of prayers that I uttered amidst choking sobs, shaking my sistrum fervently into the storm’s west wind.

It was near 11 o’ clock when Daniel and I exited the temple room. The scent of incense did little to mask what Daniel and I both smelled as Thor’s death odors–something akin to dozens of rotting eggs, a disturbing, sulfuric smell.

I’m not sure when rigor mortis set in but it made touching Thor’s body this morning a very different experience from the cool malleability of last night. Locked ligaments. Stiff as stone. The discovery of this new reality made my heart sink deeper into my gut, but there was no loathing in me at all as I placed the tied-up shrouds with Thor’s curled-up little body into a wicker basket for transport to my parents’ home.

Death takes on a whole new dimension when you’re the one feeling the life force of your loved one ebb in your hands, when you’re the one who inhales the odors of death, when you’re the one who anoints the body and prepares it for burial, when you’re the one who digs the grave.

thors-grave-oct716

R.I.P. Thor 2004, Oahu, Hawaii – 2016, Chicago, Illinois

What is remembered, lives. As my parents and I sing in our native Serbian-language dirges to the dead, “Večnaja Pamjat.

Memory Eternal.

What is remembered, lives.

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21 thoughts on “Pet Loss and Disenfranchised Grief

  1. My deepest condolences to you and yours. I’ve always thought that one of the hardest parts of pet ownership is losing them- and not having most people understand that loss.

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    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Arsowen. Grieving the loss of a loved one is a painfully isolating experience, even more so when it’s a form of disenfranchised grief that is openly snubbed or shunned from discussion altogether by others. Blessings to you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I wept as I read this, remembering us having to let our sweet boy go about 2 years ago when his body just started shutting down. I miss him. Thank you for writing this and sharing your grief.

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    • I am honored by your feedback, Sarenth, and hope that your treasured companion has long since become a strong spirit ally for you and your family. I sense that my beloved Thor will become one for me in due time. A blessed season of Winter Finding to you: Hail, our beloved and blessed dead!

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      • A blessed Winter Finding to you and yours as well!

        He has. He visits us often and has a space on our shrine for the animal vaettir. I took comfort in this quite a bit when he first passed. His brother, who, up to that point was quite shy and tended to keep to myself or Sylverleaf, then started being very, very social with our whole family. I hope if you have other pets that their transitions are just as joyful.

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      • I love the concept of an animal vaettir shrine. In Serbian culture, we keep ancestor altars that commingle photos of one’s blood relations with animal companions. I have had many dogs and cats over the years become added, along with the spirits of family members like my brother and favorite uncle, to my “team from the Other Side” that goes to proverbial bat for me. Everyone is routinely fed offerings, ideally at their graves. Thank you for your kindness. Dan and I have three other feral cat rescues–brothers Beowulf and Grendel, who just turned 9, and little one-eyed Hela, who will be 2 next April–plus our baby corn snake, Brimo. I hope and pray they live long, healthy, and happy lives with us, enriching our imminent marriage. To paraphrase Dr. Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare’s contemporary, a house never becomes a home until animals become part and parcel of the family.

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  3. Ohhhhhhhh…… what a sacred, holy place of beauty you created within which you, and Daniel, and Thor completed your sacred work. Would that we all should have it this way. Love to you. Love, love, nothing but love.

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  4. My condolences. Losing a pet, especially if you have to make the decision to euthanise it, is heartbreaking. I have known that pain as well. This kind of grief is every bit as legitimate as losing human family members. Just because it’s a pet doesn’t make the animal any less of a family member, or make the grief any less.

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    • Thank you so much for your heartfelt condolences. The decision to euthanize is scary because of the ethical dimensions of being placed in total control of another sentient being’s life. I have never been placed in this position before and I dread being placed in it again.

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  5. My thoughts are with you. Our family’s fur baby went through something similar to Thor, and you do question whether you’re doing the right thing. I didn’t have the strong belief system then that I do now. Your calling upon the feline deities and anointing Thor sounds like a very beautiful way to honour his passing. I got tears in my eyes reading this.

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  6. I am so sorry about Thor, Anna, and I’m even sorrier that I haven’t been on WordPress as much until recently to know this was even happening. Please know that I truly empathize with everything you’ve said in this post, and that my wife and I are both sending positive energy your way.

    I remember very well how my wife and I both felt when our cat Sneakers joined the ancestors two years ago. It was exactly the same level of pain and sorrow that we felt when Jess’ mother passed last October. No matter what anyone else might say, losing a beloved animal companion is losing a member of your family; the loss and the psychological trauma are exactly the same. I think it would be completely appropriate for you to take an entire week off work for this, or however long you personally feel you might need. Your co-workers will survive without you for that amount of time.

    In the holy names of Set and Nephthys and Anubis, may mighty Thor take his place among the cats of legend; may he always be near to you, giving you strength whenever you might need it, and warding evil and misfortune away from your family and your home in that special way that only cats can do.

    HAIL THOR! A thousand blessings upon you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s good to hear from you, dear friend. I’ve been thinking of you and your family with the anniversary of Pamela’s death. Holding you all in a heart-centered space of comfort in your grief. Thank you for such a beautiful blessing, and yes, HAIL, THOR!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh Anna, I am so sorry. I have been through this process twice in the past couple of years–first with my Maine Coon Sassy who died of kidney failure, and then with Grim Greyling, who had cancer–so I know exactly how this feels, and I was crying before I finished your post. The second-guessing yourself on the timing, the last day when they rally and you think “oh, they’re not ready yet,” and the aching hole they leave in your heart–they are every bit as much family, as far as I’m concerned, as other humans, with the added cruelty that they are given only a portion of our life span. But I believe goodbye is never final, and they are always with us. May Thor be welcomed into the perfumed arms of Bast, and may his name and memory live forever! My thoughts are with you and your family in your loss.

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  8. I’m sorry if this is weird me commenting as I dont know you, I just found your blog. This made me so sad and it was hard to hold back tears as I read. I have only lost pets by them disappearing. Also hard. I’ve never gotten to say goodbye. I’m glad you got to share so many wonderful years with Thor before he left. I’m so glad he got to go in his mamas arms. I am sorry for your loss.

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    • Hi, Erica! No worries–I’m glad you found my post worthwhile and decided to contact me. I always appreciate hearing readers’ feedback.

      Nearly two months after Thor’s euthanasia, I still wrangle with the decision I made. In fact, I’ve had recurring nightmares about discovering that I’ve buried him alive. It’s remarkable how our subconscious minds find all sorts of ways to punish us, but needless to say I’ve been having a hard time of it. I can empathize with what you’ve gone through too, because I still have unresolved heartache from losing a cat (with a disability) that disappeared during a violent thunderstorm five years ago.

      Thank you again for reaching out. Blessings to you!

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