Loss of a Pet is Loss of a Loved One
September 22, 2021
The sentences, “yesterday morning someone we love died unexpectedly in our kitchen” and “yesterday morning our cat, Cosmo, died unexpectedly in our kitchen,” are both true; and yet the first without the specificity of the second is much more likely to convey the profundity of the loss, the grief in which we find ourselves, and elicit an appropriately-scaled sympathetic response. The second often leads to well-intentioned, but quick platitudes. But why?
Perhaps it is because the word “pet” is often tossed around as a dismissive shorthand for a non-human being who shares a home with humans. There are plenty of people who fully believe they have pets – placing an unbreachable boundary between themselves and their pets – “pets are not people” they’ll say – pets, to them, are simply animals who live generally unregarded in human houses, who are reduced to a couple of head pats from time to time and the host of obligations it takes to keep a pet physically healthy – never mind their whole being, spirit and all.
And there are other people, like me and my husband, Travis, who fully believe they have non-human family. We share our home with non-human beings, beings who have free will, independence, respect; beings who love us deeply and who are deeply loved in return. It makes me cringe when someone refers to one of my beloved non-human family members as “the dog” or “the cat.” We wouldn’t speak of our human friends and relatives that way – truly, consider the absurdity of asking about your friend, “where is the man?” and have the answer be, “I just saw the man outside.” Your friend has a name. And so it follows, our feline friend is not “the cat,” he is Cosmo.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, celebrated indigenous botanist and author, penned a brilliant essay declaring it imperative for the health of our planet that we find a new pronoun, other than “it,” when referring to non-human beings. Inspired by her native Anishinaabe language, which decides pronouns on whether the being is animate or not, Wall Kimmerer suggests “ki” for singular and “kin” for plural. How beautiful that kin is also a word we use for family. How powerful it would be to refer to the non-human beings of this world – mammal beings, aves beings, reptile beings, plant beings, tree beings – as family. How might we behave differently? Treat the land differently?
Our child-free household is full of beloved kin – Frankie (canine), and Cosmo, Astro, Taiko, and Yarrow (feline). Each is a non-human person. Each has strong selfhood and self-possession and feelings and opinions and habits and individual personalities. Each is wholly distinct from us and from one another. These kin are our family and they are our closest friends – and together we communicate using a language that transcends species.
Yesterday morning, Cosmo died unexpectedly in our kitchen. And we are heartbroken.
Coming down the stairs to find Cosmo unresponsive on the kitchen floor, we wholly disbelieved what we were seeing – after all, it just didn’t make any sense. We held him, desperately trying to find a pulse, desperately trying to determine if he was still alive or unconscious. Desperately seeking signs of what had happened – did he try to jump up on the counter, hit his head, and knock himself out?; did he fall and break his neck?; did he eat a poisoned mouse from somewhere?; did the nearest neighbors put mouse poison out? I held a mirror up to his nose to check for faint signs of breath. I touched his tongue (cold), his eye (soft). I shone a flashlight in his fully-dilated eyes (no response). In those moments that stretched out forever, our world was shaken to the core. It wasn’t until rigor mortis set in that I could finally be forced by evidence to agree that his spirit had indeed fully left his body, and even then I checked his stiffened limbs and checked the limbs again. And again. Is this rigor mortis? I think so. Am I sure this is really rigor mortis? Yes, it must be. Really? Yes. Leigha, you need not check again – what are you looking for? I’m looking for hope. Last night he was mousing, early this morning he had snuggled up in the crook of Travis’ knee; Cosmo was active, healthy, happy -how could this have happened? An internet search later pointed to heart attack as the likely cause.
We placed his lifeless body back on the floor just long enough for the rest of our furry family to see and smell him, so they would understand that he had passed. We dug a grave for him at the edge of the woods, where we would often watch him stroll, said a few words, and placed his body inside. It helped that he didn’t look like himself anymore – without his spirit inside to animate the body, his uniquely expressive face, the body was just…a body. He had moved on without the confines of his earthly vessel. And so we filled the hole, burying his body with a sprig of fresh, green catnip and a strand of my hair.
The first law of thermodynamics states that no energy can be created and no energy can be destroyed, it can only change form – and so I find comfort knowing that Cosmo is everywhere now – just less orderly. But I still yearn for his beautiful animated body. His contained spirit was magnificent, and I adored how he demonstrated and accepted love in the most tangible of ways. Our beloved Cosmo was strong, wise, gentle, curious, loving, surprisingly fierce when it came to dispatching mice – and a beautiful soul who loved the expansive outdoors. Yesterday afternoon I wrote as many memories as I could recollect of our too-short time with him, knowing how memories, like dreams, get harder to grasp over time. Cosmo contained pages of stories – and those are just of the 3 ¼ years I knew him – Travis was fortunate to have the previous 10. In our few short years together, Cosmo turned me from a “dog person” into a “both dog AND cat person.” He taught me how to love him in ways he could understand, and taught me how to accept love in ways I had not encountered before. He had recently turned 13 years old, and we thought we had at least five more years of stories with him. The loss of that time together stings.
So I beg you to excuse me when I stop and become entranced by the white smoke from a burning candle, or spend an inordinate amount of time touching the downy white fluff from a milkweed seed pod, for it is in those moments I am reconnected with his physical form. And when I tell you that yesterday morning, our beloved Cosmo died, I am telling you there is a new aching hole in my heart. Please treat us gently; we have lost family.