My dog Henny died; then, my cat Joon died 12 weeks later. That was a little more than a month ago, and no, I’m not over it yet. I can pretend to be when I have to, but the pain never fully lets me forget it’s there.
When Joon got sick in late August, I was on vacation in Cape Cod. She was 16 and slowing down, and I had a nagging feeling in my gut as I rushed to the airport that day. Still, I ignored my fears that something might happen while I was away. “It’s just a few days,” I told myself. “She’ll be okay.” She wasn’t. When I got home, Joon was weak and vomiting, and I rushed her to the animal hospital at 1:30 a.m., panic seizing my stomach. “I’m afraid she’s dying,” I spluttered to the infuriatingly blasé young doctor. Joon just lay there, weary and resigned. Somehow, I just knew. A week later, in that same office, I cradled her now-bony body as the euthanasia drugs kicked in. Her death was peaceful (as all the ostensibly comforting pet-loss websites promised it would be), but it was still the most brutal, nonsensical thing I’ve ever had to do. You want me to co-sign and hold my cat while someone kills her? By then, though, we were out of options. She’d been at the hospital for a week. She could barely walk, wasn’t eating, and the IV fluids and feeding tube weren’t helping. She showed zero interest in my frantic attempts at affection; instead, she curled up behind the chair, away from me, while my heart caved in. “We think it’s cancer,” the vet calmly explained. “She’s getting worse, not better.” The morning after Joon was euthanized, I didn’t leave my bed. I just cried and grew increasingly tortured by irrational fears. The worst: that Joon hadn’t actually died when they’d put her to sleep, and that they’d accidentally cremated her alive.
One of the hardest parts of the whole ordeal was the fact that I’d just been through it a few months earlier with my 12-year-old chow mix, Henny. The two of them were the first pets I’d lost on my own, as an adult. Growing up, my family had cats, but my parents shielded me from the hard stuff, the death stuff. I grieved for my childhood cats from a safe distance; I did not stare into their eyes as they went. My relationship with Henny had been more complicated than the idyllic soul union I’d experienced with Joon, who pretty much considered me her mother since the day I adopted her at five months old. I’d taken in Henny as a 6-year-old rescue dog, and though she was profoundly sweet and mellow, she was also riddled with issues, such as severe separation anxiety that caused her to furiously scratch up my doors and windows. She was also incontinent — she wore disposable doggie diapers for years — and suffered from failing kidneys and terrible arthritis. By the end, Henny had lost interest in food, and she’d stumble often, sometimes tripping face-first into her food bowl. One day, my aging-hippie dog-walker mused that if he were me, he’d have her euthanized that day. I clucked about his presumptuousness and held fast for another month or so, until I noticed my poor pup had stopped wagging her tail at all. My mom and I took Henny for one last, long walk in the woods she’d loved. I took photos of her walking proudly into the green distance, and then the vet came over and gave her the shot on my living-room rug. After losing two of my three pets in quick succession (I still have one cat, Batman, confusedly holding down the fort), I succumbed to shell-shock. All those stages of grief Elisabeth Kübler-Ross talks about? They’re still playing out for me, at different times, on different days. I halfheartedly trudge through as much as I can, but I worry the full impact hasn’t hit me yet. Aside from a sharp, constant longing to see my dead companions, the most persistent feeling I’ve experienced is guilt. Because the notion of putting an animal you adore “to sleep” makes absolutely no sense. It flies in the face of everything right and okay — a direct foil for your base instinct to love and protect these pets. I haven’t stopped agonizing over that last hour at the vet with Joon and those last moments with Henny in my living room. Did I wait too long, or not long enough?
Roxanne Hawn, author of Heart Dog: Surviving the Loss of Your Canine Soul Mate, reassured me that intense guilt after losing a pet is common. She explains, “Based on my experience [and what I know from vets], most people tend to wait too long to euthanize.” She also explained that, after a pet dies, the things over which we ruminate — like being out of town when they were sick, or putting off a vet appointment — are generally less consequential than we beat ourselves into believing. “The chances [that one of those things] led to your pet’s death are slim,” she says. I hope she’s right. Because Joon was my most steadfast companion for 16 years. She unblinkingly accompanied me through a sundry assortment of men, friends, jobs, and homes, always eager to provide face-sniffs, alien chirps, and endless expressions of unflagging devotion. I committed myself to her care when I adopted her all those years ago. I did the same with Henny. And I knew an implicit part of the deal was being prepared to let them go gracefully when it was time. Did that unspoken pact make it any easier when it was time? Not at all. It felt like one of the purest parts of myself broke apart and shattered when my animals died, and I’m still figuring out how to become the "me" I’ll be without them. Some days, I feel almost normal; some days, loss clobbers me over the head, fresh, and I spend the day locked in a fog of want and disbelief: Did that actually happen? Are they actually gone?
“Grief changes you,” Hawn reminds me, noting that pet deaths can be as intense as losing a human family member. These things take time, and mourning isn’t linear. Starting to feel okay again can take months for some, years for others. (Hawn says I can probably expect to feel pretty crappy for about a year.) To help move through the pain of a recent pet loss, she suggests burning a “grief candle” in memory of the critter, raising money for an animal charity in your pet’s name, and allowing yourself dedicated time each day to wail, cry, and generally freak out. Will I find that splintered piece of myself again, the one that crumbled when my animals died? I like to think so, though I suspect it will be a new piece (a different piece), in the form of a new dog or cat. I know I’ll adopt again, and I’ll know what to look for, because I’ve experienced it before: that light of recognition, that unequivocal spark of you’re mine. But it won’t be Joon, and it won’t be Henny, and it won’t be the same.