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Goodbye, My Precious
An article about pet cat bereavement when the loss of a family pet cat occurred - by Jamie Andrew. Photos courtesy of Linda and Les Pryde
The phone call came a few weeks ago. Sméagol - a lilac Burmese that had shared a home with my parents for twenty long years - had suffered a stroke during the night. I drove up to see him straight away.
Smeagol was lying in one of his comfy, fluffy cat beds next to the radiator in the study. He looked as safe and relaxed as he always had throughout the last few of his advancing years. His sight and hearing might have been shadows of their former selves, and he might have bumped into the odd table now and again, but he was still the same - albeit slower - cat I‘d always known and loved. My friend I’d grown up with.
As I approached him from the far end of the room the extent of my wishful thinking was exposed. I saw a confused, ancient little creature - too confused even to be fearful of what was happening to him - empty of every essence of his former Smeagol-ness.
His lenses were opaque, misty and lifeless, his pupils moored nowhere in particular, like sunken ships. When I reached out a gentle hand to stroke his head, he recoiled by instinct, for that was all he had left to move him. Those eyes, which had once been soft, reactive pools of contentment, stayed wide with incomprehension; and no purrs greeted the backwards brush of his fur.
There is always a selfish voice in the back of the head that denies reality and wishes to keep a treasured friend alive at all costs; and it is usually, and understandably, because the thought of waking up the next day without them is so horrible, even terrifying.
Our efforts to test and retest him in the hope of arriving at a more palatable conclusion than euthanasia were exhaustive, yet in vain. It was obvious his walking days were over; with his back legs collapsed, he was capable only of moving in circles which went nowhere. He’d had a habit of occasional clumsiness due to his failing sight, but his internal compass and sense of smell had always sent him the right way in the end. This time, it was doubtful he even knew where he was. He couldn’t even negotiate himself out of the hallway, much less return to his bed or find food.
My mother and father fetched the cat-carry box from the hall closet. In the end, they didn’t use it. Instead my mother held Smeagol in her arms in the back of the car, as much for her sake as for his. As they prepared to leave the driveway I opened the rear door, lent in and kissed Smeagol on the top of his head. It wasn’t much of a goodbye, but then the big goodbyes don’t always leave you a lot of time for preparation.
Of course I know and accept that cats age faster than humans, and across a drastically shorter lifespan - as anyone who opens themselves up to having an animal in their lives must - but for me this knowledge will never sever the sentimental impulse that sees always the kitten behind the whiskers. We are, perhaps, too used to thinking and measuring in terms of human longevity; and it is both our blessing and our curse to measure also the impact of our grief in human terms, for we are species-blind in our lamentations. When we lose an animal we love, the heaviness in our hearts can feel commensurate with the loss of a relative or human companion.
Blue Cross’s Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS), which offers counseling, support and guidance for those who have lost, or been separated from, their pets, notes that in its early days the majority of its callers were female. In recent years this has changed, or at least almost equalised.
“Men have realised that it’s normal to grieve for a pet, and that it’s alright to cry,” its helpline coordinator said.
I can relate to this sentiment; few could disagree that pets can help bring out a softer side in their male guardians. Certainly few things other than the death of his old friend have ever brought a tear to my father’s eye.
Smeagol proved to be the conduit through which my father explored his sense of humour, his sadness and his most human qualities; he allowed him to speak and think in ways his old-fashioned sense of stoic machismo would never tolerate under any other circumstances.
My father made all of our pets talk; always in a bizarre yet strangely apt high-pitched voice. Smeagol, though, was his first living ventriloquist’s dummy. This channeling used to happen (and still does happen) so frequently that I often caught myself responding to the animals directly, forgetting for a moment that very few creatures outside of late-night science-fiction films possess the ability to speak English.
One particularly poignant example of this comes to mind. A few years ago, my sister Allison visited our parents’ home in Scotland, from Leicester, where she’s lived for the past fifteen years. She shared a special bond with Smeagol throughout his formative years (despite him having eaten her escaped budgie!), one which she always treasured, and one which when severed seemed to put the little fellow’s nose out of joint. He often gave her the cold shoulder on such return visits!
As soon as she arrived in the house my father called Allison through to the living room, where he sat in his armchair stroking Smeagol in the manner of some nefarious Bond villain. Never one renowned for the mastery of his softer side, he nonetheless managed, through his trusty cat, to convey such pathos and sentimentality - concepts usually alien to him, at least on the surface - that I wanted immediately to put him in a Richard Curtis film.
With the coal-fire gently flickering in the hearth, Smeagol, in his customary high-pitched tones, told my sister that he’d missed her, that she was looking well, that it was really nice to see her; he also managed to include a short speech articulating the merciless, finite nature of time, concluding:
“We’re all getting a bit old now, aren’t we, Allison?”
“Yes,” my sister agreed, ruffling Smeagol’s fur; and they sat in peaceful silence for a few moments.
Smeagol is buried in my parent’s back garden, in a hole dug by my father. He lies at peace next to the hedgerows and flower beds he used to explore as a kitten. I think of him often, and can see him in my mind’s eye defying gravity and sleeping atop impossibly awkward and deliriously high pieces of furniture; playing frantic, wide-eyed games of football down the hall with crumpled balls of paper, paws swishing and jerking like they were batting molten rocks; and with his head rested on my bicep as I doze in bed, his eyes half-closed, and purring softly.
Nobody can tell you how to think, feel or cope after the death of a pet - there’s no instruction manual, no right or wrong. And it’s certainly not easy, whatever the animal, whatever the age.
Time helps, as with most things, but so does talking, whether it’s with understanding friends and family, or a sympathetic, trained volunteer. No one expects you to forget the love you shared with your friend. Hopefully you might learn to keep it with you, and let it teach you to love again - or find peace.