June 7, 2023

In Loving Memory of Oscar

The heart remembers best what it has loved most.

I saw fear in Oscar’s eyes as he lay dying in my arms.

I have struggled mightily not to think about that moment every single day since.

Oscar could speak to you just with his big blue eyes. You knew when he thought he was deserving of a treat, when he was about to do something naughty, and when he really wanted to come snuggle and help you forget about all the problems in the world.

I lost Oscar when he was just one year old. That’s not right, and it’s not fair. He suffered at the end, in a way that I wouldn’t wish on the worst person in the world. 

Oscar fell victim to feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), a viral disease that derives from the feline coronavirus. It is virtually undetectable until its advanced stages, when it attacks the immune system and rapidly spreads through the body. It is almost always fatal.

The vet said there was no way I could have known he was sick. My guilt says otherwise. My guilt said if I would have spent more time with him or paid closer attention to his habits, maybe I could have taken him to the vet much earlier in the infection cycle. 

The vet says that it’s not my fault. My heart says otherwise. The vet can’t fix the gaping hole Oscar’s passing has left behind in it.

Our Best Friends

For animal lovers, the loss of a beloved pet can be the epitome of devastation. It is the truth that over time, our pets become closer to us than some of our human acquaintances. Why? The easiest answer is that because they see us at our very best and at our very worst, sometimes on the same day, and never treat us any differently. They make us laugh and give us warmth and lower our stress levels, all simply by being their wonderful selves. Of course, pets are not for everyone. For those who see them as a nuisance, a cost, or a constant source of messes to clean up, our reactions to losing a pet is confusing, something to be mocked even. They see pets as just another possession, like a car or a television set, that can be replaced if the old one breaks down or ‘dies.’ When we tell them our grief is from the loss of a pet, they are very likely to think, and possibly even to say, “Can’t you just get another one?”

That way of thinking repulses us, of course. Pets aren’t just like family members, they are family members, and thus utterly irreplaceable. Over time, we get to learn their habits, their facial expressions, their favorite treats, and the behaviors that drive them bonkers. We’re convinced that they’re talking to us in their own voices, and some of our fondest memories are waking up from an impromptu nap to find they’ve snuggled in next to us for some quality snoozing. 

When they depart this life, whether it’s by natural causes at the end of a long life or taken suddenly, like Oscar, the sunshine of my life, we struggle. The simple fact that they are ‘not’ there is hard for our brains to process. We expect to hear their paws on the floor, hear the jingle of their collars, and feel their warm breath and whiskers brushing our hand in search of a well-earned treat. 

People expect you to take a few days to heal and then get back to some version of whatever ‘normal’ looks like when you deal with a loss. But what is expected is not what is always right for each of us who loves a pet under any circumstances. Taking care of yourself in the ways that make the most sense to you is essential when you have lost a pet, especially in the early days when the wound is so painfully fresh that you often don’t feel like doing anything else. Consider some of these ways to help you deal with your grief when your four-legged friend has passed on.

Give Yourself Room to Grieve

Many people refuse to let their feelings out, throwing themselves into work or chores or something more destructive to push away the feelings of pain and loss welling up inside of them. Not letting those natural emotions out will cause the equivalent of a massive pressure buildup inside you, that will eventually explode in potentially harmful emotional ways. Don’t hide what you are feeling. Take your time to cry, to be alone, to question why it has happened, and eventually to start the long road to acceptance. Don’t rush it, you deserve better than that.

Find Good Support

Not everyone understands what it’s like to lose a pet. Talking to people who don’t have them or are ambivalent about them is going to make you feel worse if you try to express your feelings. Turn to someone you know who is an animal lover, particularly if you know they’ve had the same experience. If you don’t know someone, talk to a counselor or use online resources to find a support group, a message board, or even a hotline to call. The best news to take away from here is that people who love pets are exceptionally gifted when it comes to compassion and empathy for each other. 

Focus on the Good Memories

Your guilt will try to make you focus on the final moments of your pet’s life. It is a natural thing. But the day they died was just one drop in the bucket of a longer life, and that day should not tarnish all of the happiness and joy that they brought into your life, nor make you forget that you were bringing the same things into their life. Consider making a physical or digital scrapbook of your pet, or post their picture and your happy memories on your social media feed and encourage your friends and family to reply with their own. The stories that will be shared can help you endure this difficult time.

Volunteer at an Animal Shelter

For many people, moving on to a new pet is not an automatic process. For some people, it takes years to feel ready to commit to another animal. But animal shelters are full of creatures that need short-term help, and if you are the type of person reading this blog, then you are exactly the type of person who can make a huge difference as a volunteer. It can be as simple as going to your local shelter once a week to walk dogs, help administer vaccinations, even sit and read to the animals so they get used to a human voice in their presence. No animal shelter in the world will turn down an extra pair of hands and a warm heart like yours.

None of these tips will bring back the pet you loved and lost. But don’t let the guilt and pain of their passing control you. Find your way forward by accepting the grief, letting out your powerful emotions of all types, and doing your best to find ways to remember your pet as the joyous and loving creature they were.