The loss of a loved one can be profound. It is without a doubt one or some of the hardest experiences a person will face in their life. But for some of us, this pain is extended to the non-human variety of loved ones – our pets.
From my own experience the loss of my son, my boy, Lego (who scientifically is known as a ‘Felis catus’, or cat) was one of the hardest experiences of loss and grief I have ever faced.
And no, this isn’t because I don’t have ‘real’ kids; I do have children of the human variety – two, in fact – who I love with all my heart.
And no, it isn’t because I haven’t experienced the passing of a significant human family member or friend before; I have.
It’s because, for me (and many others), pets are part of the family, just as much as humans. And this is something that I think should be acknowledged more than it is.
In August last year Lego became ill. Despite undergoing various testing and trialling medications, Lego deteriorated and he was rendered practically paralysed in his back legs, unable to properly move.
His condition wasn’t able to be diagnosed, so after this brief illness we had to make the decision to put him to sleep so he wouldn't have to suffer any more. But the decision still broke my heart.
Knowing it was the right thing to do but the devastation of what that meant will be something I’ll always remember.
My 10-year-old, ginger ball of handsomeness had been with me and my husband for nearly his entire life - about eight years. We adopted him in our first year of dating from our local RSPCA. Despite being returned by another family for being ‘anti-social’, from night-one Lego was our baby; affectionate, loving and always there.
He jumped up into our bed, hopped under the covers and slept with his head on my pillow, something that continued most nights for our time together.
Lego had a great personality. My friend once said “he isn’t like a cat”, by which I think she meant he wasn’t trying to jump on everyone’s lap or scratching the furniture.
Lego wasn’t easily impressed by people but I think he just had a really good judge of character; once he liked you he was loyal, attentive and loving.
When I was pregnant he slept with his head on my belly, when my daughters were born he was always gentle and placid. They loved him and would always call him to sit on their tiny laps.
The morning we decided to take him back to the vet, despite his inability to really move, he dragged himself to me and looked up at me meowing. This was his request for a cuddle. Naturally, I obliged.
I picked him up and he rubbed his face against my check. His giant smooches were, I think, his way of saying he loved me but that it was time and that it was OK. As we were inside the vet consultation room and the decision had been made, Lego continued to smooch my arm, purring. He has always been next to me whenever I was upset, even then.
I held Lego the entire time, then cradled him in my arms as my husband drove us home.
For the next week I was a complete mess. I basically hid in my room for the first three days, I was overwhelmed with heartache. I went from seeing Lego every day for the past eight years to seeing bits of ginger hair and an empty space where he used to sleep on the couch.
Luckily my husband is completely supportive and he loved Lego as much as me so he understood my pain.
He let me hide away for the days I needed to and looked after our human kids, who thankfully were too young to comprehend what had happened.
Then on Wednesday, when it was time for me to go back to work, I applied extra makeup around my excessively puffy eyes and tried to avoid thinking about him (this only lasted about 10 minutes until someone asked how he was and I burst into tears).
But it was then that others shared their relationships with their pets and memories of ones they had lost and the hurt it had caused them, often just as much or in some cases, more pain than a person they had lost because like me, their pets are a part of their family.
Their pets live with them, are there every day, they go on holidays with them, share birthdays and Christmas with them.
So why wouldn’t we feel their loss as much as another family member?
I do wonder why is it that we don’t acknowledge the grief of losing a pet as widely as we should. Why is it that there is a sense of embarrassment or need to apologise for being upset about it?
We now have pet-friendly work places, pet-friendly holiday accommodation, even pet day care, but it seems when they pass we have to knuckle down and get on with life because this family member wasn’t of the human species.
I hope that this is an attitude that will change so we can be supported adequately as we grieve for the loss of all our family members.