If you asked me what the worst day of my life was, I’d be able to tell you without a second’s thought: January 2nd, 2016.
The funny thing was, I’d been preparing for news of this kind.
One of my cats, Wolfy, is seventeen and creaky. When I said goodbye to my cats before flying out two weeks earlier, I’d given Wolfy a special cuddle.
“Don’t die,” I whispered, as I’d gotten into the habit of doing before we fell asleep. This time, though, I added something extra: “But if you do, it’s okay.”
I told his sister, Baci, to look after him while I was away.
She was four years old and in excellent health. I gave her a special cuddle too, because if I was being honest with myself, I loved Baci a bit extra. Wolfy was our family cat, but Baci was mine.
So when my dad pulled into the McDonalds carpark moments after picking me up from the airport, and my mum turned around with tears in her eyes, I thought I knew what she was going to say.
"Wolfy?" I said.
She shook her head, soundless with grief.
"Baci," she said, and started to cry.
I couldn't move. I was struck by a pain so physical it hurt, like someone had punched me in the stomach and winded me.
I could hear myself crying, but in some part of my brain I still didn't believe it.
It couldn't be possible, because it wouldn't be fair. This wasn't how things were supposed to happen.
This wasn't the friend I was prepared to say goodbye to.
"But she was my friend," I said, over and over again to nobody, as if explaining the mistake to some God I don't believe in.
Maybe the person who ran her over as she crossed the road to her favourite sunny spot didn't understand.
They probably knew they'd hit a cat, but they didn't hit just any cat - they hit my best friend, my trusted confidant, my family member.
That wasn't a pet, I wanted to tell them. That was someone I loved.
Maybe if I just explained it - if they just knew - there was still time to take it back.
I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed in the carpark of the McDonalds near the airport as my mum held my hand.
I know what you're thinking. That's the worst day of my life? I must be pretty damn lucky.
You're right. I am lucky. On the worst day of my life so far, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by family and friends, to come home to my old cat Wolfy and give him a hug so hard it might have hurt a little bit.
But you're wrong, too. Losing a pet hurts as much as losing a human. Sometimes it hurts even more.
Over the next few days, the people I spoke to split themselves immediately into two camps: those who smiled and said "I'm sorry," and those whose voices shook a bit before they could reply.
Those who said, "Do you think you'll get a new cat?" and those who knew she could never be replaced.
Those who moved the conversation on immediately, and those who sat me down and said: "Tell me a bit about Baci."
If you've never lost a pet you loved, it's hard to know how it feels. I'm not criticising those who didn't know how to react. But if you'd extend all your sympathy to a parent who's lost a child, or a child who's lost a parent, or a person who's lost a friend, trust me: a person who's just lost a beloved pet is equally deserving of your compassion.
They, too, are afloat without the support of the deceased.
They, too, are struggling to come to terms with the unfairness of the situation.
They, too, cry silently to themselves in the early hours of the morning, so distressed at the thought of falling asleep alone that they can't seem to do it at all.
If you wouldn't say, "It was just a grandma," don't say, "It was just a cat."
On Wednesday night, I watched as Wolfy tried to stand up and fell over. I watched as his legs gave way.
We drove him to the vet and as I sat in the back seat of the car, I whispered to him over and over again that Baci was waiting for him.
It turned out that expecting his death didn't make it any better. I felt sick with grief as well pulled into the 24-hour vet.
As it turned out, Wolfy didn't die that night. He's back home right now, next to the heater, taking antibiotics every twelve hours and under strict instructions to keep warm and drink lots of water.
Soon - maybe this week, maybe next, maybe in a month or maybe in a year - he will die too.
I'm prepared, but I'm not sure you can prepare for that sadness, the kind that aches in your bones and rattles in your throat.
All I ask is that when it happens, the people I love don't ask questions about new cats or try to change the topic.
All I ask is that they hold my hand and say: "Tell me about Wolfy."
Some of the much missed pets of the Mamamia extended family are commemorated in the gallery below. If you'd like your pet to be featured too, please email [email protected] with a photo and a name. (If you want to tell me a bit about them too, I'm always ready to listen).
Moving on after losing a loved one is hard. However, if you're looking for a new pet, please check out Mamamia's Rescue Pet of the Week.