Mind Matters — Our Pets, Ourselves

Today, my husband and I buried our cat, Zula – our daughter’s cat, really. She lived with us for more than eighteen years. No, her death is not as shattering as my mother’s was. Nor can it ever compare to the deaths of human loved ones such as children or a spouse of sixty years.

Nevertheless, her passage for me is a momentous marker. She was, in my anthropomorphizing, the carrier of memory, of family history. Zula watched friends grow from toddlers to teens. She was solace to my daughter through her middle school and teen years. And when my mother was dying and came to live with us, Zula became the consummate life force who would leap on stair railings, resting benignly on the edge a two-story, downward plunge. My mother even, as she began to slip into a coma, asked for Zula.

She was a special little tabby cat brought home from the SPCA, scared and skinny. She became an affectionate creature, more puppy-like cuddly that cat aloof. But unlike a puppy, she didn’t need to be house trained. Early on, she could catch mice and even a snake or two. That prowess went the way of age.

Some of us are more connected to our pets than to people. Those who have been hurt or harmed by humans may find animals more trustworthy. For these situations, the death of a pet is especially difficult. For others, the pet, although considered a “family member,” does not take priority. No matter where we fit in the continuum of relationship to our pets, when they die, we are all faced with our own mortality.

Odd as this may sound, it can be a growth experience (even though difficult) for a child to have to confront the death of a pet. The child learns that death is the other side of the coin of life. Rather than being shielded from this fact of life, the child must grapple with it head on.

When I was in fourth grade, I had a puppy named Laddie. One day I couldn’t find Laddie and I searched the streets into the night with the help of classmates. The next day, I discovered that Laddie had been hit by a car. My father didn’t want to share the news with me for fear of my reaction. He wanted to protect me. Actually the truth would have been better. Children can handle truth when it is delivered with compassion and care.

While the importance of human life should be foremost and we honor our grief for our loved ones who have died, we also need to understand the place of pet companions in our lives.

Since Hurricane Katrina, disaster preparedness agencies (such as the American Red Cross) have begun to acknowledge that many people will not evacuate in an impending disaster, if their pets are not included in the disaster plan.

Perhaps we need our pets as much as they need us.

For more information about dealing with the death of a pet, go to the ASPCA website. The ASPCA recommends the following resources for children: