Dave’s not here

For his own­ers, Dave’s death was like los­ing a val­ued fam­ily mem­ber. Be­cause that’s ex­actly what he was.

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - UPFRONT - STORY LEE KYNASTON

Why grief plays no favourites for any fam­ily mem­ber

A few weeks ago I lost a close fam­ily mem­ber to cancer. Although he had been ill for a while with a thy­roid prob­lem, un­til the morn­ing of his death there was no in­di­ca­tion that we were also deal­ing with in­cur­able kid­ney cancer, nor that be­fore the day was out we would have to say our good­byes to him and would never see him again.

The fam­ily mem­ber’s name was Dave and he was just shy of his 15th birth­day. He was, of course, not a hu­man mem­ber of our fam­ily but a fe­line one (pic­tured op­po­site). He was a val­ued and muchloved mem­ber of the fam­ily none­the­less.

Your reg­u­lar char­ac­ter­ful-but-com­mon-as-muck mog­gie, Dave was a cat it was hard to dis­like. A big bruiser, peo­ple said he had the body of a boxer and the face of an urchin. Food-ob­sessed, iras­ci­ble and an ar­dent lover of warmth (we once found him curled up in­side a doona on a day when the ther­mome­ter hit 31°C), he was also so lu­di­crously placid that you could pop him un­der your arm and squeeze him like bag­pipes, or plonk him on your head and wear him like a deer­stalker – some­thing, I must ad­mit, I oc­ca­sion­ally did. Such was his docile de­meanour that ev­ery­one from ca­sual strangers to our cat-sit­ter and vet adored him.

When the end came, how­ever, it came quickly. The day be­fore his death he lay on the bed in the spare bed­room, list­less, quiet and off his food. I knew the game was up when he even re­fused to eat a hand­ful of prawns – his favourite treat. The fol­low­ing day, a Satur­day, he re­fused to eat again, es­chew­ing food but lap­ping up wa­ter as if he hadn’t drunk for a week. So ab­nor­mal was his thirst – I’d only ever seen him drink from the wa­ter bowl about twice in 15 years – that we took him to the vet im­me­di­ately. On dis­cov­er­ing his kid­neys were en­larged, he was trans­ferred to another lo­cal vet for in­ves­ti­ga­tions and by 4pm we’d had the news that he had cancer. A few hours later, my part­ner and I were stand­ing in a small treat­ment room hav­ing to make the heart­break­ing de­ci­sion to let him go.

Want­ing to be there (as much for my other half as for Dave) but not want­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence the end it­self in sharp re­lief, I ob­scured Dave’s last mo­ments from view by re­mov­ing my glasses – a trick you might call the Ma­goo Ma­noeu­vre – but what I did see through my un­fo­cused tear-filled eyes cer­tainly made me won­der why we don’t ex­tend such a dig­ni­fied peace­ful exit to hu­mans.

Af­ter pay­ing up (surely the cru­ellest blow to any just-bereaved pet owner) we left, slightly dazed and clutch­ing an empty cat bas­ket bear­ing a tag with

Dave’s name on it. I’m not sure I’ve seen any­thing quite so heart-wrench­ingly poignant in all my life.

That night I could not stop cry­ing. I was cer­tainly not pre­pared for the cav­ernous depth of my grief. In truth, the pain of los­ing this small black and white an­i­mal, which had been part of my life since the turn of the mil­len­nium, was ev­ery bit as in­tense as that of los­ing my fa­ther to cancer back in 1997. Now, that’s a con­tro­ver­sial thing to say, I know. And to be­gin with, I was wracked with guilt for even think­ing such a thing. And yet it’s true. When you tell peo­ple this, many of them tend to think you’re heart­less, dis­re­spect­ful or just plain nuts. Af­ter all, how can you pos­si­bly com­pare the death of a pet – a mere an­i­mal – to the death of a loved one? Well, quite eas­ily as it hap­pens, be­cause the an­i­mal in ques­tion was a loved one too.

The more I asked around, the more I dis­cov­ered I wasn’t alone in hav­ing these slightly taboo feel­ings. “The grief of putting our cats down was as blis­ter­ing and as shock­ing as los­ing my dad,” one of my clos­est pals con­fided, telling me that the only dif­fer­ence was that the pain didn’t last as long and that in a few weeks I’d start to feel bet­ter, in con­trast to when you lose a par­ent where the grief seems never-end­ing.

Can­vass­ing more opin­ion, I also dis­cov­ered the di­chotomy in our com­plex re­la­tion­ship with an­i­mals: we’re at once a self-pro­fessed na­tion of an­i­mal-lovers, and yet one where griev­ing for an an­i­mal is con­sid­ered in­dul­gent and faintly ridicu­lous. “For god’s sake, it’s only a dog! What do you want? A day off?” the boss of a male friend told him af­ter the fam­ily labrador died in a car ac­ci­dent. For the men­tal health of this man and his fam­ily, yes, I should think a day off would have been a good idea, be­cause the dog was a mem­ber of the fam­ily too.

I’ve heard it said that the point of keep­ing pets as chil­dren is to al­low us to learn what it feels like to lose some­one we re­ally love, but pet be­reave­ment isn’t some kind of re­hearsal for the “real thing” – it is the real thing, and I reckon it’s about time we recog­nised the value, depth and in­tegrity of many peo­ple’s re­la­tion­ships with their pets, and the ve­rac­ity of their be­reave­ment.

Cer­tainly, if you’ve seen the touch­ing film De­nali, about Ore­gon-based pho­tog­ra­pher Ben Moon and his loyal dog, De­nali – both cancer suf­fer­ers and both there for each other when it mat­tered – you’ll know that the bond be­tween an­i­mal and hu­man can be as close, if not closer, than be­tween hu­mans.

It’s now sev­eral weeks since Dave

de­parted this world for the great lit­ter box in the sky and yes, things are im­prov­ing. I still ex­pect him to chip up at the cat bowl like noth­ing is wrong and my mind tricks me into think­ing I can hear him me­ow­ing oc­ca­sion­ally, but you know what they say about time’s great heal­ing pow­ers. Right now, I’m hop­ing it will heal Dave’s brother, Mr W, too, be­cause if our own heart­break hasn’t been bad enough we’ve also had to con­tend with his ap­par­ent grief, and this next bit of the tale is a warn­ing to oth­ers in mul­ti­ple pet house­holds. As dif­fer­ent in char­ac­ter as the Hitchens broth­ers were, Mr W and Dave none­the­less spent pretty much ev­ery night curled up to­gether in a rough ap­prox­i­ma­tion of the yin and yang sym­bol. Although Mr W seemed to take the loss of his brother fairly well in the first few days, the weeks since have proved oth­er­wise. Clearly dis­ori­en­tated, he spent the first few weeks af­ter Dave was put to sleep wan­der­ing from room to room, sniff­ing and call­ing out plain­tively for his brother. Since then he has be­come vo­cal and clingy and his be­hav­iour has be­come er­ratic, but there’s one thing that’s up­set­tingly con­sis­tent: ev­ery night be­fore he goes to sleep he calls out for Dave.

I’ve read much on the in­ter­net about how pets have no per­cep­tion of death in the way we hu­mans do. The gen­eral con­sen­sus is that they most prob­a­bly ex­pe­ri­ence death in the way chil­dren do: they feel the loss but don’t un­der­stand the fi­nal­ity of it. Be­cause Dave was eu­thanased at the vet’s, his brother never had the chance to check out his life­less body – some­thing some vets rec­om­mend so as to al­low a de­gree of clo­sure.

Ly­ing in bed the other night, lis­ten­ing to the nightly mewl­ing, it struck me that with­out this un­der­stand­ing Mr W must feel a lit­tle like the par­ent of a miss­ing child, won­der­ing where that child is and whether it will sud­denly bound through the door and back into the fam­ily’s lives at any mo­ment. And call­ing out its name just in case it can hear. It’s a heart­break­ing thought.

I have no idea whether an­i­mals can love each other in the way hu­mans can, but what I do know is that Mr W clearly misses his brother be­ing there, some­thing that’s no sur­prise given cats’ known ap­pre­ci­a­tion of rou­tine and fa­mil­iar­ity. As my mother pointed out re­cently, if you spent all day with some­one for 15 years, wouldn’t you miss that per­son be­ing there?

She’s right, of course, and I sus­pect grief is as much about fa­mil­iar­ity as it is about love or af­fec­tion any­way, which adds weight to my ar­gu­ment that we need to take pet be­reave­ment more se­ri­ously. Work­ing from home, I have spent the past 15 years with my pets, day in and day out. Dur­ing the day they sat in the of­fice where I work. Dave of­ten sat on my lap while I typed. Look­ing back, I’ve spent more time in his com­pany than I have in the com­pany of any of my old­est and dear­est friends.

He cur­rently re­sides in a box on a shelf in our liv­ing room, wait­ing for his brother to join him one day. On the day I col­lected his ashes, a week af­ter he left us, the sun was shin­ing and I opted to walk home rather than take the bus or train.

On the way I de­cided to pop into a lo­cal pub to cel­e­brate his fi­nal jour­ney with a cou­ple of schooners, plonk­ing the tiny box of ashes on the ta­ble and rais­ing a glass in his hon­our. You can

me.. laugh, but I tell you this: I’ve had worse drink­ing part­ners. And cer­tainly ones who didn’t mean nearly as much to

“The pain of los­ing this small black and white an­i­mal, which had been part of my life since the turn of the mil­len­nium, was ev­ery bit as in­tense as that of los­ing my fa­ther to cancer.” lee kynaston

yin and yang … DAVE AND HIS BROTHER, MR W; ( top) the au­thor.

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