Dave’s not here
For his owners, Dave’s death was like losing a valued family member. Because that’s exactly what he was.
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.