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The Loss of a Pet (Part 2)

In my last blog post, I featured an interview with pet mom, Jackie Burke, whose precious kitty Timmy died unexpectedly from lymphoma. Such rapid loss of a pet is a precipitator of much grief pain partly because the pet parent feels guilt about not seeing the signs of fatal illness or not recognizing the pet’s pain. Pet parents also often express regret in how they decided to treat (or not treat) the pet’s illness. Even such seemingly small decisions as how much to feed the ailing pet can bring about extreme regret.


For a personal example, we had two Welsh terriers, one who was as healthy as can be and the other who had chronic pancreatitis. Dobby was the older and healthy dog, and Dorie was the sicklier one. I experienced terrible regret about my awareness and actions when one became seriously ill. One week when Dobby was twelve and Dorie was eight, we had evidence of sickness throughout the house. I cleaned it up and treated Dorie with our store of medications for pancreatitis. After a week of treatment, there was still sickness all over the house, and my husband and I realized it was Dobby who was ill. We rushed him to our vet, who examined him on a Sunday and gave him some medications. We didn’t keep him overnight at the vet’s office because we could watch him better at home. As requested, we took Dobby back to the hospital the next day. During that day, we awaited the test results. The vet called me late in the afternoon to say that there was no hope Dobby would live through the night. We could take him home to die or we could euthanize him that day. Stunned and feeling deeply guilty, we decided to euthanize him. For myself, I knew I couldn’t extend his pain to watch him die. Honestly, I’ve had a great deal of guilt and regret that return periodically because I was the one who assumed it was Dorie who was sick and treated her vigorously rather than seeing Dobby’s distress. We don’t know what killed Dobby, but we suspect we might have had a different ending—or, at least, could have relieved his pain—had we, or I, been more aware of his needs at that time.


In this blog post, we finish reading the interview with Jackie Burke about how she experienced guilt and regret about Timmy’s death and how she has integrated his loss into her life with new kitties.


Beth: You mentioned something about feeling guilty, and pet parents often feel guilt and regret. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Why did you feel guilty and how did you get through that?


Jackie: Yeah. I feel like guilt showed up in two different ways. One way was feeling guilty about grieving so deeply over a pet versus [how I have grieved] a person. That made me feel guilty a little bit, but then I also felt guilty about all the regrets that came up. Is there anything we could have done differently? Why didn’t we notice something earlier? Why didn’t I know that there was something wrong with him before it got to that point? And in the end, I just realized there was nothing else we could do. Now I’m thinking, I wish I wouldn’t have dragged it out that week; maybe [I should have] ended it a day or two before Timmy was really suffering [by choosing euthanasia earlier]. But I can’t change that now. And we just did what we did in the moment, what we thought was best. And that’s what I tell myself now, and that helps.


Beth: Yeah. I find myself all the time thinking of the things I’ve done with my pets that I would do differently in hindsight. And I know better than to beat myself up like that. I think pet parents feel guilt differently from when they deal with human death. Maybe there’s a quality to having the care of an animal. Can you relate to that idea?


Jackie: I think what also makes [pet loss guilt] different is they can’t tell us what’s going on. They can’t say, “Okay, I’ve got a tummy ache. This is going on. That’s going on.” And especially with cats, they’re so good at hiding stuff. They don’t want to show you that they’re in pain. Cats especially don’t want to show you that there’s something wrong. It’s just super hard to figure it out. If you have a kid that’s sick, they can tell you and they will let you know what’s going on. But that’s not the case with pets, and that’s what makes it so much harder.


Beth: So you have other cats. You’ve added to your cat family since Woody and Timmy died?


Jackie: Yeah. So when Timmy passed away, we just had Woody and Timmy. I didn’t want Woody to be alone at all, and I didn’t want him to get used to being alone. So I was looking at getting new kitties days after Timmy passed away, which also made me feel guilty, because [it was like] I was saying, “Now I’m replacing him, but I’m not replacing him.” That made me feel guilty, too, because I felt I was acting like nothing happened, and I was just moving on. But that was not really the case. And so I found two boys. It was such an awesome coincidence that we called the rescue and they said you can apply for certain kitties, but you needed to complete this long questionnaire. Then they match you with the perfect personalities of kitties. So we told them our whole story. We told them, “Woody is eleven years old and he’s by himself” and so on. And then this lady called me [right away] and said, “This never happens because usually this process takes a couple of weeks until we find someone, but we have the perfect boys for you.” 


I thought, “All right, cool. Let’s see them.” And the same day, we went to look at them and check them out. It turned out they were only five minutes away from us in a foster family. And then we knew, “All right, that’s our boys. We’re going to take them next week.” And when we picked them up, the adoption papers showed their names. And one’s original name was Timmy. And I thought, “All right, that’s a sign that they’re our boys.” We took them home; it was like was meant to be. The day we brought them home, it was exactly a week after Timmy passed away. So it wasn’t a lot of time at all, but it just turned out that way. I wasn’t planning on it. I thought that it would take a couple of weeks until we got new kitties. But then it just turned out that way. I felt like it was the universe telling me, “Hey, those are your boys.” And it felt like Timmy was telling me, “Hey, Mom, those are your new kitties. Take care of them.” The other thing that happened is that the day we took them home, I got a Facebook memory reminder that exactly eleven years ago on that day, that’s when I got Woody and Timmy.


Beth: Okay, that made everything as perfect as it could be during your time of great grief. I notice that taking in your new boys didn’t ease your grief over Timmy; they filled a place in your family, but you continued to grieve, which seems to be what you meant when you said you didn’t replace Timmy.


Jackie: Yeah. I was like, “All right, that’s it. It was meant to be.” But I still grieved Timmy.


Beth: So you feel like there were signs that said this was just the right thing?


Jackie: Yeah, because I was just overwhelmed with picking a new family member. It’s just so weird. I’m always just waiting for the sign. I’m just waiting for the perfect feeling. And when I see [the sign], I just know. And it just happened to be that way. We renamed the new kitties Sammy and Dusty. A couple of months after that, I saw another kitty on Facebook from the same rescue. We weren’t planning on adding more kitties [to our family then], but then it just happened that I got that feeling again: “That’s our boy. We’ve got to pick him up.” So that was Benny. And then when Woody passed away, we were looking for new kitties again. That time, I looked for a longer period just because I didn’t get that [special] feeling, and I didn’t feel like I had found the right match. But then I saw these two guys [that you can see here in the video]. We only wanted to add one kitty, but they were bonded brothers, so obviously you can’t separate them. So we got Louie and Frankie. Now we’ve got five boys.


Beth:. Okay. You got quite the family there.


Jackie: Yeah, it’s mayhem every day, but I love it.


Beth: Is there anything else you’d like to share about grief and mourning and integrating them into your life over time?


Jackie: Yeah, I think what people need to know is that grief is different for everybody. What bothered me a little bit is that a lot of people say, “Don’t get a new pet. Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” But for me, for my situation, it just worked out that [getting new kitties immediately was right. There’s no one way to do grief or to handle loss. It’s different for everybody. If you feel like you want a new family member, then just do it because it might be right for your situation. Obviously, you don’t want to rush anything, and you’ve got to be mindful that you’re not replacing whoever you lost. But it’s just different for everybody, and there’s no one formula that fits all.


Beth: Okay. Is there anything else? 


Jackie: Pet loss grief coaching definitely helped me. I was just so overwhelmed, and I didn’t know what to do at all because the grief was so overwhelming that I felt like there was no way out and I couldn’t get out of this by myself. So that’s why I reached out to you and then that helped me on my journey.


Beth: Thank you for telling me about your experiences, Jackie. You’ve given me so much information that will help other pet parents through their grief when their beloved pets die.


Jackie: You’re welcome and thank you, too.


Dear readers, you might recognize some of Jackie’s experiences as being similar to your own. Please remember that grief is a gift. It doesn’t feel that way when we’re in the middle of it, but grief keeps us connected in healthy ways to those who have touched our lives as long as we acknowledge it and mourn our losses actively and with intention to heal.


How have you handled the guilt and regret of grief whether these feelings were inspired by pet loss or other losses in your life? How can you use those experiences to help yourself in the future? How can you use those experiences to support other people you know who are grieving?


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