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Unconditional Love, Overwhelming Grief: the Loss of a Pet

There’s no doubt that the death of a precious pet can lead to ongoing grief for many pet parents. People we call pet parents may be parents of human children, too, of course, but often they have no children or no at-home children. Our beloved pets fill specific gaps in our lives because pets offer unconditional love and acceptance—even those pets with particularly temperamental personalities. They just know us to be who we are, and when we’re wise with them, we engage with them as just who they are, too.


In this blog post, I interview a Kitty Mom, Jackie Burke, whose precious cat Timmy died unexpectedly of lymphoma a few years ago. We worked together as bereavement coach and grieving pet parent for a number of months. During that time, Jackie learned to accept her grief pain as part of her love for Timmy and to allow herself what she most wanted, which was to love again and offer love to even more kitties.


Here is the first part of that interview, which I’ve edited for clarity and brevity:


Jackie: It was about two years ago. Timmy had lymphoma. Everything happened really quickly. We had just had his annual exam, and our vet told us Timmie looked good. But, a month later, we noticed he was losing weight rapidly. We brought him back to the vet, who noticed a growth in his belly. We then took him to the emergency room. From there, everything went downhill really fast. We lost Timmy within a week. So everything was just very surprising and very out of nowhere. And he wasn’t old either; he was only eleven. That’s not super young, but youngish for a cat, not super old [where you might expect something like cancer to happen].


Beth: How did you get Timmy?


Jackie: So, when I was still living in Austria, my mom, who worked for a cat rescue, called me to ask if I could take in some foster kitties. And I said, “Yeah, sure, no problem.” One mom had three babies, and they were only a couple of days old. Their eyes were still closed. They were still teensy tiny babies and the plan was to adopt them out. But I just fell in love with Timmy and his brother, Woody, and I couldn’t give them away after fostering them. 


Beth: How old is Woody now?


Jackie: He passed away last year.


Beth: I’m sorry.


Jackie: He died shortly before Christmas due to the same lymphoma [that killed Timmy]. With him, the disease process was more gradual. We knew it was coming. It was sad, but unlike with Timmy, it wasn’t out of nowhere.


Beth: Do you think that made a difference in how you grieved?


Jackie: Yes, definitely. Because with Timmy, it was just like out of nowhere. And then with Woody’s death, I even felt bad because I wasn’t as upset as I was with Timmy. But then I realized that my grief was different because it was spread out [over the course of his illness]. I was already grieving Woody when he was still alive. I was just crying. Then when we found out [about the lymphoma], we treated him with chemo and whatnot. I realized that his dying process was more spread out and not all at once unlike Timmy. So, of course, I was sad afterwards, too, but it was different. [My grief] wasn’t all at once.


Beth: That makes sense. So when Timmy died, how did you feel? Can you remember and describe what the grief felt like?


Jackie: Seriously, I’ve never felt anything like that before. I also feel bad about saying that because I have lost friends and even family members, but nothing has felt like that. I remember coming home [from Timmy’s euthanasia], and I was just screaming. It was so bad. I felt like there’s no way out. And it’s just like the pain was so overwhelming that I was just drinking every day. I woke up and had my first beer at 10:00 in the morning. I couldn’t deal with the pain for the first week or two. It was too much. I didn’t know what to do. I was just so overwhelmed. It was crazy. It was the worst pain I ever felt.


Beth: What did you do when you were able to? What helped you?


Jackie: Well, my husband being there because, thankfully, my husband is just like me, and he understood. So I had someone around me who felt the exact same thing, who knew what I was going through. Honestly, just talking about Timmy [helped]. Then there was this one book you recommended (Alan Wolfelt’s When Your Pet Dies: A Guide to Mourning, Remembering and Healing) which was interactive, where you can journal about [your pet] and just keeping his memory alive and things like that. I cried a lot filling it out. But I think that helped. Because you write down what you remember about them and stuff like that. 


And I think for me what helped was just having somebody, like a third party, someone that’s not my friends, not my family, just having somebody neutral to talk to, but who also understands what’s going on. Because my husband was grieving himself. So we talked about it but, obviously, he was also grieving. So I didn’t want to overload him or burden him with all my stuff. We were grieving together, but still, it’s just . . . and then I knew my mom understood. She had just lost her dog, too, and she understood grief, too. But still, just having somebody neutral to talk to really helps.


Beth: So a coach can be a neutral listener. We did coaching together about your grief. Can you think of some ways that that was useful to you?


Jackie: All the material that you provided me. You sent me some helpful links just about grieving in general, and especially grieving pets. [It wasn’t] just reading about it, [but] even knowing that other people feel the same way could make me not feel as guilty. Some people say it’s just a pet: “How can you grieve him more than a family member or something?” Those people don’t understand. Some people just don’t understand what it’s like to have pets. Some people have pets and some people have pets. There’s a difference.


Beth: There’s a difference, as I can see from your emphasis that some pets are family members. Timmy was part of your family; he was like your child in some way.


Jackie: He was my baby. Yeah, he was definitely my baby. Like all my boys are my babies. So for me, it’s like losing a child.


Beth: Is there anything else that helped you feel better when you were deeply in grief?


Jackie: Just letting out [all the pain]. I realized that [the pain isn’t] going to go away if I don’t let it out. And it’s still there. I still think about Timmy’s loss all the time. But every now and then, it hits me [hard] again, and I start crying. I think that [grief] will stay forever just because I loved him so much, and obviously, Timmy will always be part of my life. But now it’s just not that overwhelming anymore. There’s this one quote that I read. I don’t know if you sent me that quote or if I read it somewhere else. It says that grief is just love that’s remains when someone we love dies. And that’s what I think about now when I get sad.


Beth: Yeah, that you would choose the love even if it means having grief?


Jackie: Yes. I’m just sad because I love them so much.


In this part of the interview, Jackie stressed love as part of the reason for grief about Timmy. She also offered some ideas for learning to live with grief, including self-expression through talking and writing journals, and finding a grief coach as listener and guide through loss and bereavement.


One thing is certain about getting a pet: we’re very likely to outlive this little creature. So, taking in and loving a pet almost guarantees grief. 


What helps you as you grieve your own precious pets?


We’ll talk more about pet parent loss and grief in the next blog post that completes this interview with Jackie Burke, who has generously allowed us to read about her loss, grief, and integration of pain in ongoing pet love and life care.


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