Sep 10, 2021

A Final Word Or Two About Losing a Pet

Welcome to my grief therapy

By Ed Goldman

When I shared the recent passing of my adored little tabby, Osborn the Magnificent, who spent 14 of his 19 years with me, I learned a great deal about people and pets.

The genuine outpouring of empathy moved me—everything from my friends Will and Donna making a donation in Osborn’s name to the SPCA, to the condolence cards and emails I received from dozens of you.

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People who had met Osborn even once or never seemed equally tender about my feelings and what has been genuine grief. 

Pets are your babies who remain babies all of their lives, even if we anthropomorphize their cleverness or communication skills. When they leave you it’s not unlike losing a child—albeit, one who never had the chance to grow up, move away, and judge and blame you for everything that went or will go wrong with his or her life.

What surprised me was the callousness of some non-pet lovers. One of them, a relative of mine, even mocked my grief in a Zoom call with other relatives—all of whom had been compassionate about my loss— suggesting we “start the violins in a minute.”  

All of you who’ve had pets know there’s no statute of limitations on the pain we can feel when we lose them. I still regret my reaction when a student of mine at Sacramento State some years ago explained why she hadn’t been in class for several weeks. 

“I had koi trauma,” she said. I stared at her in wonder and she clarified, “My pet fish died.”

“Must be awfully quiet in the house now,” I said, being a complete horse’s ass. I later found out that koi keepers can feel the same affection for their fish as we can for everything from our dwarf hamsters to Clydesdales. In fact, the word “koi” is Japanese for love or affection. (This could explain why you won’t find it on the menu at your favorite sushi bar.)

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I miss Osborn at many times of the day and night. He was one of those cats who talked. While his vocabulary was limited to a variety of yowls and purrs, I usually seemed to know what he was talking about so had fun chatting with him. This helped rid me of a nosy neighbor who used to walk by and try to get a peek at what was transpiring in the abbreviated backyard of my condo. One late afternoon, I was summoning Osborn to come into dinner and he reluctantly strode to the back door, yakking the entire time:

Osborn: Yeow, meow, mew, yowl.

Me: I know. I couldn’t agree with you more.

Osborn: Yeow, meow, mew, yowl.

Me: Okay. We’ll discuss it when you get inside.

Neighbor (straining on tiptoes to peer over fence): Are you actually talking to that cat?

Me: Oh, just answering his questions.

I have not seen this neighbor since. This has been a very good thing.

The first two nights after Osborn was gone I thought I heard him crying, which he did only when he’d fallen ill in 2019 (and recovered) and the night before I took him to the vet for the final time. I had stayed up all night petting him as he lay in my lap, for I knew what the morning would bring. I think he might have, too, since he made no attempt to jump down and find another venue in which to curl up. (During the nearly two decades of his life, he probably napped for a third of them. This is what healthy indoor cats tend to do, and I sometimes envied him.) I also imagined I felt him stirring in the king-sized bed he graciously shared with me—and when, from conditioning, I sidestepped his water bowl on the floor of my kitchen late one night, I choked up when I switched on the lights and discovered the bowl was no longer there. 

Some very kind people have offered to bring me a “replacement” cat or kitten but I won’t be doing that for a while. I’m starting to travel again, which is beneficial for my work and mental health and for the first time in 14 years, I won’t spend time away from home worrying about the family member I left behind, even though I was fortunate to always have wonderful cat sitters, like Laura Sterner and friends, like David Ligon, to keep an eye on Ossie. 

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I now have more space in two of my bathrooms because the extra-large litterbox I had in each one no longer dominates the floorspace nor provides a maintenance hobby for me. 

And should it happen to be 5 p.m. and I’m working at my desk, I don’t need to stop everything to respond to the demanding yowls of someone expecting his dinner RIGHT THIS MINUTE! (How Osborn ever got on a Midwest dining schedule, I’ll never know, since I rarely eat dinner before 8:30.)

But he was really no trouble at all. I say I’ve lived alone for almost a decade but in truth, I had a 24/7 roomie for 14 years. He always greeted me when I came home and made moves as though he expected me to take him with me almost every time I walked out the door. Sometimes, if I was just moving my car from the street into the garage behind my home, I’d take him along for the two-minute ride. He seemed to love this and I had an ulterior motive: I never wanted him to fear getting into a car with me at another time, like for an appointment with the vet.

On that last morning I took him there, he was very calm. Okay, you may start your violins.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).