I can’t unhear the sound. It was a Saturday morning this past January. My roommate screamed from our living room. “Carly, there’s something wrong with Faux!” I jumped out of bed and ran to see what was happening. I knew in my gut it was bad. Our beloved cat Faux Pas had died in his sleep.
That day was a blur. I remember frantically calling our vet because I had no idea what to do with a dead pet in New York City. That’s when it hit me. Losing a pet as an adult is nowhere near as easy as it is as a kid, when your parents conveniently disappear your animal to (ostensibly) greener pastures.
Everything got real, fast.
First, we had to take care of his body. There are few options a pet owner can choose from when living in a city: cremation ($125 and up, depending on the service), burial in a pet cemetery (also expensive), leaving the body in a bag marked “dead animal” in the regular trash pickup (immoral), or burial on private land.
And there was the immediate emotional cost. We decided burying Faux Pas upstate was our best option at the time. I cried so much my eyes were almost swollen shut. When I had to feed our other cat, Cliché, I burst into tears again because I only had to put out one bowl.
Eight months after Faux Pas died, Cliché got sick. One of his kidneys had become hugely inflamed and was starting to fail. After a week’s stay at the vet, hooked up to an IV, he hadn’t improved. We knew as soon as we saw him on his last day of treatment that we had to put him down. Watching him go to sleep broke my heart, knowing there was nothing more I could do for him.
A physical wave of devastation swept over me, again.
I never imagined I would be a cat person. It’s amazing how much I changed in such little time. I was about to move to New York in 2011, and magically, Michael, a friend from high school needed someone to live with him…and his two cats. I really wasn’t loving the idea of moving in with them. We tried pawning them off to friends, but there I was, stuck with two orange and white devils!
It took about two months after living with Cliché and Faux Pas for me to really get to know them. Cliché was huge–18 pounds. He sauntered like a runway model, always with his tail standing straight in the air. Cliché loved only Michael. I still think he secretly hated me.
He and Faux Pas were from the same litter, but their personalities could not have been more different. Faux was sneaky and liked to hide, probably as a reaction to Cliché’s bravado. My relationship with him, though, changed my life.
One Thanksgiving holiday, Faux Pas managed to accidentally trap himself in my bedroom. I don’t know how many days he was in there, but he had a significant accident on my favorite jean jacket. And my bed. Michael offered to give them up for adoption again, and I said no. This is when I knew I loved Faux Pas. We eventually became inseparable, and I looked forward to coming home to his funny face every day.
When I spoke with Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, senior director of counseling services at the ASPCA, she gave me some perspective on both of my cats’ deaths. “It’s so ironic because most of us, as people, we kind of say, ‘Oh gee, I wish [to] die on the tennis court or I wish [to] die in my sleep, without regard to the fact that that is going to be harder on the people who are attached to us,” she says about the way Faux Pas died suddenly. But “from the animal’s point of view, actually, it was a good death.” This definitely was the stance I tried to take after Faux Pas passed, so I wasn’t dwelling on him being gone.
The decision to euthanize Cliché, though, was altogether different. He was just beginning the stages of failure, but didn’t have enough strength to even stand up or walk. He had stopped eating and going to the bathroom, and was at the point where he would begin having seizures. Even under those circumstances it was difficult to make that decision. LaFarge referred to euthanasia as “an opportunity to give a gift to an animal and prevent further suffering.” I understand this, but it doesn’t make it much easier for me to grapple with killing an animal I loved.
Even though both cats passed in very different ways, neither was an easy experience. I’ve lost two pets in less than a year, and I’m angry. I was robbed of the two things that made me most happy so suddenly. When my family’s pets died during my childhood, I was sad, but my parents and grandparents always dealt with the bad parts. It’s completely different experiencing loss as the animal’s primary caregiver. “It is a remarkably intense, personal feeling of loss,” LaFarge says, and she’s completely right. Coping with this was a brand-new experience for me, and I honestly wasn’t sure what to do. So, I kind of did nothing. I sat and cried.
Dr. LaFarge assured me I wasn’t crazy. “Grief is a normal, human emotion. It is not a mental illness. Human beings will grieve whether they do it consciously or subconsciously. You don’t have to do anything,” she says.
Some interesting alternatives she did suggest, though, were finding solace in online pet loss communities and through artistic projects. “Anything that makes you feel that you are engaged and being creative with a memory,” Lafarge says, will continue the healing process.
The best way I coped was by spending time with Clarence, a teeny black kitten I adopted a few months after Faux Pas died. He has been a constant source of joy and positive energy in our house, and I am so thankful to have him every day.
While for right now I can’t erase the memories of that traumatic morning when we found Faux Pas, or when I stroked Cliché’s head as he passed away, I know I will eventually be able to let go. I’ve been looking back through all the photos I took of the two cats and smiling. There aren’t many 18-pound cats who curl up on their owner’s lap like a kitten, and I laugh every time I see a photo of Cliché on Michael, sitting tall like a king. I can still picture Faux Pas meowing loudly in my face every morning, then racing to the kitchen for his food, with his big butt wiggling back and forth behind him. They were special guys, for sure, and I will remember them as happy and vibrant forever.