The Gifts That Come From the Loss of a Pet

When our cat Yama died, my heart broke wide open, flooding me not only with sadness, but aliveness

Photograph by Getty Images

Yama, our cat, chose our family both literally and figuratively. He was one of several cats we interacted with when my two sons, Casey and Andy, and my husband, Chip, and I went to the local humane shelter, nearly six years ago. Like many families, we thought we were only looking, not adopting.

In a small room, a volunteer brought in one cat at a time to meet us — a sort of “meet and greet” as part of the matchmaking experience. Some cats were flighty and standoffish. Other cats were eager to jump in our lap, immediately demanding attention. Yama simply came up to my husband and caressed Chip’s leg with his head (known in the cat world as “head-butting”). We could tell he was the one. Affectionate, but not in your face. Respectful of someone’s personal space. That was our family’s style.

Looking back, Yama came into our lives to be an anchor for our family. Over the last five years, our family has undergone enormous change. My boys turned into men. Andy, our youngest, was 12 when we got Yama. He enters college this fall. Chip returned to work after 16 years as a stay-at-home dad, in a professional role that feeds him. I turned 50, burned out as an entrepreneur and rebuilt my business. Casey, our oldest child, left for college, a thousand miles away.

Through it all, Yama was the metronome of our household, the constant that we could count on to always be there, unchanging in behavior or appearance or needs. He greeted us when we walked through the door, snuggled up to us when we were sick, and stood guard in front of the living room window, his tail an indicator of rabbit and bird activity in the front yard. At dinner time, Chip beckoned him to the kitchen, as if he were a third son. He was the sturdiest part of the fabric of our lives.

I’m convinced that our pet chose when to leave. This was a cat who would sit by an empty food bowl without a sound, waiting patiently until someone would notice and give him his next meal. His illness took a turn for the worse just after Chip and I had finished up big work projects, and when Andy was away at camp. Yama left quickly and quietly, with little drama.

RELATED: Memories of Yama, Our Beloved Cat

I saw my mother at a family gathering a couple of days after we put Yama to sleep. My mother never wanted me to own a pet, because she knew that the loss is hard to bear. She asked me, “Are you okay now?” To which I replied, “I’ll never be okay. That’s just how it is.” Friends have told me that my grief will subside and fade with time, and be replaced by wistful memories that make me smile. It doesn’t feel that way right now.

Loss brings change and change brings a new normal. It’s been good to shake up my routine — with something as simple as taking a run in the morning instead of my usual end-of-day workout. Instead of starting my day by checking email, I putter in my garden, pruning roses and pulling weeds. I’ve put a new lamp on the living room table where Yama used to sit.

There are other gifts that came out of the loss of our pet.

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Because Yama left so quickly, after the progression of a disease that seemed to be barely noticeable, I’m awake to the mortality of my parents. Both have been in a gradual decline over the last few years, but with no life-threatening diseases. At 98 and 86 years old, my stepfather and mother still have sharp, lucid minds. And yet, I know that I could get a phone call at any moment, with bad news. It has moved me into action to have honest conversations with both of them about their current living arrangements (a four-bedroom house that they can’t take care of, with stairs), documenting their financial and medical information so that others can step in when needed, and creating living wills.

Yama’s death also deepened my connections to other pet owners — family, friends, colleagues, even strangers — who understand the special bond that is created when a living creature spends so much time with you. I’ve received heartfelt emails and had tearful, intimate conversations.

A friend mentioned that having a pet allows your heart to expand three times larger, sort of like the images of the Grinch, after he learned what it was to love. Yama certainly did that for me.

When he died, my heart broke wide open, flooding me not only with sadness, but aliveness. These types of intense feelings remind me of my humanity.

Love and loss are intertwined, in a way that is not only natural, but sacred.

Tags: memoirs

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