The pets who go before us

Seven times, I’ve borne witness to an animal companion of mine reaching the end of life. Seven doesn’t look like a very large number, but it’s big enough that I have developed some personal practices around honoring the passing of a pet or familiar. I’ve buried more pets than humans in my lifetime, and the humans have had input into how it’s handled that the pets have not. In its current form, the visible component of my pet funereal practice is nine days of public mourning in the form of pictures and stories shared on social media. Each day I post images to my more popular instagram account (@justmycatsandme, because cats are much more popular than anything else), along a theme that rises based on the pictures I have available. I drop in hashtags such as #petmemorial, #whatisrememberedlives, and #ninedaysof[insert pet name here].

During this nine-day period I stop making offerings to the gods, but continue to make regular offerings to my ancestors. That comes from the Hellenic understanding that we must undergo purification after being close to death, and before we return to honoring the sky gods. I add in something for my deceased animal friends, including the one whose life most recently ended. When I completed this cycle recently for my cat Kapoios, who I had euthanized not because of the intermittent pancreatitis or chronic kidney failure or asthma or deafness or serious dental problems (all of which we were able to manage) but because the lung tumor was making it difficult to breathe and the likelihood of this cat surviving surgery was vanishingly small. I wept as this cat died in my lap, and I wept as I shared the news with other humans who loved this cat, and I wept my way through the first three days of memorial posts. By the ninth day, I was able to sit with the loss without it overwhelming me. As of this writing, I occasionally hear the strange “quark” Kapoios made in lieu of a real meow, and at least once I’m sure I felt this kitty trying to slip under the covers. Once that initial period was over, I cleaned my altar, purified myself, and resumed my regular practice.

Nine days is the correct amount of time for me to fully mourn the loss of a companion cat in this way. I am someone who snaps a lot of cat pictures to post online already. Sharing those images, and especially the stories that accompany them, is how I process the emotions and honor the relationship. What’s important is acknowledging that grief occurs, even if the loved one who dies was not human. If you’re blessed with friends who call or send sympathy cards when a pet dies, as I am, then that’s also going to support your ability to work through these difficult emotions rather than denying them.

It’s possible one might experience grief more intensely for a companion animal than for a human family member. This is because grief looks different each time it is experienced. Relationships with pets are often less complicated than they are with other humans. Those complications can block grief, or cause it to manifest differently. Mourning my parents involved a withdrawal from social media, rather than using social media as a tool to express grief—I had public ceremonies with a good many people expressing their sympathy, and for me that was a useful outlet.

Suppressed grief does not always presage depression, but it’s a significant drain on the energy in its own right. It’s much easier to reach one’s personal stress threshold while in this state, that limit beyond which our immune system is no longer able to repel depression and other threats to the self. It can be difficult to recognize when one is stuck in grief, because just taking a long time to process this emotion isn’t necessarily unhealthy. Nevertheless, the presence of grief makes us more vulnerable, and more than ever we need support systems to shore us up. Being that grief is all but inevitable among humans, it’s good planning to think through who is in that support system, and to build more social relationships if that network feels frail.

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