To some people, grief can a dirty word. It often incites awkwardness and embarrassment. When I was a teenager, my father died. I was completely incapable of expressing the feelings inside me, so I went straight back to school and pretended everything was normal. I didn’t deal with it, then my best friend died a few years ago, and it sent me over the grief threshold. I’ve done a lot of grief processing over the years, through various different types of therapies and healing modalities.
Talking therapies never worked for me because as an integrative therapist myself, I have found issues with the way therapists conducted sessions; tardiness, poor soundproofing in waiting areas, dirty furniture, feigned attention, the transference I experienced with a few male therapists, the lack of boundaries in language and behaviour, there have been challenges. The therapeutic connection is so important, so although many of those therapists were probably excellent for the friends and colleagues that recommended them, they were not right for me. Now, I trust my intuition. In my own practice, I always speak to prospective patients before I will take them on as a patient, not just to check that we have good rapport and that I am the right therapist for them, but to assess how committed they are to engaging in the healing process.
I’m an empath, these experiences of grief are always deeply wounding. What has ended up working for me therapy-wise has been in the more entheogenic realm. I feel like I have addressed years of coping mechanisms, when actually, I should have addressed the root causes as a teenager.
Nothing confronted me with how I felt this week when I was told that my 15 year old Siamese cat, my darling Lola, had renal lymphoma and we were given one night to say goodbye to her.
She was quite advanced in age for a Siamese, she had pancreatitis and her breathing had been a little laboured for a few months. She was on special hydrolysed protein food, we gave her turmeric, fish oils, probiotics, and other cat-safe nutrients and herbs in her food. I had fed her a grain-free, organic diet for many years. She was an indoor cat (bar the odd supervised gallivant in a garden, balcony or roof terrace), so had little pathogen exposure, and rarely had vaccinations (I had to keep her pet passport updated when we lived together in my tiny Parisian apartment and had to get the ferry and then the train to Paris together).
Aside from a cough she had when she was a kitten, dental issues (gingivostomatitis is common with the breed – they end up effectively having an immune response to their own plaque, brushing teeth does nothing, and they usually end up getting pretty much all their teeth removed), a love of eating sellotape, balloons and elastic bands, and a short spell of illness when we turned up with 2 beautiful Siamese kittens who came to us sniffly and sick from a highly irresponsible breeder, Lola had never been sick. We have air filters, water filters, we don’t use toxic products in our house, we avoid synthetic fibres and anything else that might off-gas, we do not wear shoes in the house and traipse anything in, we don’t smoke, we keep the litter trays clean. we are careful. So why did she get sick? My rational brain knows why, I work with cancer every day, it’s one of my specialisms, yet I asked our vet repeatedly, thinking I had failed her somehow as she got cancer in the end, and he kept telling me there was nothing I could have done, it’s genetic, and it’s common in Siamese.
During our last night together, Lola was pumped up with IV fluids and morphine that the vet had given her to make her comfortable. She was lying on me, I felt terribly nauseous, I had an unspeakable headache, and my insides were raging with pain. The nausea, headache and the pain disappeared when her heart stopped the next day on my lap, which goes to show how deep our connection was.
Lockdown Christmas this year has been a relief. I haven’t really spoken to anyone other than my family, I burst into tears at regular intervals, I am keeping our house fanatically tidy, I am catching up on my MBA and all my fellowships. I am avoiding my email, I am actively taking time off patient work, and I am actually taking a break for the first time in a long time. Because losing Lola is the hardest thing I have experienced for a very very long time.
My friends nicknamed her my shadow, because she followed me everywhere. She was my comfort, my solace, and when I moved to Paris, my only friend for those first few weeks. She would stand over me at nighttime until I turned on my side so she could nestle in my arms.
Lola’s love for me, and mine for her was pure and unconditional. She was the most loving of cats. When I was told that Lola was suffering, and it was time for her to pass on, I screamed, I cried, I expressed my grief and heartbreak in a way I had never been able to do with my father or for any other human being. Her decline happened so quickly, reminding me of my father being told he had 6 months to live and actually having 2 weeks. Lola ended up having 2 days from losing her appetite on Sunday night, to our final night with her. We did not have a choice. Her kidneys were failing, she had rapidly become weak, struggling to even stand up on her own when I carried her down in the middle of the night to use the litter, and although I could not ask her what she wanted, I knew she was suffering and I knew she would want to maintain her dignity. My heart broke. I felt guilty that she had suffered in silence. When we took her to the vet on Wednesday morning for the last time, I kept apologising to her, our vet and my husband, feeling guilty for my outpourings of grief.
And I think this is something people don’t understand. Even my mother has been sobbing, saying she had no idea losing an animal would make her feel like this. It’s a complex type of grief that nobody talks about.
My advice on how to deal with a pet dying, is to allow yourself to grieve. My mind keeps flitting back to her last morning, and my Facebook “on this day” keeps pulling up daily memories of Christmases with her five, ten years ago, scamping around in my mum’s house, and every time I open them, I burst into tears.
Remember the good times you had with them. Friends and family keep reminding me that Lola had a cushy life with me, she was loved, well fed, cuddled frequently, and brushed with all the brushes. This has reminded me to look after myself, particularly my own mental health.
Self-care. It’s ok to slow down, even if the outside world does not. In the last few days, I’ve started sleeping earlier, when I get tired and not when I think I should go to bed. I am taking time off technology. I will make more of an effort to see and speak to the friends and family I care about (when lockdown eases). especially as so many have been kind to reach out to me to check in.
Maintain routine for any other animals you have. Our 2 kittens (Cosmo and Misty) are experiencing her absence and being extra loving, hanging out on my lap, demanding attention, trying to steal the meat from my husband’s plate. I raced Misty up in Cat A&E for a late night urgent appointment last weekend, 2 1/2 weeks after we said goodbye, with symptoms of a urinary tract infection. It turns out she had gone into a state of shock and grief having just realised Lola had left. The vet prescribed Gabapentin, I used homeopathic Aconite, rose water and Rescue Remedy. She was fine a few hours later. It was heartbreaking to see, and to realise how much love and support she gave them, as now that she is gone, they need to sleep with us, they need to be near us much more than before.
Don’t be afraid to ask for support from friends, family members. Even if you just need a chat, or to go for a walk. If you don’t have anyone close you can speak to, there are organisations such as the Blue Cross who offer a confidential support line you can call if you need to.
I have never been able to fathom how anyone could experience a pet who is so dependent on love and care of a human cruelly, so I cannot speak for all pet owners, but if you have a friend or family member who has lost a beloved animal – don’t dismiss their grief, it’s very very real. Be there, however they need you.