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Grief Is The Price We Pay For Love – On Losing A Pet

Not the least hard thing to bear when they go from us, these quiet friends, is that they carry away with them so many years of our own lives. John Galsworthy

I’m a cat person

I’ve lost a few pets in my life – it is the unfortunate cost of loving an animal.

Their lives are much shorter than ours and it is inevitable that we will lose them, yet we commit to loving them despite the heartbreak we’ll endure.

It was November of 1998 and I had just moved from my rural hometown to the city. My first apartment by myself. I had left everything that was familiar behind. A fresh start. A new beginning.

In only a few weeks, the silence of my solitude was deafening. I needed interaction. I needed a cat.

The hardest part is walking away with only one

I made a visit to the SHAID Tree Animal Shelter and spent some time in the cat room. I stopped in front of each cage and interacted with the various cats and kittens up for adoption.

After about an hour I had narrowed it down to a little grey kitten or a pure white one. I walked from one side of the room to the other trying to compare the two different kittens and it broke my heart that I needed to decide between them.

The grey kitten was in a cage with its siblings. The white one was all alone. Back and forth between the two cages I continued until finally the fact that the white cat was alone tugged at my heart strings.

He was the one.

He was there through it all

I arranged for his adoption and returned a few days later to pick him up and take him home.

I named him Dawson.

He was approximately six months old when he became my roommate. For six more months it was just the two of us until I met my (now) husband and he moved in with us.

He was with us through ten moves, many job transitions, two pregnancies, two children running around him and four other cats co-habitating with him for various lengths of time.

He was there to comfort me during my struggle with post partum anxiety, mourning loved ones and so many difficult days.

He listened and calmed me and did so without judgement or conditions.

He stayed longer than we thought he would

His decline in health started somewhere in his sixteenth year. He started slowing down. He began losing weight.

The end of our journey together was looming in the distance and that reality was daunting.

A few times in his last few months we thought we were at the end of the road. He’d stop eating or would be lethargic but just when we had all but reserved ourselves to the fact that this was “it” he’d bounce back and carry on like nothing had happened.

Until it did.

The day he left us

That morning in May of his seventeenth year I knew this time was different. I could sense the fight in him fleeing.

He was letting go.

He decided on a spot behind the toilet in our half bath to retreat to. I got the boys ready for school and checked in on him multiple times before we left the house. On our way out the door I lifted him into my arms and snuggled him, kissed his head and caressed him telling him I loved him and that I would see him later.

I walked out the door not knowing if I would.

Always listen to your heart

I dropped the boys off at daycare and headed off to work. About three minutes down the road I was overcome with a feeling of urgency. In that instance I knew I had to go back home.

I walked in the house and was relieved to see he was still alive. I lifted him up into my arms and knew that in that short period of time something had changed. There was a look in his eyes that was desperate. His breathing was now laboured.

I carried him into the living room and sat down on the couch, picked up my phone and googled “end of life signs in cats” and closed my eyes in disbelief once I confirmed enough symptoms on the list.

This was the beginning of the end 

I phoned the vet that makes house calls and asked for an in-home visit to assist his end of life journey. The receptionist indicated she would squeeze us in as soon as she could. I wanted him to have a peaceful end in familiar surroundings.

I grabbed a towel and wrapped him in it to keep him warm and cradled him in my arms. The tears fell easily.

His breathing became more rapid and laboured. I heard the “death rattle” of his lungs. He attempted to stand up in my arms and pitifully never succeeded. He appeared disoriented and anxious. His fur was wet with my tears.

It was just the two of us, like it had been in the beginning

I rocked him like a baby, holding him tight to my heart and told him over and over how much I loved him. I rubbed the spot between his ears with my thumb and ran my finger up the bridge of his nose like I had done for over seventeen years.

I willed him to purr, to give me some sort of sign that he wasn’t really leaving me. I wanted validation of the effects of my attempts to comfort him. There was nothing but his laboured breathing.

He kept trying to get up or move position, each time collapsing against the crook of my arm. Still the tears fell.

My leg was warmed as his bladder emptied one last time. Another check mark on the list of signs.

I looked into his eyes and told him how much he was loved but that he was free to go, that he was allowed to go.

His jaws opened for one last breath and then his pupils expanded to encompass almost the entirety of his eyes. I was now staring into nothingness.

I held him and wailed. Primally.

He was gone.

Now what?

I wrapped the towel the rest of the way around his lifeless body and instinctively grabbed the orange shoebox that the boys had left on the coffee table. I emptied it of the Lego it was holding and gently placed his body in the box and closed the cover.

I walked through the house with this makeshift casket and out onto the backyard deck. I placed the box against the railing and put a toy tractor on the top to keep it closed.

Explaining loss to the boys

Later that day when everyone came home I took each boy aside and explained that Dawson had died. Luke being the more sensitive of the two began crying and I cried along with him. He said he wanted to see Dawson’s body. I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea. I explained that I was there to comfort Dawson when it happened and though upset, he understood the finality of it all.

Kyle was more direct in his queries – he wanted to know where Dawson was now. Not in the spiritual sense but in the literal sense. Where had I put him.

I explained to him that he was in the orange shoebox and that he was now on the backyard deck. What I was not expecting was how the rest of that conversation would play out.

Kyle ran into the kitchen to inform his father that Dawson was on the back deck. Adam looked at me with that “WTF?” look.

Him: “Why is he on the back deck?”

Me: “Where else would be be?”

Him: “At the vet.”

Me: “Why would he be at the vet?”

Him: “Because…”

Me: “He didn’t go to the vet…”

Him: “Oh. So, I guess I’m digging a hole…” 

Good thing it wasn’t six feet

With darkness approaching Adam headed to the back yard with a shovel to dig a hole. He selected a spot under the only tree in our yard.

What should have been an easy task became a comedy of errors as I watched from the kitchen window. While it was a lovely and fitting spot for a grave, what he did not anticipate were all of the roots permeating the soil.

He dug and he chopped and he twisted roots to break them off. Finally, after a lot of effort he had a hole dug. He retrieved the box from the deck. I walked away from the window as he began shovelling dirt into the hole to cover it.

The boys wanted to see the spot once they knew he had been buried and because it was now dark we explained that he was in a nice spot under the tree. I suggested that perhaps they could decorate rocks to place as grave markers. They both seemed at peace with that idea and went to bed.

It’s a little late now…

About two hours later as we were preparing to drift off to sleep ourselves, Adam turned to me.

Him: “Uhm, I know this is kind of late now but he WAS in the orange shoebox right?”

Me: “Yes. He was in the orange shoebox…”

Him: “Good. I figured he was but you didn’t actually say he was…”

Me: *laughs hysterically*

Him: (laughing) “I was just thinking how much I didn’t want to dig up an empty box in the dark.”


Thank you for seventeen years of unconditional love, Dawson. You are missed.

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  1. Losing a pet is soooo hard….we had our shih tzu Susie for 14 years and it’s been three years since she left us….next week we pick up a new puppy to join the family but it took quite awhile for us to be ready for that…. beautifully written Tammi (hug)

  2. Pets are family, and it’s such a gut-wrenching feeling to lose family. We are responsible for them from the day they come to us, til the day they leave.

    My little guy was Tyson… He’s been gone for a couple of years now, and I still think of how great he was. I hope that Tyson and Dawson have had a chance to meet and chase mice together. 🙂


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