Conversations in Grief Blog: Empty Bowls and Discarded Collars
Empty Bowls and Discarded Collars
by Hilary Furnish
We have often expressed (in the wise words of Dr. Kenneth Doka) that the worst loss is the one we are experiencing. Usually, we apply this to the death of a human loved one or the many losses that may come in the wake of their passing. However, there are those other beings that fill our lives with joy and meaning, whose death we often dismiss as less worthy of lament. They are our pets. The many furry, fin, and scale-covered companions that join us in our homes and throughout our lives. We delight in their very existence and in the ways they can make the world feel brighter. This also means that when they die, we will grieve and that this grief is valid.
I am an animal lover and have experienced my own grief over losing beloved pets over the years. In my room, I keep the spiked collar that once belonged to my cat Oscar. We brought him back from Africa with us and over ten years we had him with us. He walked the halls with me as I was in labor with our children, kept rabbits out of our neighbors' yards, woke me each morning at 4 a.m. to snuggle under the blankets, and occasionally was known to scale the roof of our next-door neighbor’s house. He lived a good life and brought a lot of joy to our lives. When Oscar was ten, he was diagnosed with fast-growing cancer and died a week later. I did my best to cope with the loss, as it was “just a cat.” But each morning I woke at 4 am and instead of Oscar, I was met with my grief. He was never “just a cat,” and the grief I felt was very real and needed to be acknowledged.
In losing a pet, we may experience something called disenfranchised grief. This is a grief that is unsupported or unacknowledged. Our house feels emptier. We still wake up in time to fill bowls that don’t need filling. We ache for a companion to walk with or stare at an empty terrarium without a text or call from loved ones offering support. The grief is real, and we may feel very alone and unsupported.
How then do we cope when we lose a pet and do not feel supported in ways we need? In coping with the loss of a pet, rituals and making space for remembrance can be helpful. In my yard, I have a garden stone that has a cat with angel wings. Oscar is not buried there, but it, along with the catnip I allow to keep growing, reminds me of the four feet that walked the garden, keeping bunnies at bay. Making a space of your own with a photo, a paw print, or another object can be supportive. Talking with others about the significance of your loss and giving yourself permission to grieve as you need to may help in the days ahead.
I want to end with the words of Rudyard Kipling (an English novelist/poet) and to encourage you to make space for the grief you may be feeling for the loss of a pet. Your love for them is real and your grief is too.
I have done mostly what most men do,
And pushed it out of my mind;
But I can’t forget, if I wanted to,
Four-Feet trotting behind.
Day after day, the whole day through—
Wherever my road inclined—
Four-Feet said, ‘I am coming with you!’
And trotted along behind.
Now I must go by some other round,—
Which I shall never find—
Somewhere that does not carry the sound
Of Four-Feet trotting behind.