In March, I began to notice that one of my cats was much thinner than the other. Leo had always been the smaller one of the two, but every time I pet him I increasingly felt more bone than flesh. My boyfriend and I took him to the veterinarian assuming he was allergic to his food or something else equally mild. The doctor first inspected our other cat, Nico, who has had his fair share of health problems but overall is a plump and playful young cat. Nico was fine. Then the doctor examined Leo. He told us Leo had lost almost half his weight in six months and was having trouble breathing. He believed Leo had feline infectious peritonitis and explained to us what that is: a common, incurable disease with a near 100 percent mortality rate. I tried to ask how long, how did this happen? I nearly choked on the words, swallowed hard as my eyes welled up. There were no clear answers. It could be months, it could be weeks, he said explaining how almost every cat raised in a group setting has the virus but only in some does the virus mutate into the actual disease that turns budding kittens into weak skeletons unable to eat, unable to breathe, wasting away rapidly into bare dust. The doctor left the room with Leo to run a few tests to further confirm the diagnosis. I looked over at my boyfriend, David, and the tears flowed down my cheekbones and dripped past my chin. I paced neurotically back and forth , murmuring and hiccupping sobs for a few moments until I stopped abruptly and sat down defeated, looking at David dead-on, saying, “I just can’t do this again, I just can’t.”
Seven years ago I had a four-year-old dog that was my number one love. As a kid, I picked him out of the litter; I named him, fed him, walked him, played with him, and in return, he faithfully followed me everywhere and spent every night with his bed pushed right beside mine. As I entered high school, my dog, Connor, was still my number one but I became distracted by boys, ugly friendships, my father’s alcoholism and consumed by my own depression. The winter I turned sixteen, I was heartbroken, my grades were slipping as A’s turned to C’s and I was betraying all of my friends for meaningless flings with rather undeserving boys. I was burying myself into a hole, but my one source of comfort and joy was Connor. He was the one thing during this long, dark period that could bring a smile to my face. But that January he was diagnosed with lymph node cancer and was given three months to live. When I came home from school on a lazy Friday at the end of April, he was lying underneath the kitchen table barely lifting his head off the cold kitchen floor. I lay down next to him and stroked his thin fur for hours, dozing in and out. Just before sunset, my dad nudged me gently and said, “I think we lost him.” I placed my hand on Connor’s stomach and felt his final breath. And then he let go.
Leo lasted only a week after his diagnosis. He withered away quickly, his bones protruding from his frail body. He rarely ate except to nibble at a few bites of canned fish we set out for him. He used to constantly meow, but that week he didn’t make a sound except for the low vibration of him gasping for air. He used to walk around and sit on my lap, but instead he fixed himself to one spot on the living room rug.
I kept telling myself how strong I could be because I had been through this before, how it shouldn’t affect me as much because I had already gone through watching my favorite dog die slowly and gruesomely over three months. But I hated coming home, hated trying desperately to feed him, and hated giving him his medicine without any sign of hope. David kept mentioning how we might have to put Leo down and each time I lashed out at him. I didn’t want it to be the end yet. “I just can’t handle watching things die!” he cried, the agony in his pale blue eyes a begging plea to just rip the bandage off already. But I couldn’t handle what life would be like after losing our year-old cat, how Nico would feel realizing his brother wasn’t around anymore, and how our little family, our little home would feel so incomplete once Leo inevitably died.
A week after Leo passed away, I went hiking with my friend Meaghan. The beginning of our conversation was mostly casual as we talked about work and our love lives, but she eventually tip-toed around the subject of Leo as if to push me to trust her and open up about the heartbreaking loss.
Meaghan told me how she lost her childhood dog as a teenager and how hurt she was by it.
“Most people don’t understand, but losing an animal can be just as devastating as any other death. You make a connection and it’s broken,” she said as we stood looking outward at the San Francisco Bay through the crisscrossing mesh of parched redwood trees. “I still think about her every day.”
Her words stuck with me. I used to always feel subtly sorely silly about still being so tremendously sad over Connor years later. Society silently seemed to tell me that a pet’s death was sad but trivial, that after a few months I should move on.
As Meaghan and I walked away from the coastal trail we had been taking, drifting into bright green pastures caked in citrus-colored poppies and bathing in the warm sun, I confided in Meaghan of how I coped with Connor’s death.
I told her how I fell apart after he died, how I sank further into my self-destructive hole. Mental breakdowns were a regular occurrence. I swallowed pills with alcohol and I tried to find happiness in the wrong places –confusing lust for love and consciously letting boys use me. Losing the only thing I considered precious and sacred made me believe I had nothing left so it didn’t matter how much I screwed myself over; I already hit bottom.
Although I was painfully immature then, I was still afraid that after Leo I might react in the same explosive way. In the week leading up to his death, I refused to let go because I didn’t want our sweet, little cat to die so young, I didn’t want that reality, but also selfishly I was scared of my own unstable coping mechanisms, that I might tear myself apart again.
But this second time around made me realize that no amount of drugs or despairing woe would bring him back. Getting angry, cursing spirits, and drugging myself numb would only make my circumstance worse, as I learned when Connor died.
From the night Leo left until now, I’ve started writing in my journal more. Although I was clearly a tornado of emotional chaos after Connor’s death, I did one thing that helped me process the pain in a healthy way: write. I wrote melancholy lyrics and poetry and long essays about spirituality and human-animal bonding. Transferring the pain openly and honestly onto paper forced me to face it instead of dismiss it and allowed me to grow from the heartache.
When Connor died, I shut down and isolated myself from friends and family. With Leo, I assumed I would do the same: reject my boyfriend and maybe even grow to resent Nico for living when Leo died (as harsh and dramatic as that sounds).
Leo was always considered “my cat” and Nico, David’s, but with Leo gone, Nico was needier and I found myself spending more time with him and caring for him more. All that love and attention I reserved for Leo was finding a new home with Nico. Confiding with Meaghan and David about the pain of Leo’s sudden death and pouring my maternal efforts into caring for Nico didn’t make the pain any less real or traumatic, but did make it easier to transition to living without Leo.
I still cry when I think about Leo and still wish I got just a little extra time with him, but I’ve learned to be grateful and cherish the moments I did have with him.
Coping with death is never easy and the cycle of grief weighs you down emotionally and physically, but confronting the pain with yourself and with others and having a steady support system by your side are the first steps towards healing.
With Connor, I hid the pain and was left more wounded and broken, but with Leo I forced myself to face my feelings and deal with them maturely and fearlessly. And in turn, the emptiness left from Leo has been filled with more love and gratitude for him and my little family now.
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Also see: On Forgiving Your Pet
Also by Jessica: Can You Ever Become Friends with Your Ex?