October 30, 2017

Pet Bereavement

Posted in Judaism at 11:57 pm by chavalah

Happier times

Halloween approaches and I’m rounding out the first month, roughly, after the death of my cat, Leah. There’s so much good that I’ve been privy to as well, from the outpouring of support from my loved ones to some unrelated positive milestones in my life. But October was still a rough time.

On September 30, sitting in Yom Kippur services, I finally allowed myself to entertain the horrifying notion that my cat might be at the end of her life. She had only fallen sick, or at least noticeably so to me, during the Days of Awe. But I’d taken her to two appointments at the vet’s, had another one set up for an ultrasound, and I saw the look on the technician’s face when I explained to her what the vet had seen in Leah’s x-ray. On Tuesday, October 2, the day that I found her body, my mother was coaxing me on the phone home from work to accept this possibility.

Leah died within days of the anniversary of Chavalah, my childhood cat’s death. She also died days after a horrible mass shooting in Las Vegas, and during a time when several of my local cohort were anxiously awaiting an update from our friend in Puerto Rico (she was finally able to find a wifi connection, thank goodness). Yet my Facebook post announcing Leah’s passing was filled with love and support from all quarters. I truly feel very blessed.

My parents drove to Silver Spring from Baltimore that first night to take Leah’s body in preparation for burying her alongside the childhood cats. My sister stayed on the phone with me as I cried and babbled in confusion. When my three-year-old niece saw me a few days later she stayed by my side, complimented my hair and asked me how I was feeling.

But despite the fact that I’m surrounded by pet lovers online and off, the scope of my grief still feels unwieldy. For the first couple weeks, I scoured for virtual and in-person support groups but didn’t feel fully ready to own my feelings. I’m sure that anyone who has lost a pet feels some sort of guilt. I was spared the decision of putting Leah down, or having her die in a place that she hated, but her death was still so sudden. At 10 years old she was a senior cat, but just barely; Chavalah lived to be seven years older than her. Surely there was some sign that I’d missed, stupid ways in which I’d been distracted in the weeks and months leading up to her death. I’d failed as a cat guardian, maybe I’d even killed her. It’s taking time to learn how to forgive myself.

Naturally, I also feel the pull towards my faith. It felt awkward to be wrapped up in the end of Leah’s life during a holiday that is about human redemption. Leah (who I named after the biblical matriarch, similar to how I named Chavie, as well as this blog, after the 19th century Yiddish character) was not a Jew, but I am. Surely there’s a place within progressive Judaism to deal with the grief of losing non-humans. Yet I feel uncomfortable, and am not as involved with my synagogue as I could be. Shortly after Leah’s death the cantor emailed me as part of the flash choir to take part in Simchat Torah, but I declined. I didn’t have it in me to feel joyful.

I’m at a slightly better place now. I’m reading, preparing for NaNoWriMo, enjoying parts of life again. Now I’m guilty because I no longer expect to see Leah in the condo or need to play YouTube videos to make me fall asleep at night.

This weekend I’m finally going to an in-person bereavement session at the Montgomery County Humane Society. I’m hoping that it’ll be uplifting to be around other people who’ve recently experienced this type of pain. I’m curious about how they cope with grief, with time moving forward and the possibility of adopting new companions. I’ve found grief an impossible journey to go through alone, which is why I’m often talking about it in person and online. The bereavement group feels like a step out of quicksand and onto a solid path again.

I don’t know where this ends; in fact I’m not sure that applied to death and grief. I’m sure that I’ll ultimately contextualize Leah’s memory differently than I did Chavie’s, given the various differences in their circumstances. Leah and Chavie were two different cats, and I was a different guardian to each of them. But I want to thank those closest to me, those who checked in from afar, and those who checked in after several years, for being my support group. Grief is a strong emotion, but so too are love and compassion. I wish you all, humans and pets alike, the best going forward.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] next cat. I know that I shouldn’t blame myself for what happened to Leah (for more on that topic, click here), and that, to be blunt about it, death comes for all of us. But instead of walking a tightrope of […]


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