Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

On Letting Go After the Death of a Pet

The following essay is a guest post written by Emily Morris, whose previous guest essays can be read here, here,here, and here.

I was twenty-five when I went to the no-kill cat shelter in town and met the cat who lived in the office there. He had been there for a year, and the first thing the woman who worked there said about him was: “He bites.” I don’t know what it says about me that I decided I loved him almost immediately. He was huge and furry with green eyes and a pink nose. He was four, and his name was Elroy.

I stuffed this yowling angry dude into a carrier and brought him home. It wasn’t long before we bonded over what I believe was his acute sense of humor. He loved to roll around on his back on the ground and stare at me upside down. He was 18 pounds and most of it was fur. He enjoyed sitting in my green chair like a person and also had a habit of hiding behind curtains and CHARGING out at top speed which was both hysterical and sort of terrifying.

My “joke” with Elroy was always that he didn’t like anyone but me. When some friends came over and met him for the first time, he turned and bit their two-year-old on the arm. (Thankfully, her sweatshirt protected her and she was fine.) He made a habit of attacking my mom almost every time she visited. He did not enjoy people walking by him quickly. If you ever visited me in the course of the fourteen years I had Elroy: Sorry, he probably swatted you, bit you, or tried to attack you in some way.

He lived with me through three apartments, and bonded with Bob (,who later became my husband) and who was a good enough guy to tolerate it when we got one dog — and then another.

Every night we would put our dogs to bed in their crates and then Elroy would come into our bedroom yowling his whiny meow at us, climb up and lie next to me while I read or looked at my phone. If I didn’t pet him enough, he would lick, then bite, my arm a little. I called this our “buddy time.”

He passed a lot of birthdays and seemed to be doing better every year. I would tell him all the time he could “feel free to live forever!” That was cool with me! But I tried to prepare myself for the fact that he wouldn’t. As he hit 16, 17, 18, I would lie with him on my bed sometimes and talk to him and tell him I loved him and I hoped he would never get sick, that he would just pass away peacefully and we would all be fine. I really wanted to believe it.

On April 1st, 2016, he turned 19 and was still running around and being his feisty self. Maybe not climbing up onto the tables like he used to. Sometimes he seemed a little slower, but he would chase the dogs and bop them on the heads; he always ruled the roost.

Then one night in early May I noticed the dogs acting strangely when they went into our guest room. I went in and found Elroy under the bed. His eyes were very dilated and far away. He was taking slow breaths every minute or so, and he wasn’t responsive when I petted him. I called Bob in and lay down on the floor beside my buddy. I told him not to linger, it was okay. I knew he was going. Bob was asking me to pull him out, to do something . . . but there was nothing to do. I knew that, by the time I could get him to the vet, chances are he would already be gone. He was nineteen years old . . . he had had a long happy life. He was doing what I had always asked him to do. He didn’t get sick . . . it was just his time. He died about ten minutes later. I petted his toe tufts and gave him kisses. We buried him in our back yard.

I wish that trying to prepare myself for this made it easier. I have thought about death and dying and grief for as long as I can remember. I know there are some people who never think about this — I am both incredulous and envious of that. I don’t think we can ever really prepare ourselves for someone we love leaving…and that is what makes it so painful and overwhelming. We all know that logically this will happen. Being alive on this planet means eventually someone you love will die before you. But you can’t trick your heart into feeling it before it happens, or not feeling it once it does.

After Elroy died, my heart was broken. Most of the spring was a tearful blur; I felt a weird guilt about being so sad over MY CAT. It helped when I thought about it in terms of time — Elroy was the longest relationship I have had outside of my parents. There’s no one else I have lived with for fourteen years. I was twenty-five when Elroy came home and almost forty when he died. It’s a big chunk of my life.

I picture grief as smoke that permeates the air, filling every crack. You think you have found a safe space away from it . . . you think it’s finally cleared. And then out of nowhere it’s tickling your throat and stinging your eyes — you’re right back in it. I have looked for all kinds of CURES for it, but I haven’t found any yet. What helped me the most was talking and crying. (And crying. And crying.) and I’ve read a lot of things about grief and searched out many quotes. Some helped me to feel justified in being devastated over the death of a pet. But I also know I don’t need to explain it because anyone who has had a furry friend and family member leave understands.

I never thought I would be That Person, but six months to the day after Elroy died I got a tattoo of him. He’s my catnip king forever! It helps that I know that he loved me as much as I loved him. I was always the only person who could pick him up and the only one he’d let carry him around without biting. He sought me out every night for our buddy time, and he tried to sleep on my pillow as close to my head as he could. I miss his loud purring in my ear which made it impossible to hear anything else. All of those things are bittersweet, and that’s comforting. As much as anything can be when you’re grieving for a dear friend.

One poem I read in all my grief searches was “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, which ends like this:

Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Emily Morris lives in Boston with her musician husband and her insane and adorable dogs. She’s currently drinking too much coffee, watching movies she’s already seen, or bleaching her roots. Find links to her everywhere on the Internet at https://about.me/prettycrabby.

23 comments… add one
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    Juliecatharine February 23, 2017, 1:46 pm

    Lovely essay. I’m so glad Elroy was loved and understood. He sounds like my Fiji, he was a big beautiful tuxedo kitty who adored me but terrorized anyone who dared walk by him. When my ex and I would fight he attacked him. Putting him down when he had a stroke at only five devastated me but it was the only humane choice. Burying him alone was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but I am glad I was the one to lay him to rest. Miss you buddy.

    PS this is why it’s good that I work from home because I am definitely teary right now.

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  • _s_ February 23, 2017, 2:12 pm


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  • Deni February 23, 2017, 3:04 pm

    We lost our old rescue dog Jasper two days before Christmas. He was at least 14 or 15 yrs old and had congestive heart failure so we knew his days with us were drawing to an end, but that didn’t make it any easier to say goodbye. It is finally getting better but the tears still come, mostly when I’m driving through the neighborhood and think of our walks together. Our vet sent a lovely card with a border of different dog faces that said, “If love alone could keep you here, you would have lived forever.” We keep in on our mantle.

    Thanks for sharing your story. Now I’m crying at work too!!

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    • Emily February 23, 2017, 8:50 pm

      I’m so sorry for the loss of your pal.

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  • Vathena February 23, 2017, 3:25 pm

    Well, add me to the list of people crying at work. I’m so sorry about your buddy. Pets give us a special kind of love and losing them is a special kind of heartbreak. My husband and I adopted our kitty right after we moved in together, and she’s been with us through engagement, marriage, homeownership, and new-parenthood. I hope she has many more years left with us, but dread the day when she won’t be with us anymore.

    When I was seven, our neighbor’s cat had kittens, and we adopted one. Mable the orange tabby was my constant companion until I left for college (my roommate thought I was weird for having multiple framed pictures of my cat, and I would ask my mom to hold up the phone so I could talk to Mable every time I called…yeah). I was 25 and living on my own when my mom called at 3:30am, sobbing, and my immediate thought was that my brother had been in a car accident. I was actually a tiny bit relieved when my mom managed to gasp, “Mable…died!” She had passed peacefully in her sleep, in her favorite spot. My mom still has a tiny urn with Mable’s ashes.

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    TheLadyE February 23, 2017, 3:38 pm

    Thank you for this sweet essay. It was both soothing and also heartbreaking to read. I brought my little dog home as a puppy when I was 25. She’s 8 now, nearly 9, and she is just plain and simply the love of my life. My little someone. My therapy dog, my emotional support dog, my love lump. The vet thinks we can get her to 20, and heavens I hope so. I’m painfully, bittersweetly aware that she’s middle-aged now and every single day I take time to spend with her, to take her on a walk, play with her, love on her, and tell her how much she means to me. I will be absolutely devastated when she passes. I’ve started to try to prepare myself, but it’s not really working and I don’t think anything will really make it better.

    +1 more for the crying at work club. 🙁

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      Juliecatharine February 23, 2017, 3:45 pm

      I feel the same way about my dog, Ruby. She’s four and hopefully has a solid decade to go but when she does pass I’m seriously going to lose it. I try to let her know how loved she is every day. Goddamn I need to stop crying!

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        TheLadyE February 23, 2017, 4:00 pm

        Aww – she looks like a very sweet and lively dog from her picture! I hope she lives a very long, happy, healthy life with you.

        My parents actually got my Lottie for me. At first, I didn’t want another dog after our family dog passed because it was too hard to watch them get old and die. My dad said something I’ll never forget: “Just because dogs don’t live as long as we do doesn’t mean they don’t need love and a family while they’re here. It’s not their fault.”

        I just love Lottie so much. She’s given me so much unconditional love, loyalty, and affection that no matter what I do I’ll never be able to repay, much as I try. <3

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    Juliecatharine February 23, 2017, 3:42 pm

    Now I’m full on crying. Crap. I knew I shouldn’t have come back to read the comments! Here’s hoping all our fur buddies are playing, snuggling, and waiting for us across that goddamn rainbow bridge.

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  • Taylor February 23, 2017, 5:06 pm

    This is beautiful, and such a poignant description of grief. Yesterday was 17 years since my dad died, and I’ve been prickling with it. Your words, and the beautiful poem, were an unexpected salve.

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    • Emily February 23, 2017, 8:52 pm

      I am glad this was helpful for you and I’m sorry for the loss of your dad.

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      • Taylor February 25, 2017, 7:52 pm

        Thank you! I’m sorry for the loss of your Elroy.

  • Sue Jones February 23, 2017, 5:44 pm

    I had my tuxedo girl cat for over 18 years. I got her during a difficult breakup with boyfriend #2. She was with me through most of medical school, 6 different living situations, 3 cross country moves, the launch of my profession, boyfriend #s 3,4 and 5 (who later became my husband,) a dog, and through the birth of my son. She suddenly died at home when my son was 2.5. It was her time, but she was my one bit of stability from my mid -20’s to my mid 40’s. Miss her.

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      Dear Wendy February 23, 2017, 6:44 pm

      That’s how I feel about my Simone (still alive and kicking at 17 1/2). Got her at age 22, and have had through her eight apartments, several boyfriends, a cross-country move, a marriage, and two children. Still thinking she might live forever…

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      • Emily February 23, 2017, 8:51 pm

        Oh Miss Simone! I hope she will!! Xoxo

  • Cheesecaker2911 February 23, 2017, 7:40 pm

    I had to stop reading. It reminds me that my cat, Princess isn’t getting any younger. I’m dreading when her time will come. She’s 14, and I’ve had her since she was 4 months old. Just thinking about that makes me want to cry so I’m gonna stop typing. I’m hoping she lives forever or at least long enough to see my first actual kid.

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  • Emily February 23, 2017, 8:50 pm

    Thanks all for your nice comments and sorry if I made you cry.

    Grief is hard but love continues. I love Elroy just as much as I ever did and I believe he still loves me too. ❤

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  • ktfran February 24, 2017, 10:06 am

    I’m not an animal person, and I even had tears in my eyes… I’m happy Elroy found someone that made him happy and that he had a great life. You were a good mom.

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  • bondgirl February 24, 2017, 10:59 am

    I don’t care what some people say, it’s never “just a pet.” They are part of the family and give us so much love. With so many animals that need a home, it always warms my heart to hear stories like this. Dogs and cats that find their furrever homes and given the most wonderful lives. They deserve nothing less. Reading this story makes me wanna hug my two furry freeloaders….they have no clue what to do when they see a mouse — they’re actually afraid of them (!!) but damn do they give me so much joy. <3

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  • K February 24, 2017, 1:11 pm

    This was so beautiful – tears in my eyes! Elroy sounds like a great, feisty cat, and I’m sorry for your loss. I had 2 cats growing up that my mom continued to take care of after I went away to college, and one passed away a few years ago and one passed away almost a year ago. I was closer with the cat that passed away a few years ago and I wish so badly that I could pet him and hug him again, and boop his pink nose and hear his meows. I’ll never stop missing him, but my mom and I often talk about all the funny memories we have of him and our other cat.

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  • gitte February 25, 2017, 8:50 pm

    sending *hugs*

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  • MoominOtter February 26, 2017, 9:10 pm

    Oh, this was so lovely and heartbreaking! I have four cats, all of whom I love dearly, and each of whom is completely singular. Elroy, I am privileged to have read about your saucy self. Your mom was lucky to have you, and you her.

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  • saravg January 17, 2020, 3:00 am

    Hi Emily!
    Thanks for sharing your story! It is beautiful as well as heartbreaking.

    2 months ago I’ve had the same situation. My guinea pig, died after being really ill. She was diagnosed with cancer.

    In one hand, I loved my pet and I didn’t want her to go but on the other hand I didn’t want her to continue suffering. My guinea pig was really special to me because she was my first pet, and I discovered that a pet is not just a pet. She was part of the family and we all miss her.

    I hope you feel better!

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