My family and other animals
Losing a pet can be as devastating as losing family, but why is this grief never taken seriously?
I once watched this documentary on robot pet dogs in Japan. The dogs are programmed to love, be loved and cared for, much like a real life dog. The idea was to provide a companion that would never be parted from you by any inconvenience, not even death. However, when one particular family finds their dog 'malfunctioning' and decide to get it fixed, they discover that the company has stopped manufacturing spare parts for the dogs. They are faced with the eventuality of their forever dog dying and they are inconsolable. It should have seemed strange, but it didn't. Their dog wasn't flesh and blood but their affection for it was real, as was their grief.
Losing a pet has been known to cause a psychological reaction very similar to that of losing a family member. However, the pet owner isn't expected to mourn too publicly and definitely not mourn for too long. It's almost as if their grief should be altered to fit into a socially approved time table after which they must discreetly 'move on'. Because of this perhaps, many pet owners struggle to cope and often end up repressing their feelings and mourning in silence. Science now tells us that the intensity of this grief is magnified because the loss of a pet is a many layered thing, it is the loss of a companion (in some cases the sole companion), a routine, a protégé and the loss of a source of unconditional love. So expecting a pet owner to find solace by 'getting another pet' or simply getting over it is a thoughtless way to respond.
To understand this subject better, Soup spoke to a few pet owners about the relationship they shared with their pet and how they dealt with the pain of losing their beloved friend.
Buzo and Niranth
A charming little black pup is adopted by an Army officer and soon becomes a unit favourite.
As told by Niranth Bymana:
Buzo was a black labrador, with a shiny coat and bright eyes that always gave away his naughtiness. I got him during an exercise operation for the Indian Army, in the Western part of India. I was told by a villager that there was a litter for adoption and the minute I saw this guy, I knew he's coming home with me. We grew up together, quite literally. I was a young officer and learning the ropes of soldiering when I got Buzo home. He grew up around soldiers, a large family living away from their loved ones. Always willing to play, he was a very popular dog. However, evenings were meant to be spent together. He would know exactly when I would return from office and no matter what one would try to bribe him with, he wouldn't move away from the wooden gate that led to my cottage.
On losing Buzo
I was on a high altitude tenure and couldn't take him with me so I sent him home to Coorg to be cared for by my parents. There he would run around in the estate, quite often by himself. But one day he lost his way and died in an accident. Back then I lived in a small bunker that hardly had space for me to stand. Cut off from rest of the world on a mountain top, I would get to call home once a week. I happened to call home that day and my mother's trembling voice gave it away. The pain of loss was excruciating but having nobody around to talk made it worse.
I couldn't help blaming myself for not being there but unfortunately I never had a choice. I lost my closest friend.
On remembering him
I still have most of his things but I prefer to keep them safely in a trunk, an army trunk from those days.
Fungus and Anna
A reseilient little kitten disarms her owner with her quiet equanimity and grace.
As told by Anna Joseph:
A half-thought comes home
I had started to toy with the idea of adopting a cat. I was working from home a lot back then and spent most days by myself. I would let myself think about how it would be nice to have a four-legged friend at my feet while I cooked or lay in bed trying to write or read. Having co-parented a cat before, I knew just how fulfilling it was. I just wasn't sure I wanted to do it alone. I met some friends for drinks one night and one of them told me there were two kittens he'd spotted who needed a home. I told him I definitely wanted to adopt at some point I just wasn't sure now was the time for me. It really felt like it was too soon, it was still a half-thought in my head. The next morning I woke up and heard that someone had jumped from the top floor of my building. I had this weird, familiar feeling in my stomach - one that always creeps up on me when I hear of a death close by. Then my phone rang. It was the friend from last night, saying one of the cats had just died and the other would die too if someone didn't take her home. I had this strange cycle of life moment. I didn't have to think about it anymore, I told him I'd come get her. I hadn't seen any pictures of her, it didn't really matter at that point. When I got to their house she was sitting in a little box, light brown with dark stripes - oddly enough, that's what I had imagined she'd look like.
Fungus the fighter
A freak accident left Fungus with a sort of brain trauma that would often lead to seizures. Living with an epileptic pet means your whole life changes. She had to be given medicine twice a day everyday, at the exact same time. 9 am and 9 pm. If I was late, she'd have a seizure. Everything had to be planned around her. If I couldn't be home on time I'd have to find someone else to give her the medicine. Fungus was the kind of cat you couldn't not love and so there were always people around her willing to help. I was lucky. I stopped staying out late and made sure I was home every night. I used to be terrible at coming home - sometimes spending days together at a friend's. Now home was the only place I wanted to be. Even though I got used to seeing her have seizures, somedays were hard. There were days when she had over 20. And apart from rushing her to the vet and heavily sedating her, there wasn't much I could do. The doctors suggested I put her down a few times but she always fought back so hard I decided I would fight too. For every bad day there were a hundred happy ones.
Coping with losing a pet to euthanasia
It was a Sunday. I was out working for a bit. When I came back home she wasn't in good shape at all. She usually had a few seizures and bounced back but that day the convulsions didn't stop. My sister and I took her to the vet. He sedated her, said we should observe her for a while and then see. An hour later she was still convulsing. He said it would be the right thing to let her go - not let her suffer like this. We put her to sleep that night. It was the first Sunday of May. I realised later that she also came home on the first Sunday of May the previous year. It was a year unlike anything I'd imagined but a most significant one.
I didn't cry at the vet's - it didn't feel real just yet. I waited till I got home. There were also things to figure out - it was late at night and we couldn't find a place to bury or cremate her. Everyone I spoke to said I'd have to wait till the morning. Having things to do keeps your mind distracted from the reality of the loss for a bit. Once those arrangements were made, I let myself cry. I knew she wasn't suffering anymore though and I took solace in that. I chose to focus on that.
Learning from loss
There are definitely people who don't understand what it's like to love and lose a pet. Those people can be callous. Since losing Fungus there have been a few other difficult things I've had to deal with and all of these experiences together have led me to a point where I'm now only interested in people who are sensitive enough to try and understand any difficult situation, even though they might not have been there themselves. Loss of any kind will teach you important life lessons.
Alice and Bhavana
Two best friends wade through relationships and cities, together.
As told by Bhavana:
Alice was with me for 6 years, we changed cities, relationships, apartments and even survived me getting married. She was my very best friend. And she was the first animal I had after I left home, so she was mine alone. She understood everything I said to her. The husband was always quite jealous of her, thinking I loved her more than him and he was quite right.
We were living in a high rise apartment in Mumbai on the 15th floor. Alice was always quite the hunter and had killed many pigeons and brought me lots of rats/mice as presents. She was quite athletic and adventurous but careful too. One day my mother who lives in Bangalore fell ill and I had to rush home to be by her side leaving Alice with my husband. After a few days he had friends over and during that time Alice went missing. My husband thought she was out on one of her adventures and would come back. But after 3 days and no sign of Alice, he put up posters around the building and then found out from the housekeeping staff that they had found a dead cat under our window 3 days ago. The housekeeping man had picked her up and thrown her out with the garbage.
Guilt and anguish
When I went back 4 days later, I looked all over the building and called and called for Alice for days. Finally the housekeeping man told me the same story and described the cat to me. I was shattered. I just couldn't deal with it. It was worse that it had happened when I wasn't around and that she was thrown away like garbage. I cried hysterically for days and just shut everyone and everything out for months.
No one understood my pain. My husband felt guilty in the beginning I guess and then just left me alone. People came to console me, friends and loved ones, but no one loved Alice like I had. No one knew what we shared. I was made to feel guilty for 'wallowing in my sadness' I remember the husband and I took a trip to Pondicherry for our anniversary a week or so later and that was the worst trip ever. A friend told me 3 weeks later that 'it's nice and romantic to stay with sadness, but we need to make an effort to change', I guess that brought me out of it. I had to learn to deal because other people needed me to be 'normal'.
Pattu and Bops
A survivor with 'biting' humour weaves his way into the fold.
As told by Bopanna MG:
At least once a day, Pattu would run around the bungalow for a good five minutes. Not chasing anything or anyone. Just for the heck of it. And at maximum speed. Once he was exhausted he would sit down, paw over another, like a king. As though he never did any activity at all. And he liked biting certain people. Even though he knew who they were. All in all, he had a fantastic personality.
Of Pattus and Pattis
My dad named him 'Patti' initially, but our help at home at the time couldn't get a grasp of the South Indian twang and started calling him Pattu. He was shorter than your average sized dog but was a stick of dynamite. My father picked him up from outside our house gate. He was a mongrel (stray) and his mother had abandoned him. As the story goes, he was the pup with a 'strongest survives' attitude. We already had our other dog Hazel at home and got him as a friend for her. He ultimately ended up fathering her children.
On losing Pattu unexpectedly
I wasn't at home when his untimely passing occurred. I was en-route to a meeting and got the news from my mom when I was in the taxi heading for office. I did get a bit emotional in the cab but had to reel it in since I was going to be around a lot of people in a matter of minutes. It was an unexpected loss going by how he was in terms of health and age. And there was no time to take in the loss at that moment since a certain individual told me that things like this happen and that work needs to be done. I have recovered from it, and personally I think I deal with loss in a calm manner. So that helped. It really affected my sister and it had more of an impact on my mom and dad than anybody else since they spent the most amount of time with him.
Duke and Vidhya
A rule breaker from the 90s gets firmly entrenched in collective family memory.
As recounted by Vidhya Sankarnarayan:
Duke was born into my family, to my first dog, Jill. We did everything together for the next 8 years. From sneaking licks off each other's ice-cream to defying my mother's house rules. He was my best friend and brother, even more so after Jill died.
My father was transferred to Tokyo when I was 16 and Duke was 7. It was 1993, a time when taking your pet from Mumbai to Japan meant navigating quarantine procedures that felt miserably hopeless. So we decided it felt safest to leave Duke with family friends who knew and loved him well, just until we came back in a couple of years. We kept in touch with the friends who fostered Duke during this time. And we called them the very first night we landed back in India. I remember standing impatiently by my father while he talked on the phone, and as I watched his face fell and his eyes spilled over with tears. Duke had died a month ago of a viral infection. They didn't know how to tell us, they were heartbroken too.
I felt like I had swallowed a blackhole. And for the next few days, weeks, months...for what felt like years, I woke up every morning to remember that Duke had died, and to swallow that blackhole again. "Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies," says Edna St. Vincent Millay, "no body that matters, that is." It's so very true. My childhood passed away with Duke.
Telling and sharing stories about Duke with my family is what helped the most. I suppose you could think of telling stories as a ritual. It has become muscle memory between my folks and me these days, to tell Duke stories when we do his favourite things - like go for a walk, or loll in bed, or eat cake...
Losing a pet feels as and perhaps even more painful than losing family or friends to me. Why is one expected to move on from the loss? Well, nobody wants to dwell on the kind of loss that they find un-relatable.
Hash and Supriya
A guardian angel and her doppelgänger.
As told by Supriya Sarin:
One of us
I've grown up with dogs and for me they will always be family, just like Hash always was.
Finding Hash again
Hash fell sick with tick fever that led to chronic kidney failure. Her last 15 days were terrible, for her and for us. She was dying everyday. The last night I remember falling asleep and when I woke up she was gone. It was almost as if she had waited till we went to sleep. After Hash left we decided to adopt another dog who somehow was exactly like her. This helps us all remember Hash without too much pain.
A strong support system
I am surrounded by people who love dogs and consider them as family. In fact all my close friends came over the day she passed. There is no question of feeling embarrassed or feeling sad for someone you've lost. I feel happy that she was a part of our lives and sad that she had to go.
I saved a piece of the scarf she slept on while she was sick, it is now in my temple. I believe Hash saved us from tragedy and so to me she will always be an angel.
Bubbu and Chonds
A philosophical fur ball leaves his basket to find a forever home.
As narrated by Chondamma Cariappa:
When I was ready to adopt a pet, a dear friend of mine told me about an abandoned cat he had found below a building in a basket. He had been taken care of very well by the foster parents and was looking for a forever home. I brought him home and called him Bubbu. We shared a deep, meaningful relationship. I learnt a lot from him. He was patient, forgiving, always around when I was feeling low and most of all, loving.
Coping with guilt and loss
One of his favourite spots in the apartment was the window. He could sit there for hours staring at the sea. One morning, he fell off from the same place and passed on. I took a long time to deal with it probably because I used to feel guilty about leaving the window open and held myself responsible for the situation. I have recovered after a really long time. I felt that I needed closure for what had happened so I spoke to animal communicators. They told me he's in a happy place now and doesn't want me to feel guilty about him falling off from the apartment.
A healing ritual
Every year on the day of his death anniversary I go to the place where his ashes are buried. I get flowers for him and sit there for a while. I think of Bubbu very often. I think of all the good times we've shared together. He will always share a special place in my life.
Inspired by a phone conversation with Niranth Bymana
Written and compiled by Meera Ganapathi
Illustrated by Gitanjali Iyer