The true pain that comes with losing a dearly loved pet
Last week, Andrea Smith's cat Georgie was hit by a car, leaving her distraught. Here she writes about how hard it is to say goodbye - and why others don't understand
Last Wednesday morning, I awoke to the sound of my cat Georgie purring. She was snoozing in her usual spot, to the left of my pillow, stretched out in pleasure as the rising sun streamed in on her through the window. I stretched my hand over to stroke her soft, glossy coat, as I did every morning, and the purring grew louder. A lovely soothing way to begin the day, I've always thought.
Mind you, she also liked to sleep right on top of me, on occasion, and I'd wake up in fright with a heavy weight on my chest, convinced I was having a heart attack.
Later that day, I was having smoked salmon for lunch, and I gave Georgie some of it. I always gave her little treats to curry favour, because unlike my six dogs, who are slavishly, foolishly devoted to me, my little ginger cat made me work far harder for her approval.
Sometimes, she'd scornfully reject my hopeful offerings, and would stalk off with her tail in the air, but she loved the salmon and licked the plate clean. I'm glad about that, because as it happens, it was the last meal she ever enjoyed.
My beautiful Georgie died two hours later under the wheel of a car, and she passed away instantly - her neck was broken.
My heart was too, as I held her cold, stiff body wrapped up in a blanket on my lap for the evening, while the dogs looked on in confusion. Between me crying like a walrus, and the cat allowing them to sniff at her without trying to take their eyes out, they didn't know what was happening. The following morning, the kind girl at my local vet's arranged her cremation, and she'll come back to me in a few weeks in a little wooden box with her name engraved on it.
That's the fatal flaw with giving your heart to a pet - it's always going to end up smashed to pieces at some point. They get ill, have accidents or go missing, and even if they live to be old, the average life expectancy for cats and dogs is 15 and 13 years, respectively. Sooner or later, there's going to be a Fido-shaped hole in your life, but the joy they bring during their all-too-short time on earth is unquantifiable.
On the day that his own cat Spock was killed by a car, my friend Paddy had the lovely idea of leaving some cat food outside in the garden for any passing stray to enjoy, in tribute to his beloved cat. He was so devastated, he couldn't go to work the next day, but didn't let on what had happened.
"A man can't go into work and tell colleagues he's upset as his cat died, so it remains private," he says, and it's true that many people simply don't understand the deep attachment we have to our pets.
However, an awful lot of you reading this will understand, as research by UCD found that 36pc of homes in Ireland have a dog, while 10pc own a cat. And that's without all the rabbits, hamsters, horses, fish and other creatures that we love.
Pets don't know or care whether you're a prince, a pauper, a CEO or a tea boy, and they will love you unconditionally. They also have a massive capacity for forgiveness, even when we shamefully betray their trust.
I have several rescue dogs who came from pretty grim situations, but they're still wonderfully, beautifully open to loving humans again. Your dog will never argue with you or criticise you for anything you do, so maybe it's unsurprising that one British survey revealed that one in 10 women claim to love their pet more than their partner, while a third said they have equal affection for both, and more than half turn to their pet for comfort after a row with their partner.
Sometimes you have to choose to end your pet's life, and while making that decision is devastating, I'm so grateful it's an option because seeing a loyal little pal in pain is heartbreaking.
Last year, I had my elderly collie Suzie put to sleep as she had developed glaucoma and went blind. She wasn't coping well with it at all, and I couldn't bear seeing her confusion. The year before, my beautiful German shepherd Layla also had to be euthanised, as although she was perfectly healthy in every other respect, she lost the ability to walk when she developed hip dysplasia - sadly a common hereditary ailment among her breed.
I always pay extra for the vet to make a house call, and when the needle goes in, death occurs painlessly in about 10 seconds. I stroke their heads, look into their eyes and talk to them calmly and soothingly as it's happening, telling them how much I love them and will miss them.
It's amazing how strong you can be when you have to be, but I think it's so important to leave my own grief aside temporarily, and accompany and comfort them right to the very end of our relationship together.
It's the least I can do for them, because my pets have brought me so much pleasure and companionship over the years.
My dogs are house dogs - I will never understand the mentality of people who leave their dogs out in the back garden - and while they chew my sofas and leave hair all over the place, it's a small price to pay for the love and companionship they give me.
Research has shown that living with pets has particular health benefits, helping to lower blood pressure, lessen anxiety and boost immunity. Thanks to my dogs' permanently hopeful eyes, I get up from the sofa and walk them every day, which is great for my own well-being.
I work from home so am there a lot of the time, but even if I disappear upstairs for half an hour, the reunion and wagging tails when I arrive back downstairs again would melt all but the hardest of hearts. No matter what kind of day I'm having or who's annoying me, their unwavering affection never fails to lift my spirits. I don't consider it a coincidence that I'm very rarely ill or depressed.
I can't bear to give away any of Georgie's beds just yet - but I will in time.
She had one in my bedroom, one on the little veranda of the shed in case she fancied sleeping al fresco, and one on top of the fridge. From that lofty vantage point, she liked to survey us peasants below with the eye of a benign dictator.
Now the beds and bowls remain empty, and the cat flap no longer swishes to herald the arrival of the queen, but her name is engraved for life on a little piece of my heart, alongside all the other pets who have come and gone from my life.
Coping with your grief
According to Annie Kilmartin, of Solace Pet Loss Ireland, there are a number of things you can do to help you cope with the loss of your pet. She has produced a booklet in conjunction with The Irish Hospice Foundation, entitled Grieving the Loss of a Pet, which can be downloaded from Solacepetlossireland.com.
1 Accept the pain of this grief is normal, and allow yourself time to feel sadness, anger, guilt or whatever it is you need to feel.
2 Try to share your emotions with someone who will understand - a friend, family member, other pet owners or veterinary staff.
3 You may wish to bury your pet or scatter their cremated remains in a special place. Having a ritual or ceremony can help.
4 Keep a memory box full of favourite toys and keepsakes. Record special memories - put photographs in a scrapbook, paint a picture, write a story or poem. You can put a photo and story on a memorial website for animals.
5 Try to take regular exercise and eat well-balanced meals. Rest is important and if your sleep is disturbed, try winding down with a milky drink. Set up new routines to replace those you had with your pet, eg change the time and location of walks. Avoid making any big decisions and seek the company of supportive family and friends.
6 It is up to each person or family to decide whether or not to get another pet. Some choose to do this immediately, while others need time.
7 Sometimes grief can seriously affect your sleep, eating habits and ability to cope. If this is the case, you might benefit from professional counselling with someone who'll understand and value the loving bond you had.