Flash Tales

How do you grieve the loss of a pet during a pandemic?

By Marilena Karamatsouki . . .

Spot died on a Wednesday from congenital heart disease, which showed no symptoms. That morning he woke up having difficulty breathing. “I am taking him to the vet”, I told my husband over the phone. When we got there and the vet examined him, I saw his face becoming solemn.

“How old is the cat?”, the vet asked.

“Four”, I said.

“There is fluid around his heart, that’s why he is having difficulty breathing. We need to make a heart ultrasound.”

I felt my heart sink into my chest. I couldn’t understand how our vibrant, energetic and attention-seeking baby could be that sick in a matter of hours. By the time the vet prepared the ultrasound, Spot had become so agitated that he bit my hand so hard that I started bleeding on the vet’s floor. He had a heart attack and died during the ultrasound.

How do you grieve the loss of your pet during a pandemic?

“How is your cat?”, my first client of the day asks in the beginning of our online session.

She knows, because I texted her in the morning to ask her to change the time of our appointment, because I needed to take the cat to the vet. Her text response was: “No problem. I don’t have anywhere to go.” It was a common answer these last weeks, when the country was in lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.

I don’t have the nerve to tell her that Spot had died. I can’t even believe it myself yet. I hold my tears back.

“Things are not looking good”, I reply. “The doctor kept him in the clinic to keep an eye on him.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry… I hope everything turns out fine!”, she shows genuine concern and I am touched. The next day I send her a text message telling her that my cat died and thanking her for changing our appointment, so that I could take him to the vet, where he was cared for.

I thought about cancelling my remaining appointments, but I decide I need to keep my routine. Keeping my routine is something that has been helpful during all this time of lockdown and uncertainty: it feels like I can keep control over things amidst the chaos. My last client of the day also has pets and we regularly share stories about them. When she asks how my cats are doing, I tell her the truth. She seems shocked. In our minds we know that we cannot control everything, but in our hearts we need to feel that there is something we can do, and sudden deaths make us feel helpless.

“There was nothing that you could have done”, the doctor had told me. “It’s a congenital condition that shows no signs. He was lucky to reach four. Most animals with a heart failure don’t live past a few months.”

A couple of days later, I speak with a friend who lives in the UK. Her boyfriend is in the hospital during the last two weeks, in critical condition from Covid-19. He is 30 years old with no pre-existing health conditions.

“I don’t know if he will make it”, she tells me in tears.

I don’t know what to tell her. I don’t tell her about Spot’s death. I feel like I am not entitled to tears.

How do you grieve the loss of your pet during a pandemic?

A few days later, during another online session a client tells me that her husband asked for a divorce. Since the lockdown started, they both worked from home and juggled between work demands, taking care of their two young children and household duties.

“We had difficulties in our marriage, as every couple does, but I always thought we could work things out”, she tells me in a low voice, trying not to cry. She is in their bedroom, trying to have some privacy, while her soon-to-be ex-husband takes care of the children.

“He said he was thinking it for quite some time, but during this lockdown, it became clear to him that he doesn’t want to be in this marriage. What I am going to do?”

For a lot of people this pandemic brought along a so-called new normal. How can my client find her new normal while grieving the end of her marriage? How can I find my new normal while grieving the loss of my pet?

During the same week, I receive a phone call from a client, who is concerned about his son. Since the lockdown started, school classes switched to online mode and the 12-year old boy struggled with the new method of teaching and refused to do his homework. Father and son had a fight over schoolwork and things escalated to the point that the boy said there was no point in living in this world anymore. I offer my client some parenting advice over the phone and we schedule an online appointment to speak with the boy. After the call, I am left wondering: How can children make sense of everything that changes during the pandemic? How can we all find meaning in our lives in this new world?

As a systemic psychotherapist I see people as part of their context, whether it is the environment they grew up in, their current family context, or their work environment. But it’s difficult to make sense of a pandemic context and my clients, as well as myself, struggle with questions like the following: How does a pandemic affect humanity and our humanity? What are the consequences of social distancing on our relationships? What does the future after a pandemic look like? How do you grieve the loss of your pet during a pandemic? I can’t find any answers yet…

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2 thoughts on “How do you grieve the loss of a pet during a pandemic?

    • Thank you marilena for sharing such important examples from your practice and such touching moments from your experiences of this pandemic.
      How do we…. is a question of our times.

      • Thank you for your comment, Leah.. As so many practitioners, I struggle with questions “How do we…?” all the time.. I hope others will also share their ‘how do we…’ questions. Sharing our stories is what will get us through this…

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