Guest post by Camilla Björkbom
Introduction from Liz: Camilla wrote me a few months ago and I was moved by what she had to say. She talked about her soul cat, Gizmo, and said my book helped her through her grief when she had to say goodbye to him. She mentioned that she wrote about her cat and loss for Animal Rights Sweden’s magazine. The article had resonated loudly with readers! I asked her if I could publish an English adaptation of it and she graciously agreed. If you’ve ever loved and lost, I think you’ll appreciate Camilla’s words.
I lost my older cat to kidney failure last summer, and suddenly I no longer had my best friend with me. Our special way of communicating, our everyday closeness, his great presence – everything was gone. There I was, an adult accustomed to being able to organize and to always fix things, facing something that I could not sort out. I was completely unbalanced by the grief that hit me.
I knew I would mourn him a lot because he was a very special cat: he was my feline soulmate and when the love is strong, the mourning will be strong. My whole being was consumed with thoughts of what I could have done differently in order to keep him alive.
The relationship with a cat, a dog or any other animal can be a human’s principal and longest lasting relationship. A minister I talked to told me about how she once had let an animal be included as next of kin at a funeral. The animals are family. The loss of an animal affects us at least as hard as other losses in our life.
The process of grieving a beloved animal we shared everyday life with, that we had our own little games and routines together with, should receive more respect and should be worthy of much more attention than it’s been warranted.
In my search for support after the loss of my cat, I discovered that there was a void in what was available for supporting people who are grieving an animal’s death. On my country’s public health website there was no mention of grieving an animal. I found that, in Sweden, it is possible to talk with a minister or a counselor from the public health service when grieving an animal friend, but this is not advertised on their websites.
During this period of tremendous heartache, it is common to feel that we must try to defend our grief or hide it from an unsympathetic environment. We get to hear insensitive comments that “it was just a cat”, or we have to struggle with the expectations that “it will soon pass.”
As I was grieving, I spoke with people who shared the experience of having lost an animal companion. They have shared many wonderful stories about the bond created between humans and animals as we live close to each other, about what animals meant to them and how hard it is to be separated by death. It is particularly difficult because it is often we ourselves who must make the decision to end our beloved friend’s life.
“What does it matter that we from the beginning knew that the dog’s life is shorter than our own? And what use is it to try to be sensible? It was, after all, never with our mind that we loved.” These lines were written by Mickie Gustafson in To Lose a Dog, one of the few books that deal with the topic of human-animal relationships at the end of life.
Recently two other cats found their way to my home. They had been abandoned in a carrier at a bus stop. Their adoption is one of the ways in which I would like to honor the memory of my cat, Gizmo, who himself came to me from a shelter, neglected and frightened. The adoption of a homeless animal may not change the world, but it can change someone’s entire world.
Although we know that the day will come when we must part, we can try to make the world a better place for the animals, just as they make everyday life better for us.
Camilla Björkbom is the President of Sweden’s largest animal rights NGO, Djurens Rätt. She has been living with cats all her life, and has provided a temporary foster home to dozens of shelter cats. She currently lives with three rescue cats: Alvin, Morka and Lady.
Photo at top of post: Jenna and Giro by Eric Chabot