Sure, we start out with a kitten or puppy or bird or other animal companion juvenile or adult, and we think we need to teach them how to live with humans. In some important ways, we do teach them a few household manners, but in the end we who love animals know that our animal companions teach us more than we could ever hope to teach them. That is, if we are willing to listen…and admit that we needed to learn the lesson.
Author Allia Zobel Nolan, friend and fellow member of the Cat Writer’s Association, was published on Beliefnet.com, completely unashamed to admit that living with her three angel cats had taught her seven important lessons that she was compelled to share with others. Silly human that she is, Allia had a little “prodding” from Angela , Sinead and McDuff (can you tell there’s a nationality thing going on here?) who apparently “kneaded” her until she was convinced to share the story.
Not that Allia needs a whole lot of prodding to write something. She’s the author of over 170 books for children and adults, was a Senior Editor for Reader’s Digest Children’s Books for almost ten years and just three years ago went freelance as an author and writer. Her illustrated books about cats (actually, I think her cats used her as a medium) include Purr More, Hiss Less, Heavenly Lessons I Learned from My Cat, Why Cats Make Great Kids, and the series expounding the virtues of living with cats beginning with 101 Reasons Why a Cat is Better Than a Man, and that’s the short list. To see all of Allia’s feline-inspired volumes, visit the Cat Books page on her website.
Energetic and overflowing with a non-stop sense of humor, she’s been busy working on what sounds like five books at once and she managed to work a few of my kids into one that will be published this year, Cat Confessions. We’ll write more when that book is released. Seeing all this experience, I’m glad to have her generously coaching me as I write up my first book proposals and look for publishers.
So here’s a link for you—see for yourself what kind of teachers her three wonderful puddies are: http://www.beliefnet.com/Love-Family/Pets/2010/01/Cat-Life-Lessons.aspx
I’ve been working my way through my desk and studio, cleaning up and organizing, and in my studio I found a sketchbook I’d used years ago.
These are examples of the quick sketches I do to awaken my creative senses during the day. This was the sketchbook I kept at my desk in order to have it handy for quick sketches. All the sketches are of my cats except for the bird’s nest at the end, and all are pencil, my favorite medium.
I have no idea when I did this first sketch—it’s of my Stanley curled and sleeping. He must have moved his paw while I was sketching or he had his paws together; he would do that sometimes with those white mittens of his. I lost Stanley in January 2007, so this was prior to that. How good to see him again and remember a morning when he was still with me, as were several others, and he was relaxed and sleeping comfortably. I could never resist his stripes and sketched him repeatedly to capture those!
Pencil is very difficult to scan or photograph. I photographed the sketch for this, and you can see the dark area to the top and right where the light is uneven. When I scanned it I lost all the small details. I may have more luck photographing on a day that’s got more light.
When all is done here, I will offer these sketches for sale; on rare occasions I offer them, framed, for art auctions to benefit animal shelters. I have plain black frames for them, and either use plain mat board or a color.
Seventh and last in a series of “pet loss and grief told from personal experience”
I simply have the observation that every time I’ve lost a cat, I’ve gained something in my life. I’ve made decisions about my career, began working in a new medium and found new friends, all around the time of a loss.
Perhaps the trauma of the loss caused me to see things from a new perspective, or to break an old habit and begin reorganizing my life, or just gave me a new perspective on myself so my same old life felt new again. I really think it was a gift from them so I might be distracted from my grief.
It began with love
I have a degree in English and wanted to be a writer and go on to study linguistics and comparative arts. Life took a different turn and presented other possibilities, and where I had neglected my interest in art before I suddenly had the time to practice.
A few years out of college, at night after work, I chose to pick up a pencil and paper and put them together because I felt the need to start expressing myself in images.
At the same time, inspired by my love for Kublai who had rescued me, I had been rescuing and fostering cats and, of those I picked up from streets and midwifed into the spare bedroom, a rag tag bunch of six had come together to share my life. Because of my experience with Bootsie I was busy learning as much as I could about feline health, diets, history and allopathic and naturopathic medicine so that I could give them the best care possible and not miss a single symptom of anything.
And while they may have looked like common garden variety cats to everyone else, I thought they were the most beautiful beings to ever walk the earth. I had always loved cats because of their quiet grace and independent nature, but the opportunity to know these cats had rendered it from the general to the specific.
Images of my cats kept appearing in my thoughts as pencil drawings and paintings and I decided to draw what I was envisioning. The need to express and the subject matter came together at just the right time and I began producing images I could never have imagined I was capable of rendering, moving from pencil, the only medium in which I had any skill, to ink to pastel because I could leave them every day and return the next night without worrying about drying time or too much set up or clean up.
I worked faithfully on learning my technique and sharpening my inner vision as I spent years painting my cats. Learning each new medium, technique or style has been based on a vision of one of my household residents before I moved off to another subject, flowers or landscapes, usually. With their guidance, I’ve mastered pencil, ink, chalk pastel, oil pastel, watercolor, acrylic, oil, collage, mixed media and photography.
It continued with loss
I realized with my first loss after beginning to sketch and paint the power of a portrait, and while they had started out as expressions of love, they became also expressions of remembrance, and as I lost that original family of muses that this was the greatest gift of all, giving them a sort of immortality.
Through the years my cats have been the subjects of dozens of works, and others, seeing these works, want a similar piece with their own animal companion as a subject. I have had the pleasure of creating more than 100 commissioned portraits of cats, dogs, cats and dogs, and cats and dogs and people. They are gifts for loved ones, memorials to cherished companions who’ve gone before us, and lovely pieces of artwork featuring an animal a person loved. You can find out more about my animal portraits in the “Custom Pet Portraits” page on this blog or by visiting my website where I have a demonstration and images of cat and dog portraits.
Now Stanley watches over my studio in “After Dinner Nap,” Kublai forever rolls on the floor like a goof in “Are You Looking at Me?”, Fawn peeks out from under the dust ruffle waiting for me to walk by in “Waiting for Mom,” and there is also Moses and Sally and Sophie and Namir whose portraits I can smile and look at. I have two new portraits planned, of Allegro and Nikka that I intend to work on this spring, now that I’ve found the best reference photos.
The animal sympathy cards
But there was one other project that had been waiting in the wings all these years, and with the loss of Namir I felt as if I had finally, somehow, come full circle and arrived at the point where I could put my grief in images and design the animal sympathy cards I had always planned to do, but kept putting off until the time was right. I think I wanted to make sure that I had enough experience and perspective so I wouldn’t design something I’d turn my back on later, thinking it was incomplete or immature. Of all cats, Namir doesn’t appear here except for his pawprints in “I’ll always walk beside you”. But I wanted to make sure I memorialized Lucy, the little black kitty you see twice below, who I lost at 15 months to FIP, right after I had lost my four oldest friends.
While I am a fine artist, I have actually worked as a graphic designer for more years than I want to tell. Designing everything from letterhead to websites every day, the task of designing these cards was second nature to me. I was glad, for once, to use my commercial art skills to create something for my offering of animal art, especially since my poor neglected cats could just expire all over my desk before I took my eyes off the computer.
I’ve found, to my surprise, that these cards are sometimes purchased for the loss of a human, or even a “thinking of you” card for persons who like animals—I never considered this. Using the images of my own cats for these cards, especially ones who had passed, was a little frightening; if one of the designs was not at all popular it could feel like a rejection of that kitty, who I loved so much. I am so glad I waited until my sentiments and designs were more universal, not so personal, to create these cards. Some are more popular than others, but I have reprinted all of them so no one has been left behind.
I intentionally chose to use photos rather than paintings for most of the designs. I like the softness and little bit of fiction I can work into a painting, but somehow I felt the realism of a photo was needed when expressing deep and sincere emotions of these cards.
Each of the cats depicted here was or is one of mine and the dogs are ones I’ve come to know through friends and art customers. I am currently working on more dog images as well as images of home and nature where we remember our animal companions best. There are more cats than dogs because I live with cats and have lots of material, but more than that I am careful with the images I use, not only that they are easily recognized and accepted, but that I know the animal well enough to use its image for this purpose. They are conveying a heavy thought, and I don’t take the relationship with my subject matter lightly.
All animal sympathy cards can be found in my Marketplace under Animal Sympathy Cards.
Other images used for sympathy
And in addition to the intentionally-designed sympathy cards are the blank greeting and note cards I have available portraying a special moment of one of my cats I’ll always remember.
We have each other to thank
Animals give us so much in everyday life, but my cats have given me my career.
Pet loss and grief told from personal experience
When I was losing a pet and making decisions, and after I had lost a pet and was dealing with grief, I was most comforted by hearing stories from others about their experiences. Sitting with one of my cats in the middle of the night, trying to determine if they were suffering in any way, if they were ready to let go, struggling to make the decision about euthanasia and what to do after they died, I felt so alone and only hearing what others had experienced and what they had decided helped me put my own situation and decisions into perspective, and let me know that I was not the only person to experience the anguish I was suffering. I’ve composed this series of articles in the hopes that others find comfort in my experiences and those of the others mentioned here, and that information included about services and products may help them in their decisions.
Read the other articles in this series:
To love that well, which thou must leave ‘ere long: my first and worst lesson in pet loss
Starting with pet loss—before the loss: begin preparing yourself for loss by being proactive about care and providing palliative care yourself at home
Options for “After Care”, featuring Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation: aftercare, and a profile of a business and a person I find exceptional, and exceptionally comforting
Heal Your Heart After Pet Loss, a Remarkable CD and Guidebook: your grieving process, and a very special CD and guidebook for those times when you need a comforting voice
Turning Loss into Creativity with Ingrid King and Buckley’s Story: how grief can become the catalyst for change, turning grief into a creative effort
Pet Loss Support Information: ideas and resources for where to find comfort and support in your loss, including books about and inspired by the author’s personal experience
Pet Love and Pet Loss, and How it Gave Me My Art: my own experience turning multiple losses loss into multiple creative endeavors
About the images used in this post
All of the images used here are of my artwork, from portraits to designed cards. It’s one of the things that helps me with losing them, to know that their image goes out in the world and they are thereby, in a way, immortal. To see the art visit my website and look under “Fine Art and Portraiture” for the gallery, “My Cats“. Also look under “Photography” for the five galleries of “My Cats“. You can browse prints and notecards in my “Marketplace“.
Sixth in a series of “pet loss and grief told from personal experience”
If you’ve lost your pet, if the loss is imminent or if your pet has been diagnosed with a terminal condition or you know someone in that position, don’t feel you are alone or that no one cares. As our relationships with our companion animals have become more widely accepted as valid, loving, reciprocal relationships, grieving the loss of your pet has become more widely accepted and even encouraged.
This is not an exhaustive list of possibilities—because there are so many other lists of pet loss information I’ve provided links to main sites and other lists, and focused on the theme of first-person pet loss and and how that loss changed lives and turned into a creative effort.
For as much as is available on the internet today, there’s nothing like communicating in person. Sometimes a regular meeting with a local support group can be the most welcome respite from your grief, especially if you begin before you lose your pet because you can learn from the group’s members what to expect, and they’ll understand how you feel when your pet’s time comes. Find a group with whom you can share your fears and feelings, talk about your pets and plan and attend ceremonies.
You’ll find your local animal shelters often offer pet loss support groups as one of their services. Pet-related businesses also sometimes offer support groups or host events honoring our companion animals as do many religious organizations.
Internet Discussion Groups
Moving to the internet, you can find discussion groups for pet loss in general, and discussion groups for every possible condition your pet could have, often species and even breed-specific. These groups are usually moderated by one or a group of persons and send out a digest of entries each day, and are ideal if your pet is ill or has been diagnosed with a disease because you can share your experiences and information with others dealing with the same condition. The ASPCA has a number of discussion groups including one for pet memorials. You can also check Yahoo groups and Google groups for information.
Fifth in a series of “pet loss and grief told from personal experience”
The loss of a pet brings a profound change to our life and our self, no matter what we do or who we are, but sometimes the loss and how we deal with it opens a door inspires us to make a change in our lifestyle or job, or to follow through with a life dream.
The change may not be something related to the pet who was lost or to animals in general, it may just be that the need to change our surroundings in response to grief spurs us to keep going with that change and before we know it we’ve come up with an entirely new way of thinking or living.
And then the change may be all about the pet who was lost, and we may also have the product of an immense creative effort inspired by that pet.
So it was for Ingrid King, author of Buckley’s Story: Lessons of a Feline Master Teacher. From her loss of Buckley, a joyful and affectionate tortoiseshell cat who was diagnosed with heart disease after only two years, came an entire book, written immediately after Buckley’s passing.
I met Ingrid King at the Cat Writer’s Association annual conference in November 2009 and heard her speak about her book. Since then it has received glowing reviews in the pet and pet loss industries.
Most of us have had more than one pet, and while we love them all we could probably each say that one of them was special in some way, an angel come to teach us a lesson, leaving us enriched in a way no other relationship ever could.
For Ingrid, Buckley was that angel who taught Ingrid how to live a joyful life even as Buckley slowly yielded to her heart disease. That relationship was powerful enough for Ingrid to write the book she had always intended to write, with Buckley as its subject.
Here, Ingrid tells how her career wandered around, forming into a helping, healing profession until Buckley joined, then left her life. She began writing in the midst of her grief, with a goal of having the book available to others by the first anniversary of Buckley’s passing, like a promise kept.
By: Ingrid King
I have been an avid reader all my life. My parents encouraged me to read at an early age. I remember weekly trips to the library with my mother – I would be allowed to pick out three or four books each week, and they never seemed to last for the entire week. Even back then, I remember thinking how cool it would be to write my own book. As a teenager, I kept journals, and there was even an attempt at fiction, or rather, romantic fiction, about a soccer player I had a crush on. Thankfully, that creation disappeared somewhere along the way during one of my moves either from my parents’ house to college, or to my first home – I can only imagine how reading it now would make me cringe in embarrassment.
Fourth in a series of “pet loss and grief told from personal experience”
I remember in the last days of each of my cats’ lives looking at people who I knew had lost pets and thinking, “Oh, they’ve crossed over, and they survived …”, so of course I could, too, though I knew it would not be without pain.
Now you and your animal companion have both crossed over, one to the other side of the Rainbow Bridge, and one to a sort of purgatory of pain and sorrow. No matter how you may have prepared yourself, nothing spares you in those last hours of life and the first few hours after your companion’s death. Get yourself in a comfortable, protected place and just let yourself feel what you feel and do what you need to for a few hours at least. Understand and be gentle with yourself.
And it can be especially difficult if there was an accident, a mistake, or if you have any regrets. You will resolve those in time.
You may feel the need to avoid things that remind you of your pet, a certain room in the house, your backyard, even a favorite activity suddenly brings you heartbreak.
For me, it was the first meal given to the rest of the household after the loss, a few of them confused but most of them happy for the routine, me crying so hard I could barely see, thinking that just the last meal, a few hours ago, they were here. It was always difficult to walk in the door after being away as well, especially when I worked a day job.
Take your grief to a safe place
Grieving the death of your pet is no longer something to hide, though you’ll still find people who snicker or get impatient and make rude or painful remarks. No matter what others may say, loss is loss and must be grieved in your own way or it leaves a scar.
Take some time each day to sit quietly and remember your pet, play music that soothes you or go somewhere that you find relaxing. Make this your special time with your pet’s memory, and start trying to remember the happy memories. Even if your pet only lived a short time, there are always more happy memories than sad.
Third in a series of “pet loss and grief told from personal experience”
Kublai was ill for nearly a year before he died, and even though my veterinarian and I tried to treat all the symptoms in an effort to make some progress it became clear that he would indeed die sometime soon, though I wouldn’t admit it. I remember that I wouldn’t plan into the future, next year’s garden, for instance, because I would picture him there with me and I knew it wouldn’t be so.
Even though I kept up all hope that he would somehow recover, the little fiction writer in my mind started drawing out scenarios of his last moments, his death, and what life would be like afterward. The little scenarios she comes up with can be frightening sometimes, but I’m glad she makes me face things and think through what I might do under the circumstances presented, otherwise I would have kept spinning in that I-won’t-consider-the-future mindset that would have left me helpless on the day Kublai died.
Compared to the present day, I had no experience then of watching for death, as I came to call it, watching Kublai’s graceful black body deteriorate and watching for “the sign” from him, and I didn’t even know what I’d do with his body after he had died.
Considering my options
After that first awful experience with Bootsie, I decided that I should find my options and have a plan that I could follow through when Kublai died. I don’t like the thought of burial in a cemetery, even for myself. I might not mind burying him in my yard, but it’s really not permitted in most urban or suburban places, though people still do it. Also, even though I owned my home I knew I wasn’t staying here forever, and I was really freaked out at the thought of a future owner digging him up. I also had eight cats at the time, spaced about two years apart, so I knew I’d be losing a fair number of cats while I lived here. I didn’t like the thought of leaving behind a yard full of cat graves.
I chose to have Kublai cremated, and I would have time to decide what to do with his ashes, or cremains as I learned they are called.
But I had no idea how to even start looking for how to do this, and I didn’t want to start asking for fear of looking like the crazy cat lady.
I asked my veterinarian what other people did, and she told me about a business that would pick up his body after he had died whether he was at my home or at an animal hospital and transport it to the crematory.
After a few days I called the business and talked to the owner, who told me the process and the fee and suggested I give her another call when I either had an appointment for euthanasia or after he passed if he died naturally.
Second in a series of “pet loss and grief told from personal experience”
Sometimes the loss of your pet is sudden, an accident, or an acute disease like cancer or a virus, and there is no preparation for the loss. Your decisions are made all the more difficult, and your grief all the harder to resolve, by the very shock of the incident. When there are no apparent threats to your pet’s health, who would have thought about arrangements and aftercare?
But in other cases you can begin to prepare yourself for eventual or imminent loss in very specific ways, first by finding a veterinarian with whom you are comfortable, and, second, by learning more about your pet’s health and participating in their health care.
These two actions can help save your pet’s life in the first place. But sometimes the grief of loss is made even worse by realizing that your pet had a condition that could have been treated if you had only known a few easy symptoms to look for. Learning some simple palliative care can prolong your pet’s life or give the last weeks or months a better quality and help you with knowing you could simply do something helpful in the situation. And even if there was nothing you could have done, just having a little time to prepare and be with your pet before it dies is a comfort in itself.
Finding a veterinarian for you and your animal companion
When you adopted your animal companion, you probably realized you were adopting a living being that was not necessarily maintenance-free. Some animals, like some people, live out their whole lives with no health issues at all, and die quick peaceful deaths. But this is really only discovered at the end of that life and can’t be predicted at the beginning or any point along the path, so it’s best to take precautions.
I can’t say enough about the importance of my veterinarian in the health of my cats and my ability to care for them. Caring for them at home, guided by her, has been instrumental for me in my acceptance of all my losses as she has always been willing to explain diseases, give me care options and has taught and supported me in basic palliative care and generous phone consultations. She is a house-call veterinarian with no formal office, and this has always been my preference since she can see them when they are still fairly relaxed and not freaked out by a ride in the car. Because she has no clinical situation, I need to go elsewhere for other treatments such as spaying or neutering, X-rays or emergency care, but because I can do so much at home I have also found other clinics that I can call on the rare occasions when I need those services.
First in a series of “pet loss and grief told from personal experience”
This week I’ll be writing about pet loss, beginning with my own recollections of “how I learned to lose”, and including interviews with persons who deal with pet loss and their journey to what they do for others, such as Deb Chebatoris of Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation, whose services I’ve used, and Karen Litzinger, author of Heal Your Heart: Coping with the Loss of a Pet, a pet loss CD I highly recommend. I’ll also feature a guest blog from Ingrid King, author of Buckley’s Story: Lessons from a Feline Master Teacher.
I’ve illustrated this writing with paintings, sketches and photos of my fondly-remembered kitties.
The title of this blog is a quote from Shakespeare’s sonnets, number 73, the final couplet of which reads:
This thou perceivs’t, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ‘ere long.
Except in rare circumstances, we will always outlive our pets. It is best for them and for us to consider options and prepare, and to take care of ourselves afterward, in their memory. Let the knowledge that we will someday live without them strengthen our love for them and make each day with them all the more special.
I have the full sonnet at the end of this blog, because I thought it easier to understand after considering the process of loss.
My first loss
The first time I lost a cat, I did it all wrong.
There is no “right” way to lose a pet, but that first experience was a trauma in part because it was unexpected though it didn’t have to be, and because I didn’t know the first thing about what to do or what to expect when her time came.
From that, however, I learned to face the eventual loss of each of my cats and do my best to prepare for it, to monitor and learn about medical conditions and plan what I might do in various situations, and what I’ll do afterward, giving me some sense of control in a situation that is out of my control. And, while I’d rather share a happier lesson, I’ve been able to help friends and others to navigate their loss.
I have found my peace with my decisions about Bootsie because I now understand that I just didn’t know my options and I made the best decision I could. I relate the story, below, in the case that you may have made similar decisions and carry the burden of regret, or that you may be headed for a similar situation and wondering what you might be able to do.