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Learning how to mourn the loss of a pet

by Ed Madden
Buster was our cat, a charming and cranky shorthair Persian with wide orange eyes and a fearless disposition. He had been with my partner Bert and me almost as long as we had been together. He came to us when Bert’s friend Sam Nickles died in 1995. As a part of our own developing relationship and a link to a diminished circle of friends, Buster was a member of our family.

On March 20, 2006, Buster died in his sleep.

He was blind, deaf, arthritic and he had become increasingly frail in the preceding months, but he purred like a motor when you held him in your lap.

And he was fearless up to the end. He would leap from our laps, not knowing if he would land on a shoe or a footstool or the floor he’d planned on. The vet told us that his going blind shouldn’t be a problem. This was true, not because he remembered where things were, as she had assured us, but because he moved through the house like a slow pinball, whiskers out like antennae, veering from wall to wall. Or — before he also went deaf — moving swiftly toward the sound of fresh food or fresh litter.

In the end we found him curled up and not breathing when we came home from work one day. We wrapped him in a favorite towel and buried him that afternoon in our backyard. We buried him beneath a beautiful yellow-flowering shrub, at the feet of the Virgin Mary, a plaster statue that had long stood watch over our garden. We are still looking for the perfect hellebore (one of our favorite flowers, a Lenten rose) to plant on his grave.
In our culture, we aren’t really taught how to mourn our pets. There are no established customs, no models of behavior, no protocols, no sympathy cards.

We are given lots of stories about the love of animals — both our love for them and theirs for us. Think about all those weepy dog movies, from “Old Yeller” to “Where the Red Fern Grows” to “Snow Dogs.” And we are given permission in a movie like “Old Yeller” to weep — freely — for the loss of a dog.

But beyond those movies, how do we learn to mourn? We really only hear stories that are freakish or faddish. The man in Texas who wanted his pet bull cloned, or the woman in Florida, who had her dog stuffed and mounted and carefully placed next to her favorite chair.

In my own studies of gay and lesbian history, there is a pet story that has long moved me, but gained more personal relevance at Buster’s death.
Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley were a Victorian lesbian couple who wrote poetry and plays together using the penname Michael Field. They were devoted to their chow dog, Whym Chow, and when he died in 1906 they wrote an entire volume of poems for him, “Whym Chow, Flame of Love,” which they published privately and distributed to friends.
The poems are strange and — I will admit — at times creepy, even laughable. Whym Chow is a deity in the book, compared to any number of saints and mythic gods. Repeatedly he is Bacchus, god of wine and song, but they also portray him, in all seriousness, as the Holy Spirit that completed their own nontraditional family trinity.
Bradley and Cooper’s friends didn’t understand their grief for the dog. They grew tired of the women’s mourning, which they thought overwrought, overlong and histrionic. One longtime friend, the gay artist Charles Ricketts, told them he would no longer visit if they were going to continue to sob over the death of the dog.

Soon after Whym Chow’s death, the two women were confirmed in the Catholic church. It was as if Whym Chow’s death awoke a spiritual hunger in them. And their beloved dog became a symbol for them of their own emotional and spiritual yearnings. One short religious poem called “Aridity,” written by Bradley after Cooper died of cancer in 1913, uses the image of a dog howling and moaning at his master’s absence to represent the soul’s desire for God — and Katherine’s own yearning for Edith.

Our culture does not teach us how to mourn the loss of a pet, in part because we don’t agree on their place in our lives and homes, and maybe Bradley and Cooper’s response seems even stranger than a taxidermied tribute. My farm family would never allow animals in the house, yet Buster sat on the table watching us while we ate — something that would trouble my mother (maybe almost as much as my sexuality does). Maybe those of us without children care for our animals with a more-than-usual sense of nurturing and energy.

Early in our relationship, I had knee surger, and Bert took care of me, coming home from work repeatedly during the day to check on me and feed me. But Buster kept me company, curling up beside me in my drugged sleep, careful and attentive in a way that he had never been before.

And while he could maintain a hauteur expected of any Persian, he was also a loving friend. Orange diva on the arm of the sofa, his paw draped elegantly off the edge, ignoring the play toy you dangled above him. But every night, curled in my armpit or sleeping across my head on the pillow. Running to the door and meowing when we returned from a trip (then running to the litter box to let go the urine he’d held in his nervous anxiety while we were away).

Even now, I’m sure I see him coming into the kitchen in the early morning as I make my coffee, or rounding the corner of the den door, headed toward Bert’s lap.
We will find the right flower for his grave soon. I don't know how to mourn him, but I know how much I miss him.

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