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Lea Lane Headshot

Not 'Just a Cat' -- Surprising Responses to My Mourning

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We recently euthanized our beloved, beautiful 12-year-old Maine Coon cat, Sweetie, and we're profoundly saddened. We were a family of three, aging together, and we're forever diminished by losing her.

Sweetie's lymphoma was diagnosed suddenly and unexpectedly while my husband and I were on a cruise in the middle of the South Pacific. She who had stayed by my side and in my lap for a dozen years was half a world apart from me at the end. There was no way I could get to her.

The best I could do right before she died was to whisper in her ear, "I will always love you, beautiful girl" from the ship's phone, while her caring sitter cradled her just as I would have.

And because I was floating on a ship with over a thousand people I hardly knew, and showing the sorrow I would have been able to hide if I were grieving at home, I experienced a surprising range of responses to her death, far different from the expected condolences of friends.

Those who had lost animals themselves were genuinely moved by our 10-day, long-distance saga of ship-to-shore calls to the vet and oncologist, a last-ditch round of chemo and blood tests, and our tearful goodbye to Sweetie. One of the crew members who heard most of the ordeal as we huddled by our cell phone in the alcove off the main deck, burst into tears herself when it was all over, and gave me a long, hard hug.

But many people don't get it. One couple at our lunch table in the dining room actually giggled at the extent of our sorrow, and talked about cat ladies, implying our eccentricity. Others said things like, "Don't worry. It's not like she's human. She probably couldn't tell at the end if it was you or someone else." And, "You'll feel better in a few days. After all, she was just a cat."

I've met many "just-a-cat" people through the years. One sub-group seems to think that because cats are independent creatures, there couldn't possibly be a deep bond between human and feline. These folks may have huge empathy for dogs; cats... not so much. They may give lip service, but not a whole lot of understanding.

And there are those who don't enjoy animals in general, and who never went through the loss of a loving pet who offered up unconditional love, endless intimacies, and reciprocal kindnesses. These people may be indifferent, clueless, or afraid, and often seem to find animals dirty or bothersome. They may not be mean, but they sure don't feel your pain.

The toughest are the hard-core cat haters, who can't help bringing up negative factoids even while you are mourning: the bird population is decimated by outdoor cats; you shouldn't leave a cat and a baby alone in the same room; feral cats can give you diseases.

This type of "just-a-cat" person made a face when we mentioned sending Sweetie to an animal oncologist in hopes of giving her a few more good months. Spend that kind of money? On a potential bird killer?

The "just-a-cat" crowd would have no idea that Sweetie made me laugh every day. She liked to burrow under the fitted bottom sheet when I made the bed, played hide and seek with me when I walked around our condo, drank from her own sink faucet while I brushed my teeth, and licked my chin exactly 10 times when I held her in my arms.

They probably never felt the joy of staring deep into eyes as green as emeralds, or massaging the world's softest fur.

They wouldn't understand that our cat greeted us at the door with a chirp, answered to her name, fetched, followed me from room to room like a silky shadow, waited to eat until we did, and slept beside me in the morning, purring me back to sleep.

She sat everywhere I did, plopped herself in the middle of whatever I was doing, and even took her own place at our Thanksgiving table (and didn't misbehave the way some guests did).

Sweetie was my closest companion through the sickness, sadness, moves, joys, and tribulations of twelve years. Wherever I went, she was the one who I knew would be there when I returned.

She liked just about anyone. But most of all, this darling animal loved me, keeping tight company with me through good times and bad.

She was never "just a cat."

She was just a great cat.

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