People who are mourning the loss of a beloved animal companion often mention the pain of the empty house. They come home to the place where they have become accustomed to receiving a celebratory welcome, and instead enter into a silent, sad place.
“This home that Lucy and I loved so much has now become a terrible, dead house,” says Cynthia, who is mourning the loss of her 16-year-old cat. “We used to love our home, she and I. Maybe you’d think it’s silly, but I used to show her new curtains when I bought them and ask her if she liked them.” Cynthia smiles, and then the tears flow. “Now I feel like I hate my house. “
It is sometimes said that the cat is the soul of the house. It is also said that a home is not a home without a dog.
If you have other animal companions, you may not feel this aspect quite so intensely. Having other pets does not lessen your pain on losing one, especially if the attachment was “unique.” But what I now call “the dead house feeling” can be overwhelming when there is no wagging tail at all, no sauntering, vocalizing, feline to greet you at the door.
When you sit at your computer and look down to where your pet would lie, you remember you are alone. When you go to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, no one is excited to rise and strut or spin alongside you, hoping for a treat or a snuggle while you pour your brew.
When you wake up in the morning, silence. No fur to touch. No little being imploring you to get up and bust out the kibble.
James, mourning the passing of his retired greyhound says, “I wouldn’t tell anyone this. I hope you don’t think I’m crazy. And I hope I’m not crazy. But every day I clean Jasper’s water bowl and put fresh water in it. It’s like I have to. I can’t stand the thought of putting the bowl away or seeing it empty. I fill it, and when I do, I think I feel better for a moment.”
What James is describing is not “crazy.” I have heard this same need to fill the water bowl—and similar things—from many sane and mourning people. It is a self-soothing kind of behavior. It may not make a person feel any better, but not doing it would be too painful.
Kendra says, “I have had to euthanize four English Setters over my lifetime. Before this last time, I always had another, younger Setter at home. I see now how much that must have eased my pain. This last time, when I had to let Delilah go, it was the first time I left the vet’s and didn’t have a dog to come home to. Someday—not right away—I’ll have another dog. But I think I’ll stagger them now—always have another, younger one. This pain of having no animal at all is like nothing I’ve ever known. It’s like…maybe this is nutty…it’s like I don’t know what to do with myself. Like, what’s my purpose?” Kendra laughs softly. “Honestly. I have a family; I work from home and love my work. You would think I had a purpose. But I keep wanting to grab Delilah’s leash, and then I remember, she’s not here. It’s such an empty feeling.”
If you are experiencing this “dead house feeling,” just know that it is normal. While our animals are with us, we may take their constant company and interest in us for granted. We get used to it and don’t realize how supportive it is until it is gone.
Know that when you are ready, there is no shortage of homeless animals who would be grateful to share your life with you. Remember that your animal companion only wanted you to be happy, and it is not disloyal to love another pet. Don’t rush it. Grieve and mourn fully. And then heal, and love again.