Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Replacing" A Pet Who Has Died: When Is It Time?

[Reviewed and updated November 9, 2023]

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. ~ C.S. Lewis

A reader writes: I can't believe that it has been almost a year since the passing of our beloved 19 year old cat Mittens. With your help and words of support I was able to cope much better and to this day I still feel the hurt of her loss. I still miss her so much. My wife and daughter want another cat but for some reason I feel as if I can't or I am not ready. I know she can never be replaced and she will always be in my heart. Maybe I am being selfish to my family and to another cat who would have a good home. I have a lot of mixed feelings and not sure what to do. Thank you for listening to me again and God bless you.

My response: It's so nice to hear from you again, my friend. I truly do appreciate your struggle. After my dog Muffin was struck by a car and later euthanized, it took me ten years before I was ready and willing to let another dog into my home and into my heart. Fortunately for me, at the time this happened, my sons were grown and out of the nest, and my husband felt the same way I did about being "dog-less" for that length of time. But everyone is different in this regard, and I think it's important to recognize and allow for those differences, especially within your own family.

You say you have lots of mixed feelings about this, and I suspect that part of your reluctance to get another kitty is your fear is that you will have to go through all this pain again when you love and lose another cat at some future point. I can tell you that the one sure way to avoid repeating the pain you're feeling now is to decide never to love like that again. Yet you know (in your head, if not your heart) that whenever we take a companion animal into our lives, sooner or later we are going to lose that animal, simply because their life span is so much shorter than our own. We like to think our animals will be with us forever, but deep down we know that cannot be. This reality is very hard for us to accept when we are confronted with the death of our cherished animals. It is far better to acknowledge that harsh reality when we opt to bring an animal into our lives in the first place.

In addition, your sense of loyalty to Mittens might be interfering with your willingness to let yourself love another animal companion. Oftentimes we confuse loving another pet with "replacing" the one we've lost, and you may think that no other cat could replace your precious Mittens. It feels like an act of disloyalty, a violation of your cat's memory, an intrusion. After all, no other kitty could ever be like the one you lost. No other cat will have Mittens' unique qualities, nor should you expect it to. But instead of viewing another kitty as a "replacement,” it may help to think of this as making a new friend, one that you will learn about and come to love over time.

Is there any room for compromise here? What would happen if you simply accept the fact that you're not ready for another kitty without judging yourself for feeling that way, but since your wife and daughter feel differently about it, you could agree to let THEM get another cat or kitten -- with the understanding that you are allowed to feel your feelings without judgment, even to the extent that you'll have nothing to do with the new kitty, if that's how you need to play it? Then see how it goes? Only you know if that approach would work in your family, but it seems to me that if everyone is open and honest with one another in this situation, there ought to be a solution here that would meet everyone's needs, including your own.

For what it's worth, when my Muffin died I was shattered and absolutely heart-broken. I knew I could never, ever love another dog the way that I loved him. But ten years later we did get another dog, a Tibetan terrier named Beringer ~ and I must tell you that both my husband and I loved this dog as much as, if not more than, we'd ever loved any other creature (human or animal), and I could write a book about how much this dog meant to both of us. When you are by nature an animal lover and you lose the animal you love more than anything, I truly do believe that your heart is big enough to accommodate another ~ I have learned that through my own experience. Animals like cats and dogs just have a way of working their way into our hearts, probably because they are so innocent, so in the moment, so willing to give us that unconditional love that we never get from another human being.

But I also think you have to be ready, and willing, and open enough to let it happen. Only you will know when it is time ~ and there is nothing wrong with that. I just think that in a family, it's important to make room for the feelings of other members, and we can't expect everyone to feel the same way we do about important matters such as this. That's why I encourage you to consider how you might reach a compromise with your wife and daughter about their wanting to get another kitty ~ and whatever you decide, I wish you all the best.

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  1. I believe that after you lose a cherished pet...they would want you to take in another to take their place, so as you wouldn't be lonely. Our pets give us unconditional love and and want us to have that same type of love again after they pass, to bring in another homeless or abandoned animal. Rescuing another is an extension of the love you will always carry of your lost pet....

  2. Many people believe as you do, my friend, and thank goodness that is true. My own father held that belief, and when I was a child we always had a new pet soon after one of ours had died. Others feel differently, however, and it's important to respect those feelings too. We each grieve in our own way, and in our own time, and we must take care not to rush to replace a pet who is lost. We each need time to finish with the one who is gone, and then only with the understanding that there is no way to "replace" a loved one. Getting a new pet before the grieving process is completed (and before a person wants or feels a need to give love to another pet) suggests that the lost pet was disposable, diminishes the importance of the new pet, and deprives the family of the opporotunity to find meaning in the whole event.

  3. Thank you for sharing this insightful answer about getting a new pet after pet loss. It's a good reminder that there are special considerations we need to take when it is a family getting a new pet and not just one person. It also is a fine balance between on the one hand making sure you don't get a pet too soon because you want to avoid the grief and on the other hand hesitating getting a new pet for fear of loving and losing again.


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