With pets as 'part of the family,' grief hits hard when they pass
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USA TODAY reporter Anthony Breznican's cat Sinatra looks up at him. Breznican says the shelter cat they had for a decade taught him to be a better father.
By Jill Breznican
USA TODAY reporter Anthony Breznican's cat Sinatra looks up at him. Breznican says the shelter cat they had for a decade taught him to be a better father.
Sinatra and Anthony Breznican look at baby Audrey.
 EnlargeBy Jill Breznican
Sinatra and Anthony Breznican look at baby Audrey.
You can see why he was named after Ol' Blue Eyes.
 EnlargeBy Jill Breznican
You can see why he was named after Ol' Blue Eyes.
Dogs of divorce, feral cats, foreclosures ... 
Follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter at @breznican

I didn't want this cat. Now I'm having a hard time facing life without him.

Getting a cat was my wife's idea, back in July 2000, when she was my girlfriend. I'd never had a pet before and wasn't comfortable around animals, but Jill loves them. And I love her.

We found ourselves at the shelter, looking through pens at the animals hoping to find a home. One cage had a mother cat surrounded by a brood of kittens, all of them tabbies, like her — except for one. This was a little gray guy, Siamese-looking. He climbed up the side of the cage, desperate for our attention.

Soon he was scratching up my arm and sprawling across my shoulders as Jill filled out the paperwork. In the car, we wrapped him in a jacket, and Jill pointed out his wide blue eyes. Let's call him Sinatra, she said.

The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 6 million to 8 million animals enter shelters each year, and only half are later adopted into homes.

The ones that are adopted have a much different role in American families than they did in earlier times.

"Pets these days, much more than 30 or 40 years ago, are so integrated into every aspect of our lives. They're always with us," says Adam Goldfarb, director of the group's pets-at-risk program. "Since they're mostly companions these days, we view them as friends and family members. Pets don't have a job other than to be there with us."

That also means the grief over a lost pet is deeper than before, he says. "There's a void, a vacuum. You're still doing the same stuff, but somehow it's a bit empty."

Sinatra was cute, but I still didn't want an animal in the house, and set down a few rules right away. Rule No. 1 was "NO sleeping on the bed." That was for humans only.

That first night, Jill and I lay in the dark while the tiny kitten hopped at the edge of the bed frame, too small to climb up, squeaking sadly. Jill asked: Just this once? I begrudgingly allowed it, and fell asleep as Sinatra explored the ridges of our blankets. In the morning, I found him sleeping not with Jill, but in the crook of my arm. He opened his blue eyes and blinked at me.

Rule No. 1? Never heard of it.

I eventually taught him to come when I called by whistling whenever I fed him. Soon I didn't have to offer a treat. At the sound of my whistle — one high note, one low — Sinatra would run from another room and leap into my arms.

He became my sidekick. Or maybe I was his.

Experts say there are many ways to cope after a pet is gone: making photo albums, writing stories or expressing feelings through music or art.

Betsy Saul, founder of the adoption site Petfinder.com, says it also can be useful to steer your talents toward helping other animals.

"Go to a shelter," she says. "It may not be time to adopt again, but pick a cat and write a very poetic description, then take an ad in the classifieds. Maybe you couldn't save your cat, but you could save 20 cats."

For a decade, we were a family. And a year ago, we were at our happiest. The baby came last August, a little girl named Audrey. Our other cat, Annie, is a shy thing, a perpetual hider, but Sinatra was more curious.

Audrey tended to yank his ears and fur, but he was gentle with her. (He'd have hissed or bit at anyone else who got that rough.) He wasn't above trying to steal some attention back. Sometimes while I cradled her, he would suddenly hop up into my arms, too. That was OK. I had room for both.

During Audrey's first week home, Jill snapped a picture of Sinatra and me on the bed, both of us gazing at the sleeping newborn. She framed it as a birthday present last September. It was unimaginable to me that he wouldn't be here for the next birthday.

In late spring, this cat, who never got sick, started losing weight.The vet said it could be intestinal inflammation, though she also felt a mass in his abdomen.

I began feeding him with a plastic injector full of pureed food with his medicines. As he became more frail, I became more desperate. Sinatra once weighed 14 pounds. Within two months, he was almost half that. We saw three other vets, none offering much hope. You don't have much time, one said.

Cancer had grabbed our cat.

Audrey is too young to comprehend the loss, but experts say it's important to let older children be a part of the grieving process and not lie to them about what has happened to a pet.

"You don't want to be brutal," says Moira Anderson Allen, author of Coping With Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet. "But people tell stories about their parents saying 'The pet ran away' or 'The pet went to stay with someone else,' and they spend years wondering why the pet didn't want to stay with them.

"That's really hard on a kid, or to find out years later that in fact the pet was dead and you never had a chance to deal with it."

Parents have to gauge their children's maturity level, but Allen says kids are resilient, and it can be better in the long run to let them deal with the truth.

The final day came. Sinatra wouldn't eat or drink anymore. He was finished fighting. We weren't going to make him anymore.

Jill and I both had the day off from work and took Audrey into day care. It was a beautiful morning and afternoon spent together, two of us napping with Sinatra, listening to the return of his purr as we petted him between us.

Sinatra was an indoor cat but would noisily paddle the blinds on the back door to be allowed out for a supervised visit to the yard. That evening, he lay in the grass, resting his head on Jill's leg. He could barely lift it anymore.

The house-call vet arrived. I picked up Sinatra from the grass, then set him down again, gently. I knelt and whistled for him — one high note, one low — and he put his paws up, weakly climbing into my arms, resting his head on my shoulder.

One last time, he came to me when I called. We brought him inside — to say goodbye, to let him go. I knew when that beautiful heart stopped, a part of mine would, too.

There's no easy way to lose a pet, but there are options apart from a final visit to the vet's office, which can be nerve-racking for an ailing animal in those final moments.

When Sinatra's end came, we called Steve Smith of West Hollywood, Calif., who runs HomePetDoctor.com. "My clients have told me that, after having a family pet put to sleep at home, they would never do it any other way," Smith says. "It's more peaceful, more private, and much less stressful on everyone involved.

"Before they go, I want them to be tranquil and comfortable, in a familiar place, surrounded by family."

The end of a pet's pain is rarely the end for the owners'. Friends, family and co-workers may be sympathetic, but no one feels it like the grieving owners.

"It is an incredibly lonely experience," says Saul of Petfinder.com. "We always say to call your local vet and find a pet-loss hot line, or if you're really depressed, you may need to talk to somebody professionally."

The ASPCA offers counseling at 877-GRIEF-10, as do many veterinary schools, such as Washington State University (866-266-8635) and the University of Illinois (877-394-CARE).

How do you sum up 10 years of a life?

I'm a better dad because of Sinatra. The responsibility of caring for something totally reliant on your love and attention is good training for any future parent, with many side lessons in the values of playtime and patience.

If Jill or I were sad, sick or hurting, Sinatra could always be counted on to offer a nudge of his head or a lick from his sandpaper tongue. The greatest thing he taught me was that simply being together was enough.

He was our everyday, the mischievous little fellow spread out across the fabric of daily life. Among the thousands of things I miss now that he's gone, most of all is him running to meet me at the door, eager to be picked up.

Like with any great pet, to hold him was to know that you were home.

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