MD's Archives: She's Your Angel Now
On grieving a pet
When I launched this Substack, I hoped it would open up new avenues to share my writing and have it hosted in perpetuity.
Today, I’m sharing an essay called “She’s Your Angel Now.” I wrote it on the anniversary of my cat Anja (ahn-YA) passing away. I updated it & gave it a good edit this week so I could share it in the hopes it brings any solace to anyone else who has loved and lost a beloved pet.
As always, thanks for reading.
My sweet Miss Anja left me four years ago. Or, rather, her physical form expired from the earth. Like many cats, it was hard to say how much Anja was ever really “mine.”
Anja was a sweetheart of a tabby. Before living with me, she resided in a windowless studio apartment in downtown Rochester; before that, a beat-up Brooklyn loft. She was a Craig’s List adoption if I remember correctly, and I had always thought of her as my then-boyfriend’s cat rather than mine. When he needed a place to keep her, I volunteered and became a full-fledged cat lady at the age of 23 anticipating it was just the start of merging households. The relationship didn’t work out, but you can bet I kept the cat.
Anja died six days before my 30th birthday while we were living in Phoenix, Arizona. I came home from work and found her lifeless under the windowsill. I sobbed and sobbed, then almost immediately busied myself with the task of her resting place. A few phone calls later, a friend drove us to a veterinarian's office that provided cremation services.
I held Anja’s body like a relic. I cradled her in a beach towel and cried harder than I had in years while a tech escorted us into the nearest open exam room. She hugged me and told me to stay as long as I liked, and left me alone to wail over my dead cat.
When I emerged, red-eyed and ready as I ever could be, the tech came back over and took me in her arms. She said many soothing things, but one bit of advice has stayed with me: “She’ll be your angel now,” she told me.
I made it through the night with Furball, my first kitty, curled on my chest. I made it through the next day crying to empathetic coworkers. But I went on to have some very difficult months. My life became a buffet plate of grief-induced depression, career misses, money struggles, health issues, and a host of trauma responses trigged by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in the fall of 2018. When these problems and situations felt overwhelming, Anja’s death was a grief-dipped cherry-on-top: “Oh, and my cat died six months ago.”
Four years later, the loss of her little furry body still pangs me. The details of her death stick with me like a childhood phone number, like the shiny outline of a years-old scar.
But I’ve learned in the years since that there are healthier ways to grieve. It’s vital to remember what we’ve experienced in on the flip side of that sorrow. And this is where a pet’s death pulls off a sort of magic trick: The thought of Anja’s death immediately led to thoughts of her life. Her big green eyes, her super-loud purr, her penchant for stealing people's food, and the unmistakable limp she developed that made her pace so heavy you could hear her chugging through the kitchen on her way to dinner. If I sit in these thoughts, if I reflect fondly on these memories, I can conjure up peace and happiness, instead of focusing on whatever had me so upset to spiral in the first place.
In those moments when remembering Anja brings me joy, I think I understand what the tech was talking about. Even though that sassy tabby isn’t here to surprise me by jumping on my lap during dinner anymore, memories of her can give me profound comfort. And while they might make me miss her, too, I know that the joy she brought me is still my joy to keep.
These days, I keep the carved wooden box that holds Anja’s ashes next to my door. It’s surrounded by candles and crystals, a special little alter for a pet who still has the power to bring me peace.
As pet owners who love these creatures like our own children, there will always be two sides to this most magical cross-species relationship: the side where they were here with us, and the side where they are not. On both sides, they will walk with us, serving as reminders of how blessed we are for having something so special to lose.