Losing a pet while you’re at university

No one prepares you for the homesickness you feel when you leave your beloved pet, or the grief that comes when they leave you.

RIP Salem. (photo: Hasana Tombs)

I have typed, deleted, and retyped this article 100 times. Unlike with my other articles, I find myself at a loss as to where to start this one. I have a general direction, but it seems like every time I go to type the first line my fingers hover over the keyboard, unsure of where to begin. When I finally do begin, everything is wrong.

See, I have a cat. Now, you clicked on this article after reading the title, so you’re probably expecting me to use the past tense. I had a cat. But that feels incorrect. I vehemently reject that sentence, even if it's true. He might be gone now but it still feels like I’m going to go home in the summer and everything will be normal again.  

I got Salem when I was five years old. That’s about the age when you start remembering things. I remember my pink bedroom walls, my little plastic princess shoes, and my stark black kitten. Eventually I repainted and outgrew the princess shoes, but Salem was the one part of my life that never changed. I guess this year was the year I was meant to learn that change is unavoidable.

Cut to this past September. I made the choice to attend school in another province with both excitement in my chest and a weight lingering on my shoulders. I’ve always wanted to see as much of the world as I could, but that meant leaving Salem. I’m sure there are a lot of you who know that feeling. It’s this mixture of hope and sadness—you know you’ll be home for the holidays, but what about all the months in between? Where does that time go? Do they wonder where you’ve gone and why you left? Those are the questions we have to try not to think about.

I travelled home in January. I wasn’t planning to go at first, but with some well-timed miracles and a little bit of elbow grease, I ended up making it home. I don’t know exactly what or who I believe in—God, the universe, or something else entirely—but I thank whatever it was out there keeping an eye on me for getting me home in time for Salem’s last days.

 

I got to spend the last three days of Salem’s life snuggling him, and it was like no time had passed at all. He didn’t hate me for leaving him; he was just happy to be with me, and I with him. I believe that he waited for me. When the time came for him to go, I pressed my forehead against his just as I’d been doing since I was 14 when I saw the live-action Tarzan and taught Salem the trick. Apparently it means that “we are family forever.” I whispered that I loved him and then I let him go.

In the afterlife comedy The Good Place, Eleanor says something to Chidi that has always stuck with me. She says, “We found each other before, hundreds of times. We can do it again.” I told Salem the same quote that day, and although I think I messed the words up when I said it, I know he understood them. There isn’t much that I really know about the universe or its secrets, but I know that what I said was true, and that I lost one of my soulmates that day.    

What I’m trying to say with all this rambling is that it’s OK to miss your pets while you’re away from home. In fact, I think it’s normal and healthy to do so. Whether you’re 18 or 86, there's no age limit to missing the animals in your life because they're family too.

This is a facet of homesickness that isn't addressed nearly enough. We can text our parents and our best friends but my Salem didn’t have thumbs so he couldn’t answer the FaceTime calls. I'd ask my older brother for a daily picture of Salem, but it’s not like Salem could ask for one of me in return. To him I disappeared, and although that never seemed to change how much he loved me when I came home, it still weighed on me. It’s OK if it weighs on some of you as well.

You aren’t weak for missing a cat, a dog, a hamster, or even a fish. The fact that you have so much love inside of you that you can create a bond with a creature that can't even say your name is a testament to your strength. The grief you feel from being away from them is proof that love is real. Perhaps not everyone will understand, but I do.

If you’re away from your pet(s), I hope reading this gives you some measure of comfort. I hope you get to see your family soon—human or otherwise.

Finally, to my Salem: not a day goes by in which I don’t think about you. You were and always will be my family, my best friend, and a soulmate. I love you to the stars, and the moon, and to Saturn and back.