I'm reading
Losing Samson
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Losing Samson
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Losing Samson
Pass it on
Pass it on
11 December 2017

Losing Samson

The grief of losing a pet is something a lot of us experience—and we need to talk about it more.

Written by Jessica Marshall

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Photo by Chinda Sam on Unsplash

He was handed to me in an IGA parking lot. A tiny pale golden ball of fluff and squeaking mewls. He was an unwanted runt, born on a farm somewhere out the back of Mirboo North, and would have likely been disposed of in a matter of fact farming way if someone in town hadn’t suggested to my mother that I might like a kitten. I was back home on university break and despite having no fixed address I knew I wanted this poor unwanted kitten.

He was tiny, malnourished and covered in fleas. I bathed him in our laundry sink, rinsing the microscopic black bloodsuckers off his pink skin and down the drain. He slept on my lap for hours afterwards and when he woke he looked up at me with his soft grey-green eyes and stepped up and stroked himself along my chin in a pretty clear gesture of gratitude. His newly washed fur gleamed golden and I touched his nose and whispered: “Samson.” He deserved this name of strength, befitting of his gold coat and his vanquished odds of survival.

He was my little shadow. We constantly moved house. He never minded the unstable life of a student, he would just adjust, as long as he could sleep on my bed and be near me. He was a great study partner and he oversaw every stressed word of my thesis from within the small circle between my arms and the laptop. He was friendly with everyone but he reserved a particular disdain for almost every boyfriend I had. In hindsight, I suspect Samson was a better judge of character than I was.

Samson (Image supplied.)

He was there through all the highs and lows of drama school and into my first forays as a screenwriter in the big bad world. He grew to like the latest boyfriend and begrudgingly allowed him to share my (read: Samson’s) bed. He was there in my arms for every word I typed. He was there when I signed the contract selling my first screenplay. And he was there when the boyfriend left for good, his little golden head under my chin, catching my tears as they fell.

One day, when I wasn’t home, someone accidentally let Samson out. We discovered him dead on the road, not the victim of a car, but of human cruelty. I could not breathe for the hit of grief that barrelled into me upon discovering him.

I didn’t sleep. I regularly cried until I vomited. I became prone to tantrums over the smallest things, like a toddler. I didn’t eat for days. Then I would eat everything in sight. I couldn’t leave my bed. I missed deadlines. I told people what had happened and after the obligatory condolences and appropriate sad faces, they would move on, expecting me to do the same. Of course it is sad when a pet dies. But you get on with it.

Plenty of people suggested I get a new kitten to distract myself. I couldn’t bear the thought. Was I abnormal for feeling this way? I couldn’t explain myself, or the way I was behaving to anyone. Not only had I lost Samson, but I had lost the other great joy of my life: writing. Every time I sat at the computer to write I would see Samson sitting there. I became irrational about writing anything without him by my side. So I didn’t write. I sought answers everywhere, from psychologists to psychics; anxious to work out whether my grief was normal. I tortured myself with what I imagined and feared from the people around me if I were to admit I was still grieving months later. There is often a statute of limitation on grief, of any kind. You are expected to carry on and assimilate your heartache quickly, as if that is easy to do.

All the platitudes around grief are horribly and unimaginatively true. Grief does come in waves and in the beginning, washes in hard and fast, constantly tossing you under the surf. But as time passes, you learn to bob around on the surface and to hold your breath and dive under when the occasional wave crashes onto the shore. Sometimes you can predict the patterns of the waves and brace yourself. Other times they take you by complete surprise and you are tossed under again.

There is very little in our culture to deal with grief around losing a pet. There are no defined traditions or rituals, no funerals to attend, no appropriate cards or flowers to send, and certainly less understanding in the time and depth it takes in order to process the grief. However, there is research to show that the loss of a beloved pet is often comparable to the loss of a beloved human. And like myself, many people talk of the shame and stigma that theirs is not a valid or accepted grief.

Jessica and Samson. (Image supplied.)

Recently, there was a case where a woman was diagnosed with Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy—or, as it’s commonly known, “Broken-heart Syndrome”—after the death of her beloved Yorkshire terrier. Researchers have suggested that in some cases the loss of a pet is more painful, because what the pet owner is losing is a source of unconditional love, a principal companion and friend who provides security and comfort. In losing Samson, I absolutely lost him, the animal friend, but exactly as the research suggests, I lost the security, stability and comfort of having him by my side. Losing him at the beginning of a tough and unstable career as a writer meant that I questioned everything and faltered in the face of further instability and fear of the future.

But what all this research really tells us is that grief is not selective. And if there is a silver lining to experiencing the intensity of grief it is in the knowledge that it is useful to the human condition. It expands our empathy. It connects us all in a way that is eternal. Learning to take the judgement out of what we feel is such an important thing to our personal growth and healing, but also in strengthening our connections with each other. Grief gives us a hard and fast look into our own human condition. Part of the pure exquisiteness of our existence is that at any moment, it could all disappear. But we are all in this together.

We must be brave in not only facing our own grief, but also in helping others in theirs. There is nothing to gain except further heartache in pushing aside our truthful feelings. Or expect others to do the same. We are unaccustomed to speaking openly about grief for fear of causing further upset, or feeling uncomfortable, but it is in the acknowledgement of our personal and collective pain, where we can find the most peace. By allowing myself to go the depths of my pain, and eventually without the judgement that he was “just a cat”, I have emerged stronger than I was before.

And so the final cliché about grief is completely true: you don’t ever get over grief, you just learn to live with it. I still see the shadow of Samson when I sit down to write at my computer. And sometimes I wake to the ghostly feeling of soft paws treading next to me where I sleep. These little tricks of my imagination remind me, not that he’s gone, but that the unconditional love and strength he gave me still remain.

If you or if someone you love needs help, call Lifeline or visit this excellent resource from the RSPCA.

Jessica Marshall

Jessica Marshall is a Melbourne based screenwriter and freelance writer. Her first feature film is currently under option. 

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