Tony, a recent widower, sits in his bathtub. It’s full of water, and he holds a razor up to one of his wrists. He looks like he is about to start slashing. All of a sudden, there is a soft whimper. He looks toward the open bathroom door, where his dog Brandy, stands with an expectant look on her face. Tony says, “Are you, hungry girl?” And with that, he puts the razor down, drains the tub and follows his dog into the kitchen. Thoughts of suicide behind him for now.

Tony is not a real person. He is a character in “After Life”, a Netflix comedy written by, directed and starring Ricky Gervais. The scene is beautifully expressive. One of many that show how our bonds with our furry family members help our mental health. And during the grieving process, MOST of us need help.

When my mother and my husband died within five days of one another, I felt as-if I had been cut in half lengthwise. I was thrown completely off balance, nothing was quite working. There I sat in my house with our/my two cats. At that time they were already 12 and 13 years old. I thought that perhaps the ‘Murphys Law’ of death would mean that at any moment one or both of those cats would die. And then I really would be completely alone. Sometimes I would look at them and say, “Please don’t die, please don’t die. Just stay for at least another year.” Which was silly, because I already knew there was no bargaining with death.

Four and a half years later, one of them is still with me. And the other one lived for an impressive three years after I begged them both not to die.

While cats do not receive high marks for being caring or empathetic, my two definitely rallied around me. One of them was always right next to me. Sometimes I wondered, perhaps they had set up some type of agreed upon schedule? One had mornings, the other had afternoons and they both took evenings. At night when I was trying to sleep, one or both of them would curl up right next to me. Maybe it was because there was extra room in the bed, or maybe it was cold. But I knew that I was not alone.

In “After Life”, Tony makes a comment to Brandy the dog, that if she could open her own food tins, he would be dead. The healing power of having a pet to take care of cannot be overemphasized.

While I never felt suicidal, certainly I experienced depression. Having two furry creatures depending on me for their care was a great way to help take me out of myself. For a few moments each day, my thoughts were directed toward their care. One of them had been especially close to my husband Ed, and I did worry about how she would handle his death. She became my ‘watch cat.’ It seemed like every time I turned around, there she was, keeping an eye on me.

I’m so glad that my two cats were part of my grief journey. Here, in no specific order are some of the benefits that our pets provide to us while we navigate the loss of a loved one.

  1. Taking care of your pet gives you a purpose — something to do beyond feeling sad or taking care of the business of death.
  2. Some days you might not be ready for the company of other humans, but you do not want to be all alone either.
  3. When you come home, you are not coming back to an empty house. You have someone waiting for you on the other side of the door.
  4. When you talk to yourself, you have a listener. And that makes a big difference. You find you are not just talking to yourself after all.
  5. Your pet can be a link to your deceased loved one. If you shared a pet together, now that pet is part of a happy shared memory.
  6. Pets, (especially cats), are a good reminder that you are NOT the center of the universe.
  7. Sometimes your pets do unpredictable things. Dragging ribbons out of the closet, or knocking over flowers, or jumping on your bladder to wake you up. All of these things are welcome distractions, and some will make you smile, perhaps even help you laugh.

The healing power of our pets can be amazing. But don’t expect your cat, dog or ferret to be your entire salvation. If you think you are going to find yourself in your bathtub with a razor, please seek professional help.