Losing a Pet in an Autistic Household

When our beloved seventeen-year-old cat was dying, Liev, our autistic son, reacted thus:
“Oh. So, then we’ll get a new kitty.”
No emotional depth. No concern. No sadness.

This did not fool us.

Kitty Pearl filled our son’s daily imaginings. Wobbly scratching posts and sinister-looking grooming contraptions were built in her honor. He wrote her sentimental “I-love-you-kitty” letters and taped kitty-centric schedules near her water bowl. Homemade Kitty Forts stretched across rooms and cluttered staircases.

Then there were lists. Page after page of numbered instructions pertaining to the cat:

  1. Pet kitty gently.
  2. Add ice cubes to fresh water.
  3. Brush with the fur.
  4. No pestering.

Liev needed to organize his interactions with Pearl, not just to remind him of his duties but also to cope with the delicious and abhorrent impulse to pull her tail.

Pearl’s declining state preoccupied Liev later that evening. He spread inky equationed papers on the bed and announced that his calculations showed Pearl would live until August 4, 2014. Propelled with anxious, hyperkinetic energy, he expounded: “The next day (hop), Pearl will be cured (hop) and returned to live with us forever (hop, flap, twist, jump).” I nodded and replied, “I hope so.”

The Sunday before Pearl passed, Papa suggested something different for their weekly project. He asked Liev if he would like to build Pearl a casket. Liev’s face whitened. “No burial,” he said, “Cremation only.” Within ten minutes, an atomic autistic meltdown consumed him. Books and tears flew. A hole in the woods behind us was too dark and ugly for her, he howled.

After an hour of outcry, he vanished into the computer room, asking not to be disturbed. He resurfaced with the creation to the left.

This Boardmaker sheet is a window into his mind. It translated the enormity of Pearl’s kidney failure into something concrete and measurable.

Like other autistics, he needed to anchor to the tangible before venturing into the realm of emotion.

Every few hours, he filled out a new worksheet and tacked it to the refrigerator. He helped her the way he knew best—with discrete bits of information recorded on paper.

We held a vigil for Pearl on her final day. Liev read her his favorite stories as I stroked her. He addressed her in the same sing-songy voice I reserve for sick days and jarring injuries. His imitation of my soothing strategies struck me. Autistic children retain more than we realize.

Papa came home early to sit with Liev while I took Pearl to the vet.  We did not disclose the ultimate purpose of the trip, to keep departure subdued. None of us copes well with strong emotion.

An hour into the appointment, Papa told Liev.

My cell rang as I finished tucking a homemade blanket around Pearl’s inert form. Sorrow weighed upon me so heavily, answering required unexpected resolve.

Initially, I mistook Liev for a shrill, unhinged octogenarian who dialed a wrong number. His hysterical voice rattled my cheap crackly phone:

“I know about Pearl.  Are you going to cremate her or bring her home? Is she dead? Are you going to bring her home? Is she dead? Will I see her dead body? Will you burn her on the charcoal grill? Is she dead? “

He pleaded for details about the cremation: where would it be, how long would it take, and could he keep her ashes in his room?  I squeezed out appropriate answers and hung up.

The significance of cremation finally occurred to me. Remains in our home were less of a transition than burial, which held a sad and somber finality.

Liev continued to call for reassurance. My cell chimed cheery tunes as I exited the vet’s office. He left five more voice messages and sent six emails before I arrived home to hugs, tears, and many, many lists.

The day after Pearl died, I thought of her constantly. Her absence seemed inexplicably more powerful than her presence; like when I lost my watch weeks ago. I never realized how often I checked the time until my empty arm reminded me. How sad the stripe of skin on my wrist registered emptiness more than presence.

Liev processed his grief with questions. The first wave concerned the minutia of biological death, followed by a shower of spiritual inquiries. At last, he asked how I felt. A grief inquisition ensued.  As if he knew emotion collapses me inward, Liev tugged and pulled each word out of me, like an invasive, but beneficial medical procedure.


He led me through sorrow as if he were an expert. Each question I answered took me closer to peace and acceptance.  Perhaps all little askers of questions are armed with the tools to heal. Great sadness can come from passing, but grief is not a monster to slay. Grief means a life changed yours.

Months have passed. Pearl lives on in Liev, but not in a dark, sad way. She inhabits his imagination, her ghost flits by windows and lingers half-perceived in kitty-fictions and Liev-escapades. We welcome her as an addition to the family. To be spoken of and remembered.

Pearl may have died, but she’s in my heart.

She’ll go when I do. Do what I do.

Okay, she died, but she’s in my heart, yeah!

Pearl may have died, but she is in my shoe.

She’ll go when I do. Do what I do.

Okay she died, but she’s in my shoe, yeah!

140 thoughts on “Losing a Pet in an Autistic Household

  1. So Beautiful! I love this & your son’s amazing poem tribute to Pearl. So touched. ♥ Thank you for sharing.

  2. This is so so beautiful and moving and sad and uplifting and reassuring. I was in tears halfway through, thinking of my own struggle to cope with the passing our dog (my first ever pet) ten years ago. Much love to all of you.

  3. I just love you guys!!! I hope you know that you heal and assist him.. just as much as he does for you! It has taken this post for me to realize that there may be quite a connection between kitty pearl and T’s love of Big Cats…and doing what he can to save them. You have an amazing boy there <3

  4. This is so beautiful, thank you for sharing this process. It reminded me of when we lost our first pet, Kali a few years ago. <3

  5. This is so beautifully-observed, sensitive and helpful. Thank you. My son also likes to pull tails – hearing of that was good too 🙂

  6. Thank you for capturing the essence of something so enormously difficult with your beautiful words and sensitivity.

    “He led me through sorrow as if he were an expert. Each question I answered took me closer to peace and acceptance. Perhaps all little askers of questions are armed with the tools to heal. Great sadness can come from passing, but grief is not a monster to slay. Grief means a life changed yours…”

    This quite took my breath away…

    Thinking of you…

  7. I too do not have words to express the emotions I felt reading your post. There are too many jumbled together. My heart goes out to you and T from the loss, but you share such a beautiful transition that I am moved in a way that I cannot describe. (HUGS) <3

  8. This is an amazing post. Beautiful. You captured so many things so beautifully I don’t know where to start in lauding you. So I will keep it simple. Just beautiful. Thank you.

  9. It is beautiful the way you have chosen to honor this transition and respect each person’s unique way of grieving. I was told a similar thing during my own grief counseling: “you are sad because you loved and were loved” – and there’s no shame in that. Grief means you were touched by someone special and that’s a wonderful thing to honor and celebrate.

    I wish you all more healing as time goes on.

  10. There’s genius in your son. I am so touched by your description of the step by step passage of time and death of your kitty Pearl and how your son was affected and how he conveyed his feelings. One of the most beautiful posts I’ve read. Thank you.

  11. I lost my cat many years ago. At first, when the vet called to say she’s dying, I didnt feel anything. I took a texi to the vet’s office, and when I saw the clinic, it hit me like a hammer. I cried every day for a year, lost weight, couldnt eat or sleep. I’d walk into a room and forget why. stopped in the middle of the street without knowing what I was doing there, forgot I was on my way to the grocery store, a mini shutdown. I just stood and couldnt move or think for a few minutes. I grieved horribly and obsessively.

    I also researched on the net for hours on end for a long time about the polysictic kidney disease and heart failure and stem cell futuristic treatment and whatnot.

    Grief is more intense on the spectrum. We have no control over our emotions, and we are deeply attached to our pets.

  12. Your son sounds like an amazing boy. I was just reading another post by an adult with Aspergers who was dealing with her cat having cancer. A few years ago my own kitty had cancer and eventually had to be euthanized. It sounds like Tyoma handled it much better than I did, even though I was an adult! At one point I was just lying on the couch screaming “SAMMY! SAMMY!” in full melt-down mode. I love how Tyoma found ways of processing it, and especially his poem at the end! What a brilliant boy!

  13. Nope, animals don’t die, least of all cats.
    I refuse to think about it.

    I do love hearing about young autistic folk (as a child I was severely impacted by my autism whereas as an adult I can often pass as a neurotypical person), I love seeing very clear autistic behavior in young autistic people that I can recognise in myself – it’s a nice anchor, a reminder of a shared identity among different autistic individuals.

  14. This hits close to home as we have a 17-year-old cat who is in kidney failure. We’re hoping for more time with him, but let’s face it, 17 is old for a cat! My 10-year-old son, who’s autistic, kind of understands death. We have chickens that we’re all fond of that have died over the years, but our cats are strictly house cats, indoors only, our pets and fuzzy family members. My son is already showing some distress over our cat’s health and his inevitable death. Your post gives me some ideas on how we might cope when the end comes. I hope it’s not terribly soon.

    1. Update: Charlie (our aged cat) died in January of 2016. Kidney failure finally took him and we had to put him down. Our son carried him in his arms and laid him to rest in a special corner of our yard. And we all cried. We still cry. A lot. I still see Charlie stroll into the room out of the corner of my eye.

      Since writing this original post, we actually lost two cats, Charlie and Niko. Niko died suddenly. Fine one minute – gone the next. We also added two dogs to the household, Comet and Scout. Comet, we got as a puppy. He knew Charlie before Charlie passed and we like to think that Chuck told Comet all the family secrets before his passing. Scout, a rescue, came later. Our son loves the dogs. We’ve also adopted another cat, both to provide companionship for our last, now elderly, kitty named Toby, and to hang out with us, too. She never met Charlie, but she gives us lots of love, and is a very creative “shoe artist.”

      We will always weep for Charlie. And for Niko. And when Toby passes, we’ll cry. But life goes on. We survived this, and will continue to survive, because life must go on!

  15. Trying to figure out how to explain cancer and his golden retriever dying to my three year old autistic son, Maddox. At this point it just seems impossible.

  16. Her name’s Roxy or when she’s in trouble Roxanne….. N when u let her out to potty n she won’t come back….. Maddox will stand at the door….n yell Woxy……Wyannn….n stomp his foot n point…. He sleeps with her…. Plays with her….. Lays on her…… She helps him through his Meltdown’s. How do you explain her sudden disappearance to a non verbal autistic toddler? What do you say when you leave with her and she never comes back? I feel so lost and helpless. 🙁

  17. We just lost our dog (he was the same age as my autistic son – 5), and it’s been hard the past 3 weeks trying to cope. Reading about Tyoma is so much like my son, the questions, the reactions, before and after. Being on the spectrum myself, I honestly don’t know how to cope. Things that are logical are not possible. We can’t just go out and get a new dog even though I really want to, that would just be trying to replace our previous dog. We cannot replace that… Grief is not logical… it doesn’t follow rules or guidelines. It doesn’t make sense. And it’s harder to explain to a kid when the adult doesn’t know how to cope.

  18. We just lost a dog we rescured. She was sweet and loving and kind. If you were upset or sick she would lick you until you laughed. We were hoping she could be my emotional support dog as I’m an adult with autism. She got sick suddenly and we had to put her to sleep about a week later. Your son is right cause my Mabel isn’t gone and she lives in me. I wish I could pet her again. Grief is a difficult emotion on the spectrum because there are so many different feelings inside it. I hate feeling all these emotions and I hate that our house has changed. But I don’t hate Mabel.

  19. We rescued a pit bull from ethuasia less than a year ago. I named her Mabel. She was sweet and loving and kind. If you were sad or hurting or upset she would lick you until you laughed. She would crawl on top of me if I was panicking and her weight would soothe me. She loved to cuddle. She looked after me. We hoped she could be my emotional support animal as I am an autistic adult. We never got the chance. She got sick very suddenly and within a week we knew she would have to be put to sleep. She went away on the 26th. Grief is a complicated emotion and I hate it. I wish it would just go away. I hate that our house has changed. But I don’t hate Mabel. Your son is right. She lives in me and I am forever grateful I got the chance to be with her. But grief on the spectrum is so very difficult because its so hard to understand.

  20. Efesios 3:14-19
    Por esta causa doblo mis rodillas ante el Padre de nuestro Señor Jesucristo (de quien toma nombre toda familia en los cielos y en la tierra), para que os dé, conforme a las riquezas de su gloria, el ser fortalecidos con poder en el hombre interior por su Espíritu; que habite Cristo por la fe en vuestros corazones, a fin de que, arraigados y cimentados en amor, seáis plenamente capaces de comprender con todos los santos cuál sea la anchura, la longitud, la profundidad y la altura, y de conocer el amor de Cristo, que excede a todo conocimiento, para que seáis llenos de toda la plenitud de Dios.

  21. Beautiful story about your sons amazing live for his cat. My son who is also autistic is similar in that he still talks about and says our cat that passed is always by his side.

    1. Thank you for sharing. It is so important to understand that we all process grief uniquely. So sorry for the loss of your kitty. <3

  22. Beautiful.
    You are raising a wonderful human being. Thank you for sharing this story. It was exactly what I needed to read right now.
    Much <3.

    1. I am so grateful you took the time to share how you felt. So many of us are connected by our love of pets and the sadness of their loss. Thank you for reaching out. <3

  23. Such an insightful glimpse into the life of a parent with an autistic child. Losing a loved pet is difficult but I hear your other struggle too, your writing is lovely. Thank you for sharing x

  24. So beautiful. Quite emotional. I will not handle it well when we lose our cat (which I hope isn’t for many, many years) <3 I loved all the drawings, by the way 🙂

  25. I am very moved at such insight from a child. It’s beautiful. Individuals show love differently at times and sometimes in a very subtle way.

    1. Tyoma will appreciate your kind words. I agree that love and its expressions have a diversity of their own, especially among children, who are still learning about love and loss.

  26. Very touching! I loved the writing style, and it was very relatable, I can’t imagine what the pain was like, especially for you as a parent. I know what I feel like when I lost my pet! Thanks for such an amazing job.

    1. Thank you for sharing with me. We are fortunate to share our time with others, be they people or pets. Loss and celebration are part of the human condition. I appreciate you dropping by and sharing your loss.


  27. My dog died last November, and it was absolutely heart-wrenching. I can’t imagine going through that and also having to navigate death with a child who has autism. Sounds like you did amazing, though! Thanks for sharing.

    1. I am so sorry for your loss. I grew up with dogs and the sadness of losing them was deep. My experience helped me reflect on myself, my own grief and allowed me to process through it more immediately instead of through a future breakdown. I appreciate your visit and kind words. <3

      Lori D.

  28. Very few people can feel it…and u have touched the right chords….This story would linger for those who are really sensitive n emotional not only for humans but every creature. Love is universal it might be human, animal or a tree …..

  29. How wonderful to have a child who asks you questions! Sounds like he did pretty well losing his kitty. Beautiful how she lives on in his heart. My son found a dead baby eel at the beach a few years ago. He buried it in the garden next to our beautiful cat. Sometimes he’ll ask to play with his eel and I’ll say it’s decomposed. After our cat died I watched my daughter jump over her grave lots saying she was playing with P. Now we’ve planted a lemonade tree on top of both the eel and P. Speaking of P, the cat, we brought her home from the vets and she slept in our room overnight before we held a little ceremony for her. It was good for the kids to see her and stroke her fur. They enjoyed picking flowers for her and adding food to the hole in the ground. We were all sad. It’s so interesting how we all deal with loss in such different ways. /Selkiegirl.

    1. Thank you so much for visiting. I appreciate you sharing your story. Bringing your kitty home was a lovely idea to give closure to your family. Bringing Pearl home never crossed my mind, but hearing your story, I can see the wisdom of it. When I was little and we lost one of our Weimaraners on vacation, her body horrified me. I see now that it was the emotion of my parents surrounding her passing that made it so awful (she ate poisoned coyote bait, it was terrifying). How I would have liked to say goodbye in a good way. Amazing how we can learn from one another so remotely!

    1. I am glad your cousin is okay. Both my Dad and I are also autistic, it’s really not scary, just different! Animals are a true blessing to us all. Thanks for dropping by!

  30. This is extremely powerful and a wonderful and thought provoking insight into your son’s emotions and thoughts, thank you so much for this. As a cat lover I feel the heartache for you.

  31. What a beautiful post. I wept through it like a storm across the city, leaving puddles at corners too wide to leap over. I can only stand on the corner and watch hopelessly as Ubers aim and splash. This brought back the death of my own cats of Kidney disease and all the inner-child questions that stay unresolved even now. I loved hearing how your son coped with this within his own ability. Thank you for sharing.

    1. I am deeply grateful to you for the emotive and thoughtful comment. Cats, warm, sweet and trusting need us and cherish us as much as we adore them. Kidney disease is such a heartbreak for there is so little for us to do. I will never be inured to death, but I feel life’s preciousness, even with temporary pets like betta fish. Thank you for the kind words. <3


  32. I’m sorry for your loss of Pearl. Tyoma is a beautiful child, with his reactions, understanding and they way he even helped you process. This is beautiful in every way. ❤️

  33. It’s very hard to handle the situation like this because most of them asking lots of questions and sometimes you can’t answer all of them. Like what happened to us, during the pet cremation in Houston, one of the family members have an autism, we find difficult to handle her. especially all the questions.

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