How My Emotional Support Animal Continues To Heal Me Even After Her Passing

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This year, I encountered my worst nightmare. Despite all of the trauma that I’ve experienced, no level of abuse compared to facing the one thing I feared most in the world: losing my best friend, my emotional support animal (ESA), Willow. 

Over the course of her life, she was typically a pretty healthy cat.

She went through a period of being slightly overweight, but I didn’t see it as a huge red flag.

When she started getting back to a healthier weight, I took it as a positive sign. After a while, though, she began to look too skinny. I took her to the vet and they delivered the devastating news that she had severe liver disease. Her chances of recovery were slim. 

My heart was more than broken–it was shattered. During the next couple of weeks, I did my best to give her a good end. I fed her the few foods she still loved and cuddled her as much as I could.

It was painful to grieve who she was while she was still alive. In some ways, it was oddly healing, too.

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When she finally passed, I could sense that she was about to go.

I found her fading into a corner of my home. Crouching to her level, I whispered through tears how much she meant to me. I told her if she needed to go, she could. It hurt to let her go. Still, it was less excruciating to say goodbye than it was to tether her to a reduced quality of life. The next morning, I found her lifeless body. 

Thankfully, my (human) best friend helped to take care of everything.

We cremated her body so I’d have a little piece of her forever. We made it as good of a day as we could. Although grief felt like it would obliterate me, I survived.

When you read this, you might read it through the lens of losing a regular pet.

In many ways, my ESA and I had a bond that was similar to a typical pet/pet-parent relationship. Still, she had a medicinal purpose that she fulfilled.

Losing my ESA highlighted the importance of her role and how much she contributed to my well-being. After she died, the panic attacks that she always helped me weather returned in full force. The insomnia that her sweet presence sleeping beside me quelled came back with a vengeance, too. She always grounded me during PTSD symptoms such as flashbacks and hypervigilance. Without her, these symptoms overwhelmed me. 

One could chalk some of this up to grief, but these symptoms also demonstrated how crucial an ESA was to my recovery. 

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Her passing brought a small silver lining with it.

In leaving me behind, she taught me that I can live without her. She taught me that the complicated grief that I experienced from other losses was valid.

She allowed me to go through the grieving process in a healthy way and exert some control over how I wanted to memorialize her. I didn’t get those experiences with other losses that I’d had, so it was healing even though it was unspeakably difficult. 

If I had my way, she would have lived forever and then some. S

till, after she departed from this life, I realized that her impact on me transcended her physical presence. With her gone, I had to rely more on my human support system and I felt worthy to ask for help from them.

I listened to what I needed and didn’t have the energy to deny myself the little joys anymore.

As with most life-changing events, her death clarified what direction I want to take in life moving forward. I don’t believe that it was supposed to happen, but by working with what is rather than what could have been, I’ve found peace despite the pain.

Before her death, there were plenty of times when different people or groups encouraged me to let her go.

When I was homeless, struggling, or even just deeply attached to my cat, some folks took particular glee in telling me that I should give up my one joy: my cat.

Those people weren’t for me, so they aren’t in my life anymore. They weren’t alone in their sentiments.

Society holds the attitude that ESAs are “just pets” or that those who have ESAs are trying to “get around the system” by having their animals despite leases forbidding pets. This idea is unfair and untrue, but it prevails.

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Having an ESA can help with a wide range of symptoms. I have friends who have pets who help them to focus on their ADHD or to get out of bed in the morning with their depression. Whether an ESA has a label or not, mountains of anecdotal evidence suggest that animals help humans as much as we help them–if not more! 

The impact of Willow’s life on mine shows that she was more than a pet–she was a healing balm to my injured mind.

Even if she was “just a pet,” I would argue that the unconditional love of pets and the responsibility they require is healing in and of itself.

Still, since many landlords prohibit pets, vulnerable folks’ ESAs need to be protected. For many of those with ESAs, humans have been so harmful to us that we experience a healthier level of connection with animals than our fellow people. This may sound sad, but it’s the reality of our cruel world.

Above all, Willow taught me that I should follow my heart. My heart always told me to keep her purely because I wanted her, to defend my preferences, and to pursue independence when I was living in places that would not permit me to have her.

My life and my mental health would not be this good if she never crossed my path. I will always miss her but I will always be grateful for the ways in which she changed my life for the better. 

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Maya Strong is a professional writer who has spent the last six years blogging about relationships, LGBTQIA+, mental health, lifestyle, and cultural commentary online.