Phantom Sounds

The jingling of a collar on a wiggly, happy body.

The scrape and click of excited little claws on a hardwood floor.

The low, soft rumble of a kitty who could not be more content.

These sounds are the music of an animal household. The soundtrack of life with a pet. From sweet, sweet purrs, to earsplitting, booming barks, to the maddening sound of your pet licking itself in the middle of the night. Quite often we aren’t even aware of just how much noise our pets make. In the mundane routine of life, we don’t always pay attention to the steady, happy panting. Or gentle footsteps on soft carpet. Or the rhythmic thud of a joyful tail against the floor. These things so often become a part of the background noise. It’s almost as if they become a part of the silence.

Yet inevitably, there comes a point in the life of a pet owner when that silence suddenly becomes much quieter. The sad day when we must say goodbye to that important family member, and all at once, that furry soundtrack is gone. It is then when we realize just how constant those sweet sounds were. And just how silent silence can be.

However, for some pet owners, those sounds do not stop. In the quiet of the night comes that sweet, rumbly purr, as if it were never gone. As if our sweet kitty were there, peacefully sleeping with us once again.

Or perhaps on a quiet afternoon, we hear the gentle scrape of little clawed feet ambling down the hall.

Maybe we hear the noisy slop of an eager tongue in a water dish.

Maybe we hear the jangle of a collar being kicked around by a paw, continuing on its quest to find the ever-elusive center of the itchy spot.

Maybe in the stillness of the night, we hear the low, slow, breathing of a deep slumber.

Maybe we said goodbye yesterday. Maybe we said goodbye last year.

These things, though they may be unsettling, are in fact relatively common. This recent study explored the grief resulting from pet loss, and surveyed pet owners who had said goodbye to their beloved pet within the last 2 years. It studied these “false recognitions” of pets by their owners, including sightings of the pet as well as hearing the pet’s noises. The study found that not only did many pet owners experience this, but that these experiences lasted for some time beyond the loss of the pet, as “many participants experienced false recognitions up to 24 months following their pet’s death” (White and Fessler).

Studies like this illustrate, and can help validate, the deep, profound impact the loss of a pet has on us. Their lives are so intricately entwined with ours. Their daily routine often dictates ours. They become so integral a part of the family that when they depart, they leave a gaping hole in our lives.

When pet owners experience these “phantom sounds,” it can feel alarming, even disconcerting. They may feel like there is something wrong with them, or even like they are losing their mind. While this is a strange and eerie phenomenon, it is not uncommon. Many people who have just lost a dearly loved one, and who are in the throes of grief, experience this phenomenon of “phantom sounds.” If you are experiencing this, you are not alone.

It may be unsettling, and it might make the pain of loss even more potent in those moments. But it is not forever. As the aforementioned study proves, this is relatively common in people who have deep attachments to their beloved pets, and these experiences do decline as time passes.

If you are one of the many pet owners who has been experiencing these “phantom sounds” after the passing if your sweet pet, please know that you are not alone. The reality is, the grief from the loss of a pet is deep, profound, and legitimate. Though we may have people in our lives telling us to “get over it,” or that “it was just an animal,” the truth is, it was a true, meaningful relationship, and no one has the right to tell you that your grief is not valid.

This phenomenon should decrease with the passing of time. However, if you find that these experiences are not fading, it may be very helpful to find someone to talk to. There are many pet loss support groups that are full of people who have deeply loved, and lost, a dear furry family member. Countless people have found it very helpful to have support and encouragement from other pet owners who share their same understanding and appreciation of the human-animal bond, and who have had their own personal experience with the loss of a beloved pet. These people have found that with that support from like-minded pet owners, they can continue through the process of grieving surrounded by love and support.

If this facet of grief concerns you or begins to strongly affect your daily life, you may consider enlisting the support of a mental health professional who has experience in helping people through the loss of a beloved pet. Even the most normal grief reactions can feel impossible to manage alone at times, and many people find that the support of an outside person can help them feel unstuck. Some people experience what is called “complicated grief” and have trouble healing over time and moving forward in their “new normal”. Everyone’s grief is unique, and there is no shame in speaking with a mental health professional about your own grief. This is a common, extremely helpful resource, and it has helped countless people be able to cope with the loss, and better understand and manage their grief.

Our precious furry family members make an indelible mark on our lives. Though some of us are left with temporary, “phantom sounds,” all of us are left with infinite, permanent, perfect memories that will not fade over time, but will simply grow more precious, more cherished, and more deeply engraved in our hearts.

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