To others, it may seem totally insensitive to compare the loss of a pet with the death of a human being, especially if that person is a close family member.
Those of you who visit my Facebook page will be left in no doubt that I am a cat person. Since getting married in 1989, I’ve had the pleasure of owning two wonderful cats - Mistral and Panzer.
Mistral was quite elderly with a wonky eye and ear when we got her. But she was chosen by my severely autistic son, Adam, as his wee companion. She became a therapy cat as well as a much-loved family pet.
Mistral was very much a house cat, rarely wandering outside. I was in full-time journalism at the time, but I never needed to set my alarm to get the early morning train!
At precisely 6.23 am every morning - work or no work - Mistral would land on my chest to remind me that it was feeding time. There was no such thing as a Saturday morning lie-in.
She would sit with Adam in his quiet room, simply keeping him calm and company whilst he watched his TV. As for me, she would sit on another sofa during the Arsenal games as I paced the floor shouting ‘never heard’ instructions to the manager and players - or the dog’s abuse I have heaped on the referees.
But eventually age caught up with Mistral and whilst she was much loved, her quality of life deteriorated to the point where the vet advised us it would be better for her to be put to sleep.
I cradled Mistral in her favourite blanket as we went to the vet that day. Saying goodbye for the final time was a very tearful experience. In fact, I bottled it - I had to get my wife to take Mistral into the vet.
Perhaps to some readers it may seem totally insensitive to compare a pet to the loss of a relative or chum, but pets can become a big part of the family and I am conscious as I pen this column of the offence I may cause.
Mistral was such a loving pet that we got her cremated and her ashes rest in a little cat urn in our front living room. I’m a cat person and I needed another moggie in my life.
A few weeks later, we got Panzer. He was a rescue cat and had been dumped on a lonely rural road at only a couple of weeks old. He was the size of a vinegar bottle when we got him.
Why name your pet cat after a German tank? It was my dark sense of humour catching up with me. As he was a black and white cat, commonly known as a tuxedo, he was to be named Pingu after the penguin cartoon character.
For a joke, I said Panzer to the vet - they wrote it down! And so Pingu became Panzer. He came into our lives about a month after my dad, Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, died. Dad’s passing hit me hard and there would be many low days since in spite of my Christian faith telling me we would meet up again in Heaven.
It was as if Panzer had a sixth sense when I was really low. I’d be sitting in the solitude of the bedroom, when in would dander Panzer and snuggle up. He always seemed to sense when I was having a really off-day.
I know many people, both believers and non-believers, helped me through those difficult early months after dad’s death, so I hope me emphasising the role of my cat in this grieving process is not insulting to their kindness and sympathy.
Likewise, Panzer was at my side, too, in the days after my mum joined dad in Glory in January 2020.
Unlike Mistral, who was a home-based cat, Panzer was a hunter. There is a saying - curiosity killed the cat. And it very nearly did when Panzer left the boundaries of our front and back gardens to extend his ‘turf’.
While less than a year old, off he dandered into a neighbour’s house to examine the renovations to their kitchen floor. While he was expert hunter, he was quiet - no loud meowing. So he crawled under the floorboards and was promptly nailed down by the workmen who did not notice him!
For three days, we roamed the village searching for Panzer with appeals on the community social media noticeboard. No response.
On the third day, our neighbour appeared saying he was hearing meowing noises coming from his floor, which he said was unusual because they didn’t have a cat. Could the impossible now be possible? Having searched far and wide throughout the village, could Panzer be only a matter of metres away in a neighbour’s home?
We lifted the floor boards and called. Within a couple of minutes, out crawled Panzer! His gratitude at being rescued again showed no bounds with a steady stream of mice, frogs, birds and eggs left at the bottom of the stairs in the mornings as a ‘thank you’ present.
He made friends with another neighbour’s two cats and threesome would form a hunting pack like the raptors from Jurassic Park. No mouse was safe in our cul de sac!
Panzer had his own sofa, chair at the table, and comfy chair. In spite of a cat flap, he would prefer for you to open the door. He frequently visited the neighbour’s home. At night, quite often we would hear our own cat flap rattle three times as Panzer and his two pals came in for a late night snack.
And so semi-retirement came and a house move. Throughout all the packing, Panzer remained his usual nosey self. Then it was moving day and time to lock the house. It took us 30 minutes and many scratches to get Panzer into his carrier bag!
We wondered if Panzer would settle into his new home with us, many miles from the 28 wonderful years we had spent in that rural village. He did. Within days, the body count of mice began again, as did the 7.30 am ‘snuggle huggle’ where Panzer would come up to our bedroom and sit on my chest with his paws around my neck to make sure I was awake to feed him.
There was some scrub land at the back of our new home which was rich pickings for mice - sometimes, two in one day would be delivered to the bottom of the stairs.
We’d been in our new home just over two months. It was a brisk morning with a wee frost. It was around 8 am and no Panzer. Then my wife noticed a message on the community social media page about a cat with white paws found dead on the road. Surely it couldn’t be?
I got dressed and walked to the location the woman had named. I wanted to vomit. It was my beloved Panzer. He was dead. Talking later to the vet, he had been clipped by a vehicle on the side of the head and killed instantly.
I wrapped Panzer in my Arsenal tracksuit top to bring him home. Shock turned to rage. As a car sped past, I yelled at the top of my voice: “You fucking bastard!” Of course, it wasn’t the driver of the vehicle which killed Panzer, but in that moment of very, very unChristian rage, any speeding driver would do to hurl verbal abuse at.
The current law in Northern Ireland is that if a driver hits a dog, they must stop. There is no such law for cats. And if there was, how could it be enforced in the early hours of the morning when Panzer did most of his hunting, or ‘mousing’ as we affectionately called it in our family.
Panzer, like Mistral, has been cremated and his ashes also rest in a little ern beside Mistral’s. By all means question my sanity, but at least for the five years we were blessed with Panzer, he was well loved and lived a good life compared to his initial weeks when he was simply dumped on a lonely road to fend for himself.
In this column, too, I’ll open up another can of worms theologically. Are there animals and pets in heaven? Many Christians take the view only the souls of humans will be in heaven.
At the risk of militant fundamentalists - and maybe even a few evangelicals - branding me as a blasphemer or heretic, I’m quoting a verse from the Biblical Old Testament book of Isaiah Chapter 11 and verse 6: “The wolf shall also dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them.”
I believe this verse proves there will be animals in heaven and especially pets. But no doubt theologians of much more experience than myself will beg to radically differ.
I will get more cats and they are a big part of my life. I do not seek to cause offence when I talk about my personal grief at losing my pets Mistral and Panzer, compared to the terrible grief which many folk suffer on the loss of a loved one.
Hopefully, the readers of The Pensive Quill will judge this perhaps awkwardly penned column and understand that we can suffer grief, too, when a pet also passes.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.