I can honestly say in my 36 years on this earth, I have not had much experience with death. I have had some experience with grief, but not much with death, specifically. Other than my immediate family, I have always been closer to animals than to people, in most cases. It’s not that I was mean. I was often described as very caring, sweet, and helpful by teachers and caregivers. However, I did not understand how to form reciprocal relationships with others. I didn’t know how to carry on a conversation with them or hold their interest, so often, I would spend more time with the family pets when possible. I loved to talk to them, pet them, and play with them. I even read them stories.
We had Taffy, a calico cat rescued from the local animal shelter when I was about 7 and my sister Janelle was 5. She passed away in 2007, just after Janelle had graduated high school and was preparing to leave for college. We also had Lexie, a terrier mix who was also rescued from our local shelter. She joined the family when I was 12 and passed away just as I had finished my senior year of college in 2010. Then came Mango, an orange and white tabby, shortly after Taffy had passed away.
Also, in 2010, my first service dog Lucy came into my life. Let me just say I liked the cats, but I absolutely loved the dogs. I loved to talk to them, to play with them, and to just spend time around them. With the dogs, it never mattered how good or not good I was at following a conversation or even having one. They were simply happy to be with me. All it took was, “Hey, Lu, Let’s go play! You sure have been a good girl today.” And she would run to her toy bin and stuff her nose into it, sniffing for the perfect toy. I never had to try hard around the animals, especially the dogs. Interaction with my peers was always so confusing, but with them, it was so simple. They didn’t care what we talked about and while she was still working, Lucy never cared where we went or who we were with. She just loved being part of my day.
Many children and young adults with autism may find it easier to form attachment to and connect with an animal companion than with peers. Over time, I learned to form connections with peers and now have a much better understanding of how a reciprocal relationship works in my young adult years. However, even today, I find it easier to connect with animals than people, and I especially like dogs. I think losing an animal companion would cause me to feel a very profound sense of grief, even more so possibly than losing someone I know. However, with every end, there is a new beginning and plenty of cats, dogs, goldfish, and maybe even a few narwhals waiting to find their forever human.
Nassim, A. (2023). "Good Grief, Charlie Brown!": Autism, Grief and Loss, and the Animal-Human Connection. https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/irca/articles/adria-grief-loss-and-the-human-animal-connection.html