Conscious Cat

December 3, 2012 28 Comments

Coping With the Pain of Pet Loss

Posted by Ingrid

copiing_with_the_pain_of_pet_loss

Even if our cats live into their late teens and sometimes early twenties, it’s just not long enough. The price we pay for sharing our lives with these wonderful companions is that all of us who considers our cats family members or best friends will sooner or later experience the pain of loss, and it can be as devastating as the loss of any loved one. Joelle Nielsen, a veterinary social worker at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, says she often compares the loss of a pet to the loss of a child or a close family member. Nielsen says the big difference between losing a pet, compared to losing a human, is that “much of society is not aware of the strength of the human-animal bond, so pet loss is often seen as ‘disenfranchised loss,’ meaning it is not socially recognized.”

Another significant difference is the matter of euthanasia. Deciding to end a pet’s pain and suffering is one of the most difficult choices pet owners ever have to make, and it can engender massive feelings of guilt and regret after the fact.

While there are some commonalities, grieving the loss of a pet is a unique experience for each individual.  Factors that play into how the loss is handled include whether the death was sudden or followed a prolonged illness, whether the pet guardian had to elect euthanasia, whether it was the first time the person experienced losing a pet, and the person’s living situation. Single pet guardians for whom the pet was a primary source of emotional support tend to have more difficulty recovering. Regardless of how the loss occurred, there are some things that can help you cope.

Acknowledge that losing a pet is a very difficult experience

Don’t let anyone tell you that “you should just get over it,” or “it was just a pet.”  Marty Tousley, a bereavement counselor at Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix, AZ, says that “for some, the insensitivity of others can be more painful than the grief from the actual loss. Most people don’t tell someone to go get a new spouse or child within a month of one dying.”

Mark the pet’s passing with some sort of ritual

Rituals such as memorial services and burial ceremonies are an accepted part of human loss, and can be equally helpful after losing a pet. Even something as simple as lighting a candle in your pet’s memory each night can help.

Find supportive family and friends

Not everyone in your life will be able to handle your grief. It is important to find people who are comfortable letting you cry, listening while you talk about your pet, or just sitting quietly with you. Many people don’t know what to do or say when faced with someone who is grieving. This can make you feel even more isolated.

Find a pet loss hotline or support group

If you can’t get enough support from family or friends, find a pet loss hotline or support group. Many veterinary schools offer free pet loss hotlines staffed with trained volunteers who will listen and offer compassionate support. Pet loss support groups can be found through pet cemeteries or crematories, shelters, and veterinary hospitals. “Pet loss groups are not the same as group therapy,” says Tousley. “Their purpose is to offer a safe, structured place where people bound by the experience of loss can come together.”  Numerous online support groups are available 24 hours a day. Both Nielsen and Tousley recommend that pet owners who feel unable to function normally or who feel that they are not progressing in their grief process seek professional help.

Allow yourself time to grieve

While it’s not healthy to get stuck in your grief, pretending that nothing is wrong is equally unhealthy. “A person’s grief is legitimate and real, regardless of anyone else’s comments, behavior or opinions,” says Tousley.  Nielsen adds “You are not ‘crazy’ – what you are experiencing is normal.”

The old adage that time heals all wounds applies to pet loss as well – if you do the necessary emotional work to deal with your grief. Unfortunately, there is no other way through grief except to allow yourself to feel it. But with time, you will find that there will come a day when you’ll wake up in the morning and your first thought will not be about how much you miss your cat, but about a happy memory of the time you spent together.

Related reading:

Euthanasia: how to know when it’s time

The final farewell: options after your pet dies

Katris ad for tortitude post

FacebookTwitterGoogle+LinkedInPinterestShare

28 Responses to “Coping With the Pain of Pet Loss”

  1. Great article, Ingrid. Thank you so much for all the info.

  2. Betty Ernst says:

    Thank-you. I’m still struggling with the loss of Mozart in September. I’ve found myself thinking “if only I…” which I know is not rational but it just doesn’t seem right that he is gone. My other cats, Shadow and Lily, are a great comfort but I believe they miss him too… last night was kind of difficult so your article is very timely for me.

    • Ingrid says:

      I know those “if only” thoughts only too well, Betty. I think they’re a natural part of grieving, which doesn’t make dealing with them any easier. I’m glad my article came at the right time for you.

  3. Frances Johnson says:

    I lost my cat Oreo Cookie earlier this year after an illness. I still miss him everyday, but it has gotten a little easier. Thank you for this great article that supports those grieving for a special pet. It helps to know that grief is a process and we will go through it in various ways. Thank you for posting this and giving the support that it is okay to grieve for our lost loved ones. Cookie was one of a kind and I am writing short stories about his life. I also lit a special candle in his memory every night after he was gone.

    • Ingrid says:

      I’m sorry about Cookie, Frances. I’m so glad you’re writing about his life. For me, writing Buckley’s Story was a big part of my personal healing process.

  4. Beverly Brown says:

    We lost out Cat Miss Pag in May 2011 and we’re still not over it. Not a day goes by where we don’t think of her and miss her. She was/is our little Girl and will be forever in our hearts.

    • Ingrid says:

      I’m sorry about Miss Pag, Beverly. I don’t think we ever get over these losses, we just learn to live with them and treasure the memories.

      • Beverly Brown says:

        Thank you Ingrid. Miss Pag was 20 when we lost her, but that didn’t make it any easier for us, I don’t think age matters, because a loss is a loss.
        We have another little Girl now called Miss Marple and she is beautiful, but we will always miss our little Miss Pag.

  5. Viki Worden says:

    I loved this article. I think people that aren’t true animal lovers and don’t understand the bonds we have with our fur babies should read this. I have had animals since I was little, so I have been through the loss many times. They all were my babies and did bring all the typical feelings. I cried for 2 weeks when I had to put my “Bebe” to sleep. She had developed cancer of her tongue. I tried to let her live her life at home feeding her water through a syringe. After 4 days I knew I was doing it more for me than her. She was 20. I had her since she was first born. I had so much guilt that I cried myself to sleep everynight. Then one night I was crying and all of sudden I felt a pressure like when she layed in her favorite spot right next to me. I even put my hand there, but there was nothing. I believed it was her coming back to tell me it was ok. I stopped crying after that but I think of her all the time and that was 24 years ago. I also had another cat, “Licorice” who only lived 13 years due to kidney disease. The night that I knew he was suffering too much I even prayed for God to take me and leave him. I still have a picture of him hanging on my wall and I have is ashes. I have 3 cats now and one of them has had health issues since he was little. He is almost 9 years old now. He is a lynx and if anyone knows about them, they usually have spinal curvatures and don’t usually live past 5. I watch him as he gets older and notice that he has a harder time than he used to. My younger cat keeps him lively though, chasing him around the house. I am not looking forward to that day when he needs my help to send him over the rainbow bridge.

  6. Thanks for this important article. Losing my soul mate cat, Monet three years ago, was and still is devastating. I only share this sadness with people who truly understand. Our society does not generally honor the grief associated with the loss of our animal family members, and I believe there are many sources of the problem. For one thing, animals are unfortunately legally regarded as “property” here, but I hope this is changing with recent court cases that have awarded plaintives damages for emotional suffering. And, I try not to use the word “pet.” My animals are family. They just happen to have fur and walk on all fours most of the time. :-)

    • I meant to say plaintiffs, not plaintives! It’s still early here. And I am a writer! A horrifying spelling error! :-/ I can’t see a way to delete my comment and re-post it. Plaintiffs, plaintiffs.

    • Ingrid says:

      I think you’re wise to only share your sadness with others who understand, Anjali. I think our society has a problem with grief to begin with, and it’s even worse when it’s a furry family member.

      No worries about the typo: we’ll just chalk that up to lack of caffeine. :-)

  7. dianaberry1985 says:

    Nice article. Hugs to those who have lost their pets.

    Diana

  8. Anna says:

    Dear Ingrid, the way you write about this difficul subject is so beautiful, and I feel close to you and all other humans who have lost a beloved pet. It feels so comforting to know that we are not alone when we go through this devastating experience. Thank you for yet one more wonderful article about pet loss, Ingrid.
    I very much agree with Anjali — I share my pain only with people who truly understand.
    Lots of love and purrs to you and your girls!
    Anna & Zoe

  9. Ingrid, another excellent post.

    My greatest loss was the sudden death of my cat Pepe Francois. He was only 5 years old and we never knew the cause of death, although one doctor suggested a heart attack. He went quickly. One day he’s healthy, happy and playing. Next day he didn’t eat, didn’t greet me, and slept under the day. Three glaring red flags. I rushed him to the vet and he went downhill from that moment. I never felt such pain and grief in my life. I cried so much I had to take sleeping pills which I never had in my life. I also had to take two days off work I couldn’t think or function. My boss allowed me the first day but on the second day he was clearly annoyed and stated “Christine it’s only a cat, not a human”. In your post, Marty, the grievance counselor was absolutely right. The insensitivity hurt more than the grief. I was also enraged. Sure enough when his beloved Hunter, a golden lab died this year, I wanted to say, “Remember what you told me when my cat died? It’s only a cat” But I knew better. Surely I would have been fire.

    As one who considered Pepe Francois my child, the pain is real. Your advice is excellent.
    My grieving process, my ritual and outlet was writing and in days I relived his life through a blog memorial. http://www.pepefrancois.blogspot.com. It allowed me to focus on something related to him that stopped the tears. I was remembering him in life not his departure. Sure enough time does heal the wounds. I knew I wanted another cat but could not select from hundreds of kittens from the local shelter. Sure enough, when I moved to my new condo, a new neighborhood, I discovered not one but many stray cats and kittens. I found my new pet or should I say pets. Hence when I moved to Riverfront condos, little did I know it would change my entire life. Riverfront Cats was born.

    • Ingrid says:

      Thank you for sharing the story of your journey through grief, Christine. Losing a cat is always hard, but to loose one as suddenly as you lost Pepe Francois is devastating. I love how ultimately your grief, and subsequent opening of your heart, led you to your mission of caring for the Riverfront Cats. I think perhaps Pepe Francois had a paw in all of this. :-)

  10. Dan Cziraky says:

    Last August, I had to put my 11-year-old male Tabby, Ignatz, to sleep. He developed mouth cancer after having some teeth removed. Finally, the day came when he couldn’t eat, and I knew it was time to end his suffering. We had taken in a little stray female kitten, Bella, the February before. We were always concerned that Ignatz wouldn’t take to another animal. He only seemed to tolerate her at first, but, in their few months together, they became great pals.

    Ignatz was with me through a great number of family crises involving my elderly mother’s frequent falls. I used to laugh at people that called pets their “fur kids,” but not anymore. I’ve never had kids or been married, but when we had to put Ignatz down, I was inconsolable for weeks. As much as we’ve come to love Bella, Ignatz was “my boy.” And, many people just couldn’t understand the depth of my grief, especially since we already had another cat. Having Bella was (and is) comforting, but it didn’t stop me missing Iggy. She missed him, too, and looked for him for several days.

    I still tear up when I think about Iggy, 8 months after having to euthanize him. Bella has grown into a beautiful, 18-month-old cat. Very affectionate, if a bit too rough sometimes when playing with my mom. Mom has dementia now, and sometimes thinks Bella is Ignatz. Sometimes, I envy her in that confusion.

  11. Ashley says:

    This article was very helpful! I know that it has been 5 years but I still have time when it get me down thinking about my cat Tiger. See I got Tiger when I went into remission from Wilm’s tumor as a young child. He was just a kitten. So we grow up together. He help me get through the loss of my grandfather and father to Cancer. But when I away to college he remain behind with my mother. When I came home to visit I notice tiger was not right. We took him to the VET, who then told me that tiger had Thyroid Cancer. I had to return to college my mother call me one date and told me that tiger was very bad and couldn’t wait for my visit he need to be put down. Tiger was 14 years old at the time of his death. It is hard to believe that I got him for surviving cancer and he left me because of cancer.

  12. Maijken says:

    It’s been almost a year since my soul mate cat, Mommies, passed away. She was living with my dad at the time. She was a member of our family from the time she was 6 months old until she passed at the age of 14 1/2. I still find myself thinking about her, and missing her terribly.
    My dad had her cremated, and had the ashes sent to me. She has her own special urn on the bookshelf. I find myself looking at it a lot and missing her more. She was with me through so much. My divorce. The divorce of my parents. The births of my 3 kids. My remarriage. She was my best friend.
    I have 3 cats now, but none of them will ever replace Mommies in my heart.
    Thank you for this article. Too many out there just do not understand how much it hurts to lose a beloved pet.
    When her remains arrived, my husband had to open the box they arrived in. I just couldn’t do it. I was crying so hard, I almost hyperventilated. I remember taking her ashes out of the plastic urn and just bawling… saying that this was all I had left of “my girl”.

  13. Wendi says:

    I have had many furbabies (I do not remember a time when I did not have a furry living with me) and have lost many over the years. Just this past 4/3 I lost Pandora and it has devstated me. Mostly because he should not be dead. In the other caes they had lived long lives and passed due to aging but Pandora was ill in the morning (he had asthma, since he was a kiten) and I took him to the vet. She sent me home with his regulars- clavimox and prednisone with directions to medicate when I fed him in the evening. I gave him his meds and within an hour he was dead. He experienced some sort of anaphelactic response to the clavimox and for all my years of having furbabies I did not know what as going on. I rushed him to the after hour veterinary hospital (40 minutes away) but he passd in my arms as I was driving. Had I not given him the meds he would still be here. If I had given him the meds earlier, while the local vet was still open, he would still be here. I am so broken hearted over my poor boy looking to me to help him and me not being so hepless. And of couse the fact that those around me just do not understand how I feel does not help a bit.

  14. michelle says:

    i lost my sophie back in 2012 n she was our world. everyone we know with exception of my friend thought we shud just get over it n said well its only a cat you can get another. she was really poorly n was a rescue cat. we got her when she was 6months old and she died age 2yrs. we still miss her but we made the decision to have her cremated and the vets provided an urn/wooden box with an engraving on n she now sits proudly in our living room. last june we made the decision to get a new kitty. we now have ceefer who will b one in april but we still talk about sophie n even talk to ceefer about it ;-) it doesnt matter what other ppl think because its what you feel n no-one can tell you how to feel. it was really hard at the time with not much support but we got through n we also celebrate her birthday each yr by lighting a candle n having birthday cake. the ppl we know think we are crazy n ive lost so called friends over this but im not going to let anyone tell me how to feel.
    we are happy now and hope sophie is having fun up in heaven ;-) xxxx

Leave a Reply