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 sooner or later, we will experience the pain of loss, and it can be as devastating. 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.
Grief is an individual experience
While there are some commonalities when it comes to coping, 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 cat is difficult
You will grieve, and you may grieve for a long time. You’re not going to “just get over it.” 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.”
Sudden or unexpected loss can be more difficult
While loss is always difficult, losing a cat unexpectedly to an accident or sudden illness can complicate the grieving process. With an ill cat, guardians usually have time to gradually get used to the idea of losing their companion, but sudden loss can make it feel like your life just completely fell apart. I share my personal experience with unexpected loss after Amber died after a brief illness.
What not to say to someone who has lost a cat
If you’re the one who is trying to comfort a friend who just lost a beloved cat, it can be difficult to know just what to say. As a result, people often, without meaning to, say the wrong things that, rather than providing comfort, only serve to upset the grieving person even more. Sometimes, the best thing to say is to simply acknowledge the loss – because the only thing worse than saying the wrong thing is to not say anything at all. Read What Not to Say to Someone Who Is Grieving the Loss of a Pet for more suggestions.
Rituals can help you cope
Rituals can play an important role in the healing process. There is something about acknowledging grief through a tangible action that can help soothe raw emotions. Rituals can take many different forms. The best ritual is the one that has the most meaning for you. Read Coping With Pet Loss: Rituals Can Help for some suggestions.
Coping with grief during the holidays
Losing a cat, and the devastating grief that follows, is hard any time of the year, but it can be especially difficult the holidays. The contrast between the rest of the world, which seems to be focused on making merry and celebrating the season, and the bereaved’s private pain and grief can be a glaring reminder that the holidays won’t be the same this year. Read Coping with Pet Loss and Grief During the Holidays for some suggestions on how to cope.
Do cats grieve for other cats?
Just like people, different cats will experience grief in different ways. It will depend on how strong the bond between two cats was, how long the cats have been together, how the human is handling their own grief (cats are highly sensitive to human emotions and often take on a human’s grief in an effort to heal them.) Feline veterinarian Dr. Arnold Plotnick addresses the topic of feline grief in this thoughtful and comprehensive article.
Getting a new cat
Getting a new pet after losing a beloved animal companion can be very difficult for many pet parents. We all know that it’s not possible to ever replace a lost cat. Some are able to get a new pet within days of losing the old pet, others may take months and sometimes even years, or never get another pet again. This is not a decision that anyone else can make for you. Read Life After Loss: Getting a New Cat for more on this topic.
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.