What to Expect When You’re Grieving the Loss of a Cat

grieving-the-loss-of-a-cat

Guest post by Sarah Chauncey

The loss of a cat is heartbreaking for any guardian, but many are blindsided by the depth and intensity of grief they feel. You’re grieving not only a being, but also a relationship that was unique to you. In addition, cats often with people through entire chapters of their lives. The cat’s death marks the end of an era in the human’s life.

No two people grieve alike, because no two people are alike. In addition, each person’s relationship with each cat is different. So when it comes to grief, there is no such thing as “normal.” With that very large caveat, this post is about what many bereaved cat guardians experience.

Not everyone will understand, especially those who have never lost an animal companion. Well-meaning people may say things that hurt. Seek out those who do understand, either in person or online.

Grief is a full-body experience. Even if you think you’re prepared, you may experience brain fog for a while and have trouble thinking or focusing. Some people want to sleep all the time; others have insomnia. You may feel anger, sadness, guilt, or numb.

Adjusting to a New Routine

When a cat dies, especially one that has been sick for a long time, it takes time to adjust to a routine without meds or sub-qs or trips to the vet. Even with cats who passed suddenly, you may find yourself waking up at 6am (or 3am). When there’s no cat, or one less cat, to feed, it can bring up waves of grief.

One of the most surprising grief triggers is the silence, especially if your household only had one or two cats. It’s a cliché, but the silence can truly be deafening; it can be hard to hear anything other than the absence of paws or nails on the floor.

In a multi-cat household, other cats may become needy or withdrawn—or they may show no signs of noticing the other cat’s absence. They may stop eating, gobble up all the food, or continue as though nothing has changed.

Visitations

This can be the most comforting or the most disconcerting aspect of grieving a cat. You may hear your cat’s paws on the floor, or swear that you’d caught a glimpse out of the corner of your eye. You might feel them jump onto the bed, or even feel their paw on your arm or back. Many, many people who have lost a cat report these experiences. It’s up to each of us to interpret what they mean. Some people find comfort in these “visits,” while others find them disturbing and a grief trigger.

At night, you may dream about your cat. Some people have reported nightmares in the first few months, especially after a cat has died a traumatic death. Many report neutral or happier dreams, in which their cat is healthy again. These can be gifts, yet they can also be bittersweet upon awakening.

Picking Up the Ashes

Picking up a cat’s ashes can be a major grief trigger, especially for those who weren’t present for the cremation. It means that the cat’s body is physically gone and will never return in that particular form—and holding the evidence in your hands can be extremely painful. Pet loss counselors (and compassionate veterinarians) suggest that guardians not pick up their cat’s ashes alone. Bring someone with you for support. On the flip side, many people also report feeling a sense of comfort once their cat is “home” again.

Feelings of Guilt

Feeling guilt is a nearly universal aspect of grieving a cat, in a way that it usually isn’t when we’re grieving a human. That’s because we are often the ones who choose when a cat dies—and if we’re not, we wonder if there’s something we could have done differently (and some of us experience guilt over both these things at once). These feelings are extremely painful and can multiply grief exponentially. Holding onto guilt can be extremely detrimental to emotional health and moving through grief.

Grief is not about “getting over” a loss; it’s about accepting that the loss happened and being able to move forward in our own lives.

Grief Comes in Waves

Grief is nonlinear. For most people, it comes in waves. At first, it may feel like you’re in the middle of a storm, and the waves are almost constant, with few respites. Over time, most people find that they are able to continue with daily tasks as they integrate their loss into their ongoing lives. The waves still come, but—with occasional exceptions, like anniversaries—they are often less frequent and less intense. Memories begin to bring smiles more often than tears. The time frame for this varies for each person.

When to Seek Help

Even if you’re experiencing “typical grief,” it is always okay to seek professional help. However, there are two circumstances in which professional help is essential.

Coping with Bereavement Overload

All of the above is written for those grieving the loss of one cat. However, some people experience two or more losses at the same time, or in a short time period. Multiple simultaneous or sequential losses can lead to “bereavement overload,” a state in which a person is still processing one loss when the next one hits. This can make it exponentially more difficult to process any of the losses. If you’re experiencing bereavement overload, it’s a good idea to reach out for professional support.

When Grief Doesn’t Get Better

For most people, grief becomes less intense over time, and they are able to function day to day. They will still have waves of sadness, but over time, the good days outnumber the bad.

For a few unlucky souls, though, the intensity of the initial grief remains for months, or even years. The respite between the waves never comes, and they can’t stop thinking about their cat, or what might have been. This is called “complicated grief,” and it’s a serious psychological issue. People experiencing complicated grief have trouble completing daily tasks like showering or going to work. Risk factors for complicated grief include childhood trauma, a history of severe depression and/or anxiety, and a lack of social support, among other factors. Unlike “typical grief,” complicated grief is a serious issue that requires professional help.

Be gentle with yourself.

Grief is not about “getting over” a loss; it’s about accepting that the loss happened and being able to move forward in our own lives. Any loss will always be part of your life experience, just as the animal (or person, for that matter) will always have been significant to you.

This is why, if at all possible, it helps to take time to let your emotions catch up before a cat’s death, and why end-of-life rituals are helpful. However, those are not always possible—sudden or unexpected loss makes grieving a cat so much harder. Be gentle with yourself.

What do you wish you had known about grieving the loss of a cat? Share it in a comment.

p.s.-i-love-you-more-than-tuna

Sarah Chauncey is the author of P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna, an upcoming gift book for adults grieving their cat. She runs @morethantuna on Instagram and Facebook, “a celebration of nine lives,” and she started #tunatributes, a support community for people grieving their cat. She lives on Vancouver Island.

189 Comments on What to Expect When You’re Grieving the Loss of a Cat

  1. Roxanne Larsen
    October 13, 2020 at 4:18 am (7 days ago)

    I just euthanized my 16.5 year old cat Sasha a week ago. I’m feeling guilty like I could have done more for her but, I pretty sure she was at the end of her life, she was having difficulty breathing and walking too so we decided to do what was best for her, I wanted to keep her with me forever! A day or so passed and my daughter felt a cat jump on her bed and felt claw on her shirt while watching tv & she was shocked and in disbelief. I just spoke to my estranged husband who did care for Sasha after I moved out of the house and he was crying as he told me that he feels the presence of Sasha jumping on his bed every night since she passed (I had to ask him the questions about how often, etc.) He didn’t cry about his parents passing away like he did about Sasha. This is very strange that both my adult daughter and my estranged husband having the same encounters with Sasha passing. We lost Sasha’s brother Thomas 3 yrs ago to a heart embolism and no one ever experienced any encounter after his passing. Has anyone else experienced a cat passing encounter of this sort? Miss my BabyGirl ❤️

    Reply
    • Carol Lester
      October 13, 2020 at 6:43 am (6 days ago)

      The morning after we buried Dolly our beloved “naughty tortie ” we were sat up in bed talking about her when a large sparrow hawk with big yellow eyes landed on the bird table and just perched looking straight at us. We had put a bird table right up to our bedroom window because we have two cat beds on the wide windowsill. Our cats loved idly watching the birds while nodding or Dolly would sit up in her bed chattering at them excitedly. She was a real hunter and just a week before we had to have her put to sleep she brought in a bird… she used to bring mice in too then get bored and let them go leaving us to try to catch them and put them back outside ! Anyway, we have never seen a sparrow hawk so incredibly close up, it was literally pressed up to our window and we were both struck at the colour of it’s feathers up close – it was very much like Dolly, mixtures of gold and brown and the eyes were round and yellow like Dollys eyes. It perched there looking in for what felt like a minute at least then it flew off. We were speechless and looked at each other and I said imagine what Dolly would have made of it seeing that so close up ! It was amazing that we were both there looking out at that precise time and just a few seconds later we both wondered if it was a sign from Dolly – it was such an unusual thing to happen. Normally a bird of prey wouldn’t ever come so close up and stay there perched. The colours were so like hers and the eyes….and she was a great huntress… also, a few days after we lost Dolly our final cat we both heard a cat jump down on to the wood floor and weve heard the patter of feet early in the mornings. Neither of us are spiritual but we have experienced the bird and the noises and we just quietly accepted it was them. We don’t know what it means but we love and miss them beyond belief and they must know just how much we miss them. They are always on my mind and our house is empty now without their loving presence.

      Reply
  2. Mirinda
    October 12, 2020 at 2:44 pm (1 week ago)

    I lost my 13 yr old Alice 2 weeks ago. I feel so guilty that I didn’t get her to the vet sooner. I am slowly removing her stuff, but I can’t sweep her cat hair off the porch yet.

    Reply
    • David Wheat
      October 13, 2020 at 2:23 am (7 days ago)

      Dear Mirinda — I’ve just lost my cat Zoe to kidney disease. She was 20, and as things progressed a pressure built up in my mind of protective love and worry and also a kind of denial about what would inevitably come. Right now, thoughts of things I could have done better are so easy to find, and that adds to the pain. Years ago, I was a carer for my mother, and when she died, exactly the same thing happened. Eventually, though, I was able look back and realise how incredibly difficult it is to get everything right when you’re under such pressure, with a part of you knowing what will inevitably come, and another part of you holding out for recovery right till the end. Right now, though, even though I know this, it’s hard to stop those could-have-done-better thoughts from drowning out the good memories of love. I think probably just about everyone feels the way we do, and I know that in time it will pass and all that will remain is your love for Alice and her’s for you. By the way, I’ve kept a tiny piece of Zoe’s fur — if you do that, it might help you to sweep away the rest. Best wishes, David

      Reply
      • Mirinda
        October 13, 2020 at 10:32 am (6 days ago)

        Thanks so much. I too felt the same about my mom.

        Reply
  3. SaraB
    October 12, 2020 at 8:54 am (1 week ago)

    Your article has explained a lot, thank you. I lost my darling Teddy 11months ago and still go to sleep crying. I close my eyes and remember those last few days, after his thrombosis.

    Every day I wish he was here.
    I miss him terribly.

    Reply

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