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In a multi-cat household, other cats may become needy or withdrawn—or they may show no signs of noticing the other cat’s absence.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.

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.

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

  1. whitevalleyprincess@gmx.com
    November 14, 2018 at 8:13 pm (14 hours ago)

    FAB article!!! I recently had to put Purrince Siddhartha Henry to sleep…he had Panleukopenia & the end was anything but pleasant for both of us. Your article has helped me see I’m doing all right & working thru the grief.
    It is coming up to tha anniversary of Nylablue Sweet Feet’s leaving (Nov. 22nd) & I am always gentle on this day towards myself.
    Now to learn to be gentle about Siddhartha Henry…..
    Thank you again, Sherri-Ellen aka LadyMum from THE Purrfect Pad

    Reply
  2. Nan Faulkner
    November 8, 2018 at 2:24 pm (7 days ago)

    Each cat/kitten lost is individual. And what we do to cope is also individual. Ingrid, like you stated in the article, is a step by step process. And is never easy.

    But…. I feel each cat/ kitten has enriched my life. And when I cross that rainbow bridge, all the cats we had will greet me and we will be together for eternity.

    Reply
    • Kristin
      November 9, 2018 at 5:33 pm (6 days ago)

      I pray this to be true every day. I am a cat rescuer and have unfortunately had so many losses over the years, as to be expected with the title. Every time they go, I tell them to meet me at the bridge. I only hope the bridge really exists

      Reply
  3. Vernon
    November 8, 2018 at 10:26 am (1 week ago)

    I lost Trixie on September 19, 2018. She was only 6 years old. I was on my vacation at the time. I let some friends care for her while I was gone. I received a call 5 days later that she had passed away. After I got back, I went collect her things. I found their trailer disgusting and full of roaches. If I would’ve seen the inside their trailer first, I never would’ve taken her there in the first place. Almost 2 months later, I still feel negligent about causing her death.

    Reply
    • Sarah
      November 8, 2018 at 2:46 pm (7 days ago)

      I’m sorry for your loss, Vernon. That sounds so painful. You did what you thought was right at the time, and that’s all any of us can do.

      Reply
  4. JohnD
    November 8, 2018 at 9:23 am (1 week ago)

    I lost a beautiful little boy on January 22, 2016 and still break down with grief a few times a week. I still have 3 more cats, but little Myrko was a truly special little soul. I hope we’ll see each other again some day.

    Reply
  5. Sue Brandes
    November 8, 2018 at 7:55 am (1 week ago)

    Thank you for the post. I had a very hard time after I lost BearBear. I did so much before him when he was sick I didn’t know what to do with myself after. Toke some adjusting.

    Reply
  6. Andrea
    November 7, 2018 at 10:02 pm (1 week ago)

    I’m also in the complicated grief category but I’m getting help. I will never get over losing my precious Mewdy Blue. It also seems that whenever I lose someone they go in three’s. That makes it extra hard to handle.

    Reply
    • Sarah
      November 8, 2018 at 2:49 pm (7 days ago)

      Multiple losses do make it harder, especially when one (or more) is particularly close to us. I’m glad you decided to get help. Nobody should have to go through that alone.

      Reply
  7. Steven Howard
    November 7, 2018 at 7:18 pm (1 week ago)

    Thank you for this article. Losing an animal companion is… It isn’t very pleasant. I’m truly sorry for your losses.

    Reply
  8. Bbetty
    November 7, 2018 at 11:06 am (1 week ago)

    Thank you so much for this article. I recently lost my beautiful little Tortie, Rusty. The initial grief was overwhelming and I still can’t think about her absence without crying, even though it has been over two months since I lost her. Cats are special companions and their absence in our lives leaves a hole in our hearts that nothing else can ever fill. I look forward to seeing her waiting on the rainbow bridge so we can spend eternity together.

    Reply
    • Sarah
      November 8, 2018 at 2:50 pm (7 days ago)

      I’m sorry for your loss of Rusty, Betty. Time is strange in grief–two months feels like forever and just yesterday at the same time. Grief takes much longer to process than most of us expect.

      Reply
  9. Elaine Harrington
    November 7, 2018 at 8:59 am (1 week ago)

    I put Blue down because I knew it was the right thing to do, but I took him to our Humane Society and did not get to go in or say goodbye like I thought I would so there is no closure. H passed August 7th. We had a funeral, we buried his ashes, I said a prayer and sang, but last night I was sobbing as I was doing the dishes. I’m crying as I write this. We have 4 other cats, but he was a very special boy.

    Reply
    • Sarah
      November 7, 2018 at 2:17 pm (1 week ago)

      I’m so sorry for your losses, Elaine.

      Reply
  10. Chelsea
    November 7, 2018 at 8:54 am (1 week ago)

    I lost my boy Murphy back in June. Murphy was a cat who was different than most. He never left my side, never got upset, and was always up for a good cuddle. He was with me during my hard parts of my life. He was also the silliest cat I’ve ever seen (always got himself in the weirdest situations). He was diagnosed with mouth cancer in April, and at that point it was too late. Since the cancer was under his tongue, he eventually stopped grooming, drinking, and had a very hard time eating. There was nothing I could do except give him medication and all the love in the world. I’d use wipes to help groom him and give him meds multiple times a day. I’d have to keep switching to different food with different texture and make mountains to help him bite the food instead of lick his food. It would take him up to 45 minutes to eat a meal. He got so scared and stressed out, I could see it in his eyes and his behavior. I made the decision to have him put him down where he was most comfortable (at home on the couch on my lap). It was very peaceful but one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. Once he had passed, I brought my other cat Lily out to say her goodbye to help her process. I had him cremated and he is now in my bedroom on the shelf. I placed photos of him in picture frames throughout the house. The photos of him were when he was acting the most goofy or where he looked his best (bow ties!). My best friend had a picture of him drawn by an artist and we framed that as well. I rescued a cat a month or so after his passing. The new cat wasn’t meant to replace, but meant to be another animal I could save. I dedicated so much time to Murphy, and I wanted to find another companion who was scared and struggling and needed a home that I could rescue. Adopting Winston has been wonderful, and makes me feel that if I couldn’t help Murphy, I could at least help another animal. I got married this past weekend. I used to sing a song to Murphy to calm him down when he was scared. I asked the DJ to play that song for me. It helped as I will always remember dedicating a piece of my wedding to him. It’s the little things that have helped me grieve with losing Murphy. Consulting with a vet was beneficial for me. It helped me understand when it was the right time. It has gotten easier overtime. I think it’s important to remember the funny things he did and to channel my grieving into positive ways.

    Reply
    • Sarah
      November 7, 2018 at 2:21 pm (1 week ago)

      It sounds like Murphy was a really special guy. I love that you were able to incorporate him into your wedding, even though he couldn’t be there physically.

      Reply
  11. Janine
    November 7, 2018 at 8:35 am (1 week ago)

    The last two cats that I have lost have been the toughest ever. I remember when I lost Nani and the vet clinic called to tell me her ashes were ready to be picked up. I was doing my grocery shopping at Walmart when I got the call. I just stopped and tears filled my eyes. I had to do all I could to get through my task and back in my car. I didn’t want to cry in front of people, but I sure broke down as soon as I was in my car.

    Reply
    • Sarah
      November 7, 2018 at 2:26 pm (1 week ago)

      You are not alone in having that experience, Janine. It seems like the more we love, the more we grieve.

      Reply
  12. Laura
    November 7, 2018 at 8:27 am (1 week ago)

    Thank you for this blog post. I lost my cat Bebe two days ago and I’m still dealing with the grief. Since I’m a cat rescuer I have experienced loss before but each time it hurts profoundly. That’s part of the process and I’m grateful it is this way. Blessings!

    Reply
    • Sarah
      November 7, 2018 at 2:29 pm (1 week ago)

      I’m sorry for your loss of Bebe, Laura.

      Reply
  13. Raine
    November 7, 2018 at 4:19 am (1 week ago)

    I fall in the complicated grief category. I’m still in denial over loosing my big man. I have ptsd among other things and he was a bottle baby that came into my life at my darkest time. I have other kitties and I love them but it’s nothing like the bond I had with him. I “what if” constantly thinking about missing symptoms and my mom picked up his ashes and is holding them until I am up to bringing him home. 8 It’s more painful than the loss of any human. My heart breaks for everyone else who is going through this pain. I wish I had words of comfort. I will definitely be getting this book as this post hit home on all levels.

    Reply
    • Abby
      November 7, 2018 at 4:24 am (1 week ago)

      Raine, I know how hard it is to lose your precious one. I recently lost my boy and while my heart is breaking, I am thankful he didn’t suffer. He was such a huge presence in this house and now it’s so empty. We have album and photos of all our precious ones around and it’s a comfort.

      Reply
      • Lynn
        November 10, 2018 at 1:47 am (5 days ago)

        I lost my very special boy, Little Man, a beautiful orange tabby, just 6 years old, just one month ago. He was the only bright spot in my life since I lost my husband of 40 years 10 months ago to Alzheimer’s. Little Man was special from the day I found him on the side of a barron road, he weighed just 1.2 lbs. I cannot express the amount of comfort he gave me in those dark days after my husband died. Little Man was a totally inside kitty, never got table food, yet he suddenly had an acute pancreias attack and was gone in mere hours. I cannot make sense of it and at times can hardly believe he is really gone, except for the emptiness in this house and in my heart. I will never be as close to another kitty as I was to him. I see him, I hear him, only to realize he is truly gone. I pray dear Lord the Rainbow Bridge truly exist, cannot bear the thought of never holding my sweet Little Man ever again

        Reply
    • Sarah
      November 7, 2018 at 2:32 pm (1 week ago)

      I’m so sorry, Raine. There’s such a deep bond with bottle babies, and also with the ones that help us through the hardest times. On top of PTSD, that’s a lot to handle. It sounds like a wise move to have your mom hold onto his ashes for now. Be gentle with yourself.

      Reply
  14. Abby Frank
    November 7, 2018 at 4:12 am (1 week ago)

    I met my boy when he was 4 hours old, brought him home when he was 2 months old, and I laid next to him when he went to heaven a few months short of his 19th birthday. When I became sick and became home-bound, Sammy was my shadow and my biggest cheerleader. It’s been a little more than 2 weeks and I miss him so much. I’m also so grateful he was my friend for so long.

    Reply
    • Sarah
      November 7, 2018 at 2:34 pm (1 week ago)

      After that long together (and having known Sammy since birth), it can feel like an amputation. Time is strange in grief–two weeks can feel like forever and no time at all, simultaneously.

      Reply
  15. Ange
    November 7, 2018 at 4:12 am (1 week ago)

    I lost my beloved cat Blade earlier this year, I’ve never cried fully and never gotten over him, I know he’s with me in spirit and that he’s no longer in pain. I kept his ashes and they’re next to his older sisfur who passed away a few years ago, I haven’t gotten over her either. This was a wonderfully written article, thank you for the information.

    Reply
    • Sarah
      November 7, 2018 at 2:35 pm (1 week ago)

      I’m sorry for your loss of Blade and his sister, Ange.

      Reply
  16. Liz
    November 7, 2018 at 1:49 am (1 week ago)

    I lost one of my torties almost three years ago and I still grieve for her every day miss her terribly – she was the love of my life. I buried her little body outside my bedroom window so at I know that I brought her back home where she loved to be. Losing her has been the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

    Reply
    • Sarah
      November 7, 2018 at 2:39 pm (1 week ago)

      That sounds so painful, Liz (in my experience, losing a forever cat is even more painful). You buried her in a meaningful place, which is lovely, but of course you still miss her. I’m not sure we ever stop missing them (to one degree or another), because we never stop loving them.

      Reply

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