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In a multi-cat household, other cats may become needy or withdrawn—or they may show no signs of noticing the other cat’s absence.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