Guest post by Sarah Chauncey
As painful as it is, grief is a universal human experience. There isn’t a person on the planet who has not, or will not, experience the loss of a beloved family member. Our culture ranks humans above animals, and therefore, grieving the loss of an animal friend is often not recognized for the painful experience it is. This disenfranchisement can leave people feeling isolated and misunderstood—which compounds the grief.
In interacting with thousands of people who are grieving the loss of their cat, I often say, “Be gentle with yourself.” This is a shorthand for allowing the experience you’re having and being kind to yourself.
Below are five examples of what “being gentle” can look like.
Show Yourself Compassion
Your grief is valid, whatever form it takes, and regardless of whether other people recognize it or not. Self-compassion means treating yourself as gently and kindly as you would a close friend. We’re often so much harder on ourselves than we are anyone else, and we berate ourselves (especially if we feel guilt over the cat’s death).
If you don’t know where to start, try this: Picture your grief as a baby (or kitten) wrapped in a blanket. Feel the feelings of tenderness that arise. Or do an exercise recommended by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. Write yourself a letter from a place of compassion and kindness. Write the words you need to hear. Self-compassion helps to create an essential space around grief. Grief has its own timetable. It can’t be rushed, and it won’t be pushed away.
Allow Whatever You’re Feeling
Grief is the natural response to loss. It’s the heart’s way of acknowledging the love we feel (as a popular meme says: “Grief is love with no place to go.”) Yet often we try to avoid what we’re feeling, because it’s uncomfortable. The mind jumps in and starts distracting us with thoughts of how things should have been—this is the mind’s way of trying to protect the heart.
Grief wants to be felt. The more we try to avoid feeling grief, the more entrenched it will become. Allow yourself to feel sadness or anger or whatever comes up. You might cry all the time or not at all. You might feel rage. Or something else entirely. When we can feel emotions directly, they move through our body so much more quickly. And if you can’t stop the thoughts, allow those, too.
Grief wants to be felt. The more we try to avoid feeling grief, the more entrenched it will become.
Spend Time in Nature
There are endless benefits to spending time in nature. Especially in untouched nature (like a forest), its beauty can inspire awe. This is particularly helpful if you can’t stop thinking about the loss: Awe has a magical power to cut through rumination. Forests are sensory havens, too—take time to smell the air, touch the trees and feel the earth beneath your feet. It’s not that nature will take away your sadness, but it can give you a respite.
If you can walk in nature, all the better. The point is to get your body moving, gently. In grief, it’s natural to want to stay home, or even in bed, and not move. In addition to its general health benefits, walking helps emotions move through the body. I find it a great equalizer: If I’m feeling angry or distressed, walking calms me down. If I’m feeling lethargic, it brings my energy level back up. One thing I do find regularly, though: I have to walk for at least 30 minutes before I feel the benefit. Walking can be done in conjunction with…
Take in the Good
This is a phrase from Buddhist psychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D. It means: In the midst of all the painful manifestations of grief—guilt, sadness, anger, despair—also look for what’s good. This isn’t about pushing away any of the uncomfortable feelings. Just open yourself to notice a budding flower, or a painted mural, someone being kind to another person—whatever “the good” means to you. Being human means experiencing pain, joy and the full range of emotions. When we’re feeling a lot of pain, it’s hard to remember that we also have the capacity to feel joy. “Taking in the good” may not make you feel joyful—that’s not its purpose—but it’s a reminder that there is good in the world.
Grieving is painful and difficult, and it often lasts much, much longer than we expect.
Volunteer with a Rescue
Like all the items on this list, volunteering has a whole host of benefits for everyone. When you’re grieving, though, it’s so easy to isolate—and often it’s hard to find people who understand the depth of your grief. Volunteering with an animal rescue not only gives you much-needed contact with animals, but also contact with people who understand what it means to grieve a companion animal. And, of course, it benefits the animals. Whatever your skill set—from marketing to fostering to event planning to knitting blankets—rescues can use your time, talent and heart.
Grieving is painful and difficult, and it often lasts much, much longer than we expect. Most of us are more comfortable when our lives are comfortable and predictable, and grief disrupts all that. But the more we can allow ourselves the space to grieve, to feel the feelings fully, the more we’ll be able to process grief in a healthy way. It still takes time. It still might reshape your life entirely. It still hurts. But the acute phase of grief usually doesn’t last forever.
If you’ve experienced the loss of a cat, what self-care techniques helped you through it? Please share your experience in the comments.
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.