Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: July 14, 2023 by Crystal Uys

happy cat with closed eyes hug owner

Written by Sarah Chauncey

Anticipatory grief is grief that arises before a death—when you know it’s coming, but your cat is still alive. On one end of the spectrum, anticipatory grief can cast a shadow over the time you have left with a sick or senior cat. But this “grief in advance” can also be a gift, if we can recognize it and work with it.

Our time together is scarce

As humans, we tend to value things that are scarce. This is usually applied to material goods (because we live in a consumer culture), but the psychological principle behind it is the same: Our lives, and the lives of all beings, are limited. Most of the time, most of us live in denial of this fact. When we can accept that death is inevitable—and admittedly, that’s a big “when”—we are free to appreciate each moment so much more.

When we adopt a kitten, or even a healthy young cat, we’re not thinking about sickness, illness, palliative care, or death. At a certain point, though, we all get a wake-up call, a reminder that the feline lifespan is shorter than the average human lifespan. Most cats, if they live long enough, will develop kidney disease. Many develop diabetes and/or hyperthyroidism. Usually, these are detected long before they become life-threatening, and treatments can either reverse the illness (as can happen with diabetes), cure it (some treatments for hyperthyroidism) or at least slow the decline. Yet for many cat guardians, especially those who haven’t had a geriatric cat before, just the words “kidney disease” can bring on anticipatory grief, even if the cat lives for years following the diagnosis. The awareness of death is both painful and a gift.

Woman owner hugging cat
Image Credit: Wanwajee Weeraphukde, Shutterstock

The gift of anticipatory grief

The opportunity inherent in anticipatory grief is to work with what psychologist William Wordon calls “the first task of mourning,” to accept the reality of the (impending) loss. If we can do this before our cat’s death, then the experience can be much less traumatic—and even peaceful or sacred.

To be clear, I’m not talking about “getting over” a loss—grief is a lifetime experience that comes in waves and nonlinear zigzags. I’m talking about healing in a way that allows us to move forward in our own lives.

Stay in the moment as much as possible

If you’re reading this, you’ve made it through 100% of the worst days of your life so far. We humans have a surprising ability to handle whatever arises in the moment, no matter how challenging or painful. The future, though, is just a thought, and focusing on “what it will be like” only makes us suffer more.

That said, if you’re experiencing anticipatory grief, you likely are having to strategize—Do I continue treatment? What’s best for my cat? Should I get a second opinion? Is it time?—and strategizing, because it’s an intellectual process, can lead directly to worry and regret. This is why it helps to come back to the present moment—rather than our stories about it—multiple times a day.

By “the present moment,” I mean the sights, sounds, scents and tactile facts. The wind on your face. The cushion beneath your bottom. The honking cars or chirping birds outside. Look, listen, smell, touch—without labeling any experience “good” or “bad.”

Although you might be overwhelmed by anticipation of what’s to come, try to remember that in this moment, your cat is still with you. Feel her fur. Give him a butt scratch. If you have stopped treatment and aren’t concerned about what they eat, this is the time to spoil your cat with treats. Talk to him or her about your favorite memories together. Take note of your cat’s quirks and tell them the things you love about them.

cat owner looking at her pet
Image Credit: U__Photo, Shutterstock

Focus on feelings more than thoughts

In my experience, anticipatory grief involves a whole lot of crying. And that’s a good thing—we cry because we love these beings, and the pain wants to come out.

If your cat is young, or even with an older cat, you may have thoughts like, “This shouldn’t be happening” or “He’s too young.” Those thoughts, while completely understandable, are a form of resistance. As long as we resist what is happening, we create more pain for ourselves. It sounds counter-intuitive, but our minds try to protect our hearts by distracting us from pure pain. Yet the only way for pain to work its way through our bodies is to feel it directly. No matter how big or intense the waves, if you allow them, they will pass.

Start by observing your thoughts (if this is new to you, you can start here). Then ask yourself whether the thought is based in fact, or whether you’re interpreting your thoughts in a way that adds to your distress.

Focus on the sensations in your body. You may have to redirect your attention away from your thoughts hundreds of times. Don’t beat yourself up—this is totally normal. Keep bringing attention back to what you’re feeling physically. Close your eyes and scan your body for areas of tension. A shortcut, if you’re in public, is to close your eyes and focus intensely on the feeling of your hands. When you focus on the hands, eventually you’ll feel a kind of tingling in the nerve endings. Focus on that sensation, just for a moment. And then the next moment.

The physical experiences underneath your emotions—a racing heart, a heaviness in the chest, brain fog—probably won’t kill you. Your thoughts, though, can keep pain entrenched much more deeply and for much longer than the natural lifespan of an emotion.

Find support from those who understand

Not everybody understands how painful it is to face the final days or months with a companion animal. Find people who have been through it; give yourself some distance from those who don’t get it or who might be dismissive.

If there’s nobody in your immediate community, look online for a group like Tuna Tributes. There are counselors and therapists who specialize in pet loss, and many veterinary schools have pet loss support hotlines.

If your mind and heart are reeling, give yourself some compassion—treat yourself the way you would treat a kitten in distress. What you’re going through is intensely painful and difficult.

I grieved so much in advance of Hedda’s death that afterwards, I didn’t cry nearly as much (though of course, I grieved in other ways). I believe that anticipatory grief gives us a grace period, and making the most of that, in turn, allows us to have the fewest regrets possible.


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.

Featured Image Credit: Veera, Shutterstock

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30 Comments on The Gift of Anticipatory Grief: How to Start Healing Before a Pet Dies

  1. Going through this now with my senior kitty, who was diagnosed with CKD last December, about a month before her 20th birthday. She has good days and bad. I hate to see her suffer through the bad days. Thought I was losing our bond by forcing pills down her throat, but it’s gotten a little easier. She will be my last fur baby because I dread the thought of one outliving me. I take my responsibility for their care very seriously, and I don’t know who else would. As long as my kitty has quality of life, I will fight with her. I have stopped traveling and changed my life to take care of her. I understand it could be years, for which I would be thankful. She, and all my other beautiful fur babies over my life, have brought me so much joy. The pain of grief is a small price to pay considering.

  2. I have to admit, this article left me in tears. I *think* I’m not close, but one never knows. I had to let my girl go due to cancer, who was 19 years, 3 months and 23 days. I second guess myself everyday because she seemed to be OK with it and fought to the very end. (She wouldn’t give up after the first injection.) Too soon???? Anyhow, in my life now are a 3-year old and an 8 month old.
    Has anyone read the book, “Confessions of an Angel Cat” by Nic Tatano? I really want to believe the ending. PERFECT in my opinion.

  3. when my oldest dog got a rare form of cancer, i lost it. i went home and researched everything abt it, i checked out new therapies, vet schools all over the country. i ended up going to a cancer vet in my area, who had access to all of the latest trials. i was willing to travel anywhere to help her, give me more time even though she was almost 16 yrs old and had some other health issues. my friends gave me no support, questioned why i was spending huge amounts of money trying to save her. i told them she was my child, would you not try to save your child, and anyway it was my money to spend, not yours. my reg vet said she lived as long as she did, almost 11 months passed the diagnosis because she loved me so much and did not want to leave me. she should have died within 1-2 wks or a month of the diagnosis. i lived at the both vet’s offices for 10 months, i stayed home unless i had to go to the dr or store. i did not want to leave her. i had to put down tarps all over my house because the chemo gave her the runs. i had to hand feed her most of the time. i was feeding her when she had a stroke, i gave her cpr, rushed her to the vet, it was 8pm, but they had an er, the er vet wanted to put her down, i said no, put her in an oxygen tent, give her the meds, til the cancer vet came in the next day, i stayed all nite but they would not let me be with her. the vet said it was time, i held her for a long time, even after she was gone. as they took her away, i ran after her, to hug and kiss her again. when i got home, i asked if i could come see her again. they said no. i had a beautiful urn made for her, with her pic on it. i still hug it and kiss it often, i take it with my other 2 girls to be blessed every year. i still grieve almost every day even though it has been almost 2 yrs. she was my baby for almost 16 yrs. i guess what hit me the hardest when she did die, was that we had just seen the cancer vet and both vets said she had at least another 6 mos to live, so that left my unprepared for the sudden loss.

    • I am so sorry for your loss. Sudden loss is particularly devastating, because you’re dealing with shock as well as grief (and by definition, you can’t say goodbye in the same way). Of course you still miss her–grief is an expression of love, and love doesn’t die.

  4. I Always think this part is worse that when they have actually gone,with the first cat i had that was entirley mine and not a family cat we were so close and when she got to 17 she started having fits and dementure and didnt recognise me ,a few times the vet wanted to put her down but i stuck to my guns as i knew it wasnt her time,but then we got the dreaded hypethyroidism diagnosis we had been through it with our other cat and knew what was coming it hit quick and by the time she was 18.5 the vet warned us she had days to live and when we heard her struggling to breathe bring her straight in as it meant herdiaphram muscle was about to go and if it went at home she would be uncomfortable so in that last week we spent all our time together she slept on me all day i hardly left her side i still miss her to this day even though we have more cats and dogs and a baby now

    • I’m sorry for your loss, Cerri. Each one is so unique that of course you still grieve your former cat. I’m glad you had a chance to say goodbye to her, though of course, it still hurts.

  5. Ingrid this article of anticipating grief was so amazing and very well written, as usual. This is the drawback of owning a companion pet, but the joy of having one sure outweighs the loss. We always have the heartwarming memories filed away in our minds to get us through.

    • Sarah does an incredible job covering a very difficult topic. I know her articles have helped so many cat parents cope with losing a beloved cat.

  6. My apologies for the link errors – they all worked correctly when I proofed this post last night. I’m working on figuring out what might have happened – stay tuned!

  7. Maybe it’s because I’ve helped so many of my pets cross the rainbow bridge, but I think about their leaving from the instant they join our family. I already know how I’ll grieve and that I will most likely add to my furry family again. As I’ve gotten older though, I think about just fostering. That way, when my time comes, they can be returned to the rescue and/or, hopefully, placed in another foster home.

    • Cindy, you raise a good point for a whole other post—at what age is it better to stop adopting and start fostering? (It’s on my mind, too, though Ariel is just a year old.)

  8. I cried reading your article. It really touched me. I’ve been rescuing cats for decades, and every one of them deserved their special time at the end. It’s not just that people each grieve differently, but every time is different, too. I’m surprised at how few people let themselves go through the process. I feel like a better person for it.

    • Thank you for all the rescue you’ve done, Jamie. Yes, each relationship is different, so each grief is different. There’s a saying “the only way out is through” and I have experienced that to be true in my life.

  9. Thank you Ingrid for sharing another beautiful and powerful article written by Sarah. As the guardian to another cat fighting cancer I find such comfort in what Sarah writes. Even though I have an amazing support system I alone walk this journey with him and reading this today was so helpful. Being present is so important, but also allowing myself to feel grief, allow it to come and let go of guilt. Thank you

  10. Am i doing something wrong? I get an error every time I clink on a link with the text …

    Great article! Wish I’d had it a year ago 🙁

    • Hi Carol – It’s not you; I get errors, too. It looks like there are some characters missing within the links. I’ll check with Ingrid. (I’m glad you found the post helpful)

  11. Thank you for this article. Although death is never easy, it’s good to know there is support and a name for how we feel when we are preparing for a loss.

  12. lots of us have been thru this and never knew a name…good article! it also applies to human death. I learned a few things here too. have 3 cats 14 yrs old, and this describes some feelings that have already started….I like the part where if you are grieving, and you dont get support from people who understand what you’re going thru – distance yourself from them….thats good. if you dont have pets, you dont understand, people say oh only an animal, but when that animal is your “baby”, companion, friend/confidant, part of your family and life, it hurts. Thanks!

  13. This is still the toughest part of the love journey, and I have been through it wat too many times since 1967. As for getting support from those who understand? That’s never happened. Others step away in any grief, whether human or pet loss, even more than when I went through cancer myself 5X [the first at age 10], or when I lost my entire family in an 11 month period in 1976, the first being my mom. She was 46; I was 24. It’s always been just God ‘n me, as humans surely have not been there for me. Maybe that’s how He wanted it/me all along.

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