Living with the loss of your cat.
How to deal with the grief and sadness after your cat has died.
By Rita Bruche
Through the course of their lives most cat owners have to face the death of a
beloved cat. The sad fact is that our treasured companions do not live as long
as we do.
Western cultures do not allow for much expression of grief, and death is often
considered a taboo subject for discussion. Many people, even our closest
friends, feel uncomfortable about talking to us about our losses. Because of
this, we are sometimes most alone just at the time we most need support. This
applies especially for the death of a pet, as our society often does not
acknowledge loss of a companion animal to be a significant cause for grief. With
this article, it is hoped that learning about factors involved in the pain of
grief may help to accept that loss and grieving are a normal part of our lives,
that the grief is real, valid, and appropriate and that your pain can be
expressed to others. Then can begin the process of healing and building new
What are grief, bereavement and mourning?
Grief can be defined as an emotional response to a perceived loss. It does not
have to be the response to death. In fact, as I will discuss later, grieving
usually involves the loss of many different things. This article concentrates on
grief from the death of a cat, and losses associated with that death.
Bereavement refers to a state that follows a loss, which may be from death, loss
of employment, or marriage. Culture usually determines what is considered
appropriate reason for bereavement, and pet loss is not usually included.
Mourning is the outward expression of loss, including rituals and customs.
For most people, the first loss of a loved one can be the strongest and most
overwhelming experience they have had. Its very intensity can be frightening and
It is commonly expected that a death will lead to grief. Many people will have
heard about different stages of grief suggested by Kubler-Ross: denial, anger,
bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These days it is thought that grief does
not necessarily follow any set pattern, and some of these stages may not be
present at all. It has since been suggested that typically, the period of
bereavement includes 4 phases of shock and numbness, yearning and searching,
disorganisation and despair, and reorganisation.
Grief usually has many components including physical and emotional distress,
preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased, and disruption to daily living.
Grief may be complicated for many reasons, and may make it harder to resolve
your feelings. This may occur if you have other unresolved losses where you were
unable to express your feelings honestly, you have little social support, there
was a particularly complex or ambivalent relationship with the deceased, feeling
guilt, where the death was untimely. Also both deaths that are sudden and
unexpected, and deaths that occur after long illnesses can lead to complicated
grief. There can be many other factors also.
Grief does not necessarily begin with the death of a cat. You may have started
well before your cat actually died, and the death itself may actually bring
about an initial feeling of relief. This is particularly the case with a long
and difficult illness, when you have had warning that your cat is likely to die.
However, it does not mean you will feel less pain when the actual death occurs.
Getting through grief and moving on
Worden, a prominent researcher in the field of grief, has identified 4 major
tasks involved in moving through the process of loss.
* To accept the reality of the loss
* To experience the pain of loss
* To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing. This definitely
takes time. So many of our thoughts and actions are automatic – we assume that
things remain the same. It can be a shock each morning to realise that there is
no need to refill the food bowl.
* To withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in other activities. This may
involve considering getting another cat.
Why does it hurt so much? How much have you actually lost?
Certainly, not all people react to the death of a cat in the same way. Each
person, each cat and each relationship is unique and has unique components. Loss
does not involve simply the physical presence of the cat. The psychosocial
benefits of living with a cat are well documented and include social support,
companionship, an increased sense of our own worth and the emotional bond we
have with our cat. These are part of what you are grieving. You will be reminded
of the special things you did with your cat by their absence. The losses may not
be tangible – they may be the emotions that your cat elicited from you. You may
have lost the good feeling you had when your cat jumped on your lap, or groomed
your hair. The laughter that came when he leaped in the air at the light switch,
and the assistance you received when making the bed. The warm feeling when you
arrived home to find her waiting at the door to welcome you. So the degree of
daily interaction you had with your cat will influence the number of losses, and
therefore the degree of grief.
This merits a paragraph of its own, due to the significant role it has in making
a normal grief complicated. We are very good at “beating up on ourselves” when
we are feeling low. There may have been aspects or decisions that we may have
made differently with the benefit of hindsight, that had an impact on our
beloved cats life or death. The only useful thing that can be done is to learn
from the experience for the future. We need to be kind to ourselves at this
time. We are all fallible humans, and do the best we can to get through our
lives. Some people can feel relief with the death of their cat after a long
illness, and experience guilt because of this. Again, this is perfectly normal.
Some people feel guilt if they think they are grieving more for a loved cat than
for a human they have lost. There are no rules about how much we should grieve –
these sorts of “shoulds” are not helpful either. For ourselves, we should not
minimise how much the cat means to us.
Special features of grief with companion animals
All grieving is painful, and for those of us whose cats are an integral part of
our lives, the loss of a cat is not different that the loss of a close friend.
However there are some aspects of pet loss that are not common with the loss of
a human, and some of these may make your loss more difficult to deal with.
* Loss of a cat may often involve decision making about when to end the life.
How comfortable you are with the decision will affect how you grieve. As
mentioned above, guilt can play a role with how the decision was made, and can
either be a comfort or a source of guilt depending on how you feel about your
actions. This decision can be a terrible dilemma for some people. “Did I make
the decision quickly enough? Did I let him suffer? Should I have let her keep
going? Did I give in too quickly?” are common questions that grieving cat owners
may ask themselves? Sometimes guilt may revolve around the financial aspects of
veterinary care – “was I unwilling to pay large vet bills?” However euthanasia
is the most loving gift for a cat that is suffering, has lost his quality of
life and has no chance of improvement.
*Another aspect is the simple fact that we gain so much support from our feline
friends – they can be a source of unconditional love that will help us through
our difficult times – and not only do we have to deal with the loss of the cat
herself, but her support is no longer there to help us.
* Not all people around us appreciate the integral role that a beloved cat may
have in our lives. There may be some around who may minimise your loss, and
expect you to get over your grief more quickly than you are ready to. This may
also include employers who do not appreciate the degree of pain you are in.
Ensure that you seek others who value their companion animals as you do, and who
can allow you to express your feelings honestly. There are many who feel as you
* Another factor is that while the ritual of a funeral marks the death of a
human loved one, losing a cat does not have such a custom. Rituals have
important functions in allowing the bereaved to proceed to acceptance by
acknowledging your loss in a supportive environment.
Allow yourself time and tears. Don’t overburden yourself with difficult tasks –
your concentration may be decreased. It is also important to attend to yourself
in the simple matters of daily living. Ensure that you continue to maintain a
balanced diet. Avoid excessive alcohol or drugs. As you are in a stressed state,
you are more liable to pick up colds and flu, as your immune system is weakened.
Avoid making important decisions while you are in a vulnerable state.
What can I do to feel better?
There is no magic pill that can remove the pain completely. With time the
feelings will become less intense. However there are activities that may help
you to focus on the happy memories you shared. Some people find the following
* Writing poetry or a letter for your cat to express your feelings for him or
* Arrange photos in a special album
* A memorial page on the web (if you don’t have a web page of your own, there
are specific sites that welcome photos and poetry to memorialise your cat).
* Joining a email group – there are several that provide support from people who
have also lost their cats
* Have your own ritual. Invite like-minded and supportive people to share in
memories of your cat.
* Plant a rose or tree for your cat
* Sponsor an animal in the zoo in memory of your cat
* Read a self-help book. There are many available on grieving
* If your grief is overwhelming and causes major disruption to your daily life
over a long time, consider seeking help. There are counsellors and
psychotherapists who are sensitive to the needs of people who are grieving for
their pets. However ensure that they have the same qualifications you would
expect for grief counselling for humans (eg psychologist, social worker,
counsellor of professional association).
The new cat in your life
The decision when, or whether to get another cat is a very personal one, and
should be done in your own time when you feel comfortable. It should not happen
when another well-meaning person thinks it should happen. Again, there is no
“right” or “wrong”. You may feel ready soon after you lose your cat – this may
be the case if your cat had a long illness and your grieving started long before
the death. Ensure that you feel happy with the timing – some well-meaning people
may try to give you a cat or kitten in order to replace your previous cat.
Others may try to talk you out of getting a cat when you feel ready.
You know best.
Some people find themselves preoccupied with the health of the new cat, with
fears of his or her death. This is quite normal as the pain is so fresh for you,
it is natural that you are anxious that you may experience it again soon. Again,
this will become less intense over time.
The path through grief is never easy. Each of our cats is unique and
irreplaceable. However as life and death are two sides of the same coin, so are
love and grief. Make life easy for yourself until you can remember your loved
cat with more smiles than tears, and you know the time is right to begin a new,
unique and perfect bond with another, who will benefit from the caring person
Chronic Renal Failure in Cats
Here I have included a well-known poem that many people find helpful when
thinking of their pets who have died.
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet
goes to Rainbow Bridge.
There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and
There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those
who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember
them in our dreams of days and times gone by.
The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss
someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and
looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; His eager body quivers.
Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs
carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you
cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses
rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once
more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never
absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together....
Kubler-Ross, (1981). On death and dying. London: Tavistock
Lagoni, L., Butler, C. & Hetts, S. (1994). The human-animal bond and grief.
Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders & Co
McNicolas, J. & Collis, G.N. Coping with pet loss. In: I Robinson, (ed) (1995).
The Waltham book of human-animal interaction. Oxford: Pergamon
Rando, R. (1984). Grief, dying and death: clinical interventions for caregivers.
Champaign: Research Press co.
Article © Rita Bruche