Coping With the Private Grief Millions of Us Experience (and Nobody Talks About)

How to take care of yourself after the death of a companion cat

Photo by Ivan Karasev, via Unsplash

According to the ASPCA, 85.8 million cats live with humans in the United States. Ninety-five percent of us consider companion animals part of our family . Yet the indoor domestic feline lifespan averages 16 years, which means that every year, between four and eight million American adults have to say a final farewell to a feline friend.

Our cats are witness to our most vulnerable moments, our most private pain, the aspects of us we would never dare allow another human to see. And they accept us wholly, as we are. In turn, we accept their behavior in ways we would never tolerate from another human (Finicky? Okay, we’ll try a different food. Knocked a glass off the counter? Well, that’s just how cats are. Doesn’t want to be pet right now? No problem.)

I believe our relationships with animals are so powerful not despite the fact that they’re nonverbal, but because of it. Distilled down to its essence, the relationship is one of two beings witnessing each other (mostly) without judgment. Being seen and accepted is a powerful human need, one that’s often not filled (entirely) by other humans. And when that relationship is gone, the grief can be profound. 

Grieving a Cat

As a culture, we have no rituals or spaces for grieving an animal, no guidelines for how to comfort the bereaved; this often compounds the human’s grief by leaving them feeling isolated or misunderstood.

Below are seven ways to care for yourself after your cat has passed away. This list is not meant to be glib. It’s not going to magically make the grief subside—only time can do that. But these practices helped me through the process, and I believe they can help you.

  1. Allow grief. Grief is the natural response to the loss of a relationship (as well as a being) that held a unique place in our hearts. When we try to resist feeling grief—by thinking “It shouldn’t have happened” or blaming ourselves or others—it intensifies the pain exponentially.

  2. Treat yourself gently. Grief affects cognitive processes including memory. Don’t expect yourself to be in peak mental condition. When my 20-year-old cat, Hedda, died, I was in a fugue state for a month. I also had trouble processing sensory information, and my usually mild dyslexia became pronounced for a while. Be gentle with yourself.

  3. Remember that grief doesn’t define you. It may feel like the pain is swallowing you whole, but remember that this is a part of your life experience; it isn’t who you are.

  4. Create (write, draw, paint, compose…) Make something to honor your cat’s memory. I wrote and wrote and wrote about Hedda, and then I wrote what I wished I could hear from her (which turned into P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna)

  5. Spend time in nature. Walking in nature helps to curb rumination. If you don't have access to a park, go into a florist's shop, or notice the trees along the side of a street. Get outside and look at the life surrounding you, in this moment.

  6. Talk to people who understand. Many people don’t understand the bond that can be forged over years with an animal. Don’t try to explain it to them; instead, look for those who do get it. Many cities (and even small towns) offer pet-loss support groups, and given the statistics, it’s likely that someone in your extended family, or neighbourhood, has experienced a similar loss.

  7. Volunteer. I didn’t get involved in cat rescue until several months after Hedda died, when I was ready to adopt a kitten. Nearly every volunteer either joined after their cat died, or has experienced grief over a cat. Volunteering confers enough benefits for its own article, but in short: It connects you to people who know what you're going through, gets you out of the rumination cycle, and shows you how much you have to offer.

One final thing: You are not alone. Grief is a universal human experience. In a world deeply divided, every single person has or will experience loss and grief. Remember that statistic from the beginning? Within any given minute (on average), 10 Americans are saying goodbye to their cat. Sometimes, it can help to imagine yourself as part of a cohort, connected to those anonymous other people through your shared love of your cat.

Sarah Chauncey is the author of P.S. I Love You More than Tuna, the first gift book for adults grieving their cat. Follow @morethantuna on Instagram to share stories and memories of your cat(s)—past or present—or tag a post #tunatributes to receive support from people who understand. 

Self-Care, Mental Health, Emotions, Death, Advice

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