Sadly if you are wondering how to grieve the loss of a cat, this is a must-read for you. Ramona and Petunia. Petunia and Ramona. That’s the way it was for nearly two decades. To say Ramona Reyes and her longhair Calico cat, Petunia, were inseparable was an understatement. Her family and close friends rarely saw one without the other (Ramona had a cat carrier and a leash that allowed her to take her cat everywhere). Petunia was a beloved companion and a constant source of friendship and support in the Jacksonville, Florida, resident’s life. Ramona was just 12 years old when she got Petunia; her cat saw her through her parents’ split, her own marriage and subsequent divorce, a second marriage, a miscarriage, and the birth of her first son.
When Petunia passed away at the age of 19, two years ago, Ramona was inconsolable for weeks. “I knew she was older and had a great life,” said the mother of two, “but when she died, I could literally feel the hole she left in my heart. For a week, I couldn’t eat and could barely sleep. I lost weight and my eyes were swollen shut from crying so much. My partner was willing to do anything to help me and asked if I wanted another cat. But I can’t even imagine doing anything like that anytime soon.”
Ramona isn’t alone. Many cat owners have their pets for more than 15 years, and for a lucky few, closer to 20. Many literally grow up alongside their cats, which have seen them through childhood, school, first jobs, and relationships. You might be thinking that how to grieve the loss of a cat is near impossible at that point when an animal—is more like a family member and a best friend than anything else.
“When a beloved animal dies it can be devastating, overwhelming, and unfathomable,” says Nancy Saxton-Lopez, a New Jersey-based social worker, psychotherapist, speaker, trainer, and coach who has had a private psychotherapy practice with expertise in bereavement, specifically companion animal loss, for 30 years. “The emotions we feel are the same as any loss—but magnified,” she says.
“The human-animal bond is unique,” continues Nancy, who leads a Companion Animal Loss Support Group at St. Hubert’s Giralda, a humane welfare and education organization in Madison, New Jersey, and published The Pet Loss Companion: Healing Advice from Family Therapists Who Lead Pet Loss Groups.
That connection is also something Steve Moeller, co-founder of the first Grief Recovery Method Support Group over 35 years ago, has witnessed firsthand.
“The only time I ever saw my father cry was after the death of his cat that he loved dearly,” says Steve. “My parents had gotten Tiger after all of us children had graduated and moved away from home. Tiger had bonded with my father and was constantly at his side.”
Tiger died from severe kidney problems. “To say that my father was devastated is an understatement,” says Steve. “My father was a scientist and, by nature, was fairly stoic most of the time, but the death of Tiger took an emotional toll on him such as I had never seen before.”
The loss can really be a shock, especially if a pet owner had this animal for many years, says Liz Teal (née Eastwood), the author of Soul Comfort for Cat Lovers: Coping Wisdom for Heart and Soul after the Loss of a Beloved Feline and the publisher of NaturalCatCareBlog.com. “What’s unique about cats we’ve bonded with for years is that they’re an intimate part of our everyday life. Because they’re there every night and day, by the time they pass we’ve often accumulated more time with them than we have with individual friends. Even family members are unlikely to be with you that consistently.”
According to Steve, who is also a certified trainer for The Grief Recovery Institute and a licensed funeral director for more than 40 years, only people who have owned a pet or developed an attachment to an animal can understand the depth of the grief that can come with the death of a beloved cat.
“To put it in the simplest of terms, a pet is that friend that always offers unconditional love and never utters a word of criticism.”
“To put it in the simplest of terms, a pet is that friend that always offers unconditional love and never utters a word of criticism,” says Steve. “They are always there for you in your moments of greatest happiness and overwhelming sadness.”
The connection people have to their cats is one not possible between humans, agrees Nancy. “These pure souls become integrated into the fabric of our lives. Their presents to us include affection, companionship, better physical health, a strong emotional connection—[they] promote social and physical activity, make us laugh, and allow us to take responsibility for another living creature. Pets also soothe us, calm us, and help us live in the moment.”
Immediately after losing a pet, Nancy likens the feelings to “a big black hole in the soul.”
“The bereaved may feel they have lost part of their body,” says Nancy—just like what Ramona described after the passing of Petunia. “The waves of grief are intense and consistent. There are behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms during the grieving process,” she says.
“Most people never learn how to effectively deal with the grief that they encounter throughout their lives,” says Steve. This starts at an early age, when children are taught to replace the loss, rather than how to process it and move out from under that emotional pain.
“Perhaps one of the earliest losses most of us experience is when a balloon that we are given comes loose from our hand and floats away,” Steve says. “More often than not, our parents will tell us, ‘Don’t feel bad, we will get you a new one.’ Having them tell us not to feel bad does not make us feel any better, but the message that we unconsciously absorb, as they are drying our tears, is that somehow those feelings of sadness are inappropriate, and there is always a replacement to be found for these things that we love and lose.”
The truth is that you cannot begin to fully form a new relationship until you have effectively grieved and released the emotional pain for that previous relationship that was lost, says Steve, who has mourned several pets of 19-plus years. Using the Grief Recovery Method, he grieves and completes his relationships with each pet that he loses, so that he can build a new and better relationship with each new pet that he might choose to adopt. “We are not replacing a pet, but rather bringing a new and different pet into our home to be loved and cherished.”
According to Liz, we are letting our cats into our hearts more than in the past, and feeling more responsible for them, which makes the loss even harder. Steve says pets have moved from playing a working role in our lives, when people lived on farms and in rural settings, to a more familial role. People are also attaching to their animals more, seeing them as family members and even children. Veterinary medicine has also allowed us to provide better care and medical support for our cats, which brings us even closer to them. “The longer the time spent in any relationship, the deeper that relationship becomes, which translates to a deeper sense of grief,” Steve says.
The grieving process takes a period of time, during which it is important to try to take care of yourself, Nancy says. “This isn’t easy to do as you may have problems eating (not eating, or eating the wrong foods), sleeping (too much or too little), and there is no motivation to exercise. Try to put one foot in front of the other and keep going, but allow your feelings to be. Some people find solace in doing something creative, changing their routine, and being in nature. Sometimes planning a ritual for your beloved cat is helpful.”
It is important to share grief with those who can understand and lend support through this process. “Many times, people mean well but say the wrong things,” Sandra says. “Remember to be gentle with yourself; this is a fragile time for you. The grieving will lessen over time; it is a hard transition from being able to hug and kiss your cat to having him or her eternally in your heart. If you feel the need, you certainly can reach out to a pet loss or grief counselor.”
The services of pet grief counselors and pet loss support groups are becoming more commonplace to keep up with the demand. “The Grief Recovery Institute added a new book and grief program specifically addressing pet loss,” Steve says. “While we had many pet owners attend our Grief Recovery Method Support Groups in the past, the greater recognition of the emotional pain of pet loss and grief made it only sensible to offer specific programs for this form of grief.”
The death of a fur baby can be further complicated when there are real, human children involved.
Liz recommends against using euphemisms for death, while Sandra says children need to be included and informed with facts. “Depending on the child’s age, he or she may not understand what has happened,” Sandra says. “With younger children, it is important to say that their cat died; that he or she can’t move, eat or hear and will not be getting up and especially that they are not responsible for the death. Older children can be told more; that their cat is very sick and may not have a good quality of life.”
If and when a new pet should be acquired is a very individualized decision, and should only be done after you give your grief some space and time. Bereaved owners should continue to work through their grief even after they adopt a new pet. “The important thing is not to use the new cat as a way to skip the grief,” Liz says. She warns that grief can come up at inconvenient times: “many people will find they need another good cry in a car or bathroom, or on a walking break,” she says.
As Sandra puts it, grief is a journey. “Eventually, the waves are less frequent and not quite as intense. However, there are triggers that at any time can overwhelm someone again.” The important thing, says Liz, is to give sorrow the space to transform and most of all, to trust your way. “You might need to process your feelings with someone you trust, or you might need to go throw stones in a river by yourself. Keep reminding yourself that your grief is love. That means it’s valid and important. And to avoid getting stuck in chronic misery or numbness—the only way through your grief is to feel it.”
A Love that Lasts Forever: Wonderful Ways to Remember a Beloved Cat
Remember your precious cat with a beautiful, handcrafted Cat Angel Figurine Tree Topper from Kitty Cat Art Studio. Available in a wide range of styles, you can even send an image of your cat to create a personalized ornament. (From $55, kittycatartstudio.com)
Keep the memory of your cat close to your heart with an elegant memorial necklace from Pacific Urns. These pretty pendants can easily be filled with a small amount of ashes and with designs including paws, cats, and hearts, there is something for every taste. (From $259, pacificurns.com)
Honor your cat’s memory with this beautiful reminder of their loving spirit. With a variety of colors, engravings, and lighting options to choose from, this handmade DNA Swirl Heart Memorial is a lovely reminder of your beloved cat. (From $400, crystalremembrance.com)
We all want to be able to honor our pets and commemorate the time spent with them. The customizable Organics Charm from Buddies Keepsakes is the perfect way to furever remember your sweet companion. (From $180, thumbies.com)