By Anita Kelsey – UK feline behaviourist & author of ‘Let’s Talk About Cats’.
Grief is a strange emotion. It’s like an invisible hand that comes out of nowhere and tightens around our throats, choking us indiscriminately. It can come at any time of day and we do not see, hear or feel the air push forward with its motion until we are struggling to breath and a torrent of tears releases that moment of tension and sadness.
Grieving for the loss of a cat, as with any pet, is very real and it hurts!!
Recently I answered a phone call from a friend whose cat had just been killed in a road traffic accident. I felt helpless as my friend howled down the phone like a wounded animal, knowing she would never see her furry companion again. I know that pain we feel as I have felt it with previous cats I have lost but my pain was slightly different. I had time to say goodbye and to make arrangements for a kinder death, by a vet who offered home euthanasia (my cat was ill with advanced kidney disease). Even with that knowledge, the grief was real and it came in waves to drown a little more of my heart.
Whatever the circumstances are that leads to the passing of a pet, pet guardians understand other owners grief and know, however strange this may sound, that it can be a far worse feeling than experiencing the death of a human friend.
I’ve thought about this a lot. Certainly, when I have spoken to people grieving over their cats or dogs, they do say the same thing to me. That it feels far worse than when they lost a friend or family member.
I can put this down to a variety of reasons.
Firstly, our pets are a constant. I have shared my life with my two Norwegian Forest cats for 15 years now. I’ve been married for 20 years and my husband and I became Kiki and Zaza’s guardians after 5 years of marriage. So, it very much feels like they are our children. We think of them everyday, we see them everyday, we schedule our daily routines around them and they see us both on good and bad days. This cannot be said for most of our adult friends or adult family members.
Secondly most of us have a deep connection with our pets. They do not talk to us in human language and therefore there is no paranoia, misunderstandings or offence taken – ever!!. There are no human expectations or any moments whereby we may feel the need to mask our true feelings. Animals live in the moment, something we rarely do, but when we can experience this, we love the feeling. And so, our pets become the constant friend we can truly be ourselves with.
When we lose our pets we feel alone and the silence that infiltrates us, as we walk through our front door, breaks our hearts and leaves a gaping wound like a ship’s bow cutting through ice covered waters.
Suddenly our homes do not feel so welcoming. Why would they? Everyday, the presence and life of our chosen pet has coloured our homes and bought meaning to them, which in return has made us far more excited to come home to them. They are waiting for us and it feels good. Someone to talk to and get a cuddle with or from.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP?
Grief is a very personal thing and no two people will feel the same or experience the journey of grief the same. Unfortunately sometimes grief can tap into angry feelings and we look for someone to blame. Sometimes, this may be the vet or, in the majority of cases, we blame ourselves and beat ourselves up for actions in the past or feelings of not giving our pet the best considerations – We have a hundred questions bombarding our brains;
- Why did we let them go outside?
- Why didn’t we check that window or gate properly?
- Why didn’t we check they were ok sooner?
- Should we have gotten a second opinion?
- Did we leave our pet too long to suffer before putting them to sleep?
The questions can be endless but we have to remember – life is not perfect and we, as humans, are not robots. We do not live with hindsight before an event and neither do our vets. Vets have a high rate of suicide and one of the things I believe makes the numbers high in this profession is the pressure they must feel trying to get it right for animals and their humans. The pressure must be immense and they must feel that emotion of sadness and helplessness with every pet that they loose or are asked to euthanise. When they are faced with angry owners who demand answers that they may not have it’s another added pressure.
CLEARING ONE’S MIND
The journey of pet grief must begin with clearing one’s mind, to release any thoughts of guilt or blame. Death is a part of us all. Our pets and us. No one escapes it and no one can avoid freak accidents. I know the majority of us pet guardians give our pets the best possible life although even I suffered that little ear worm that comes to us all in the dead of night… My little worm would whisper to me…Did you give Figgy the best life? Did you hang on for too long for your own selfish needs over hers?
Let it go.
Nothing good comes from these thoughts. Spend the time remembering lovely moments with your pet instead and the love you shared on this earth. Those memories are priceless and we should feel blessed it was us that got to share them with our pets.
TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE FEELING
There’s no shame in feeling at rock bottom when we are grieving. Grieving for a loved pet should be a recognised condition in work places, like it would be for a death of a family member. The effects of pet loss can be devastating and the action of talking about your feelings should be encouraged at every opportunity.
There are many * pet bereavement practitioners who offer a support service and I will list some contacts at the end of this article. Talking to someone else helps us let go of pent up emotions that are making us feel depressed and tense. It is also nice to spend time talking about the pets we have lost and what they meant to us. It’s the start of the journey to accepting how depressed their passing has made us feel. Only by opening up and talking aloud about this, can the journey of healing and acceptance begin.
This journey is different for every individual and can take weeks, months or even years. Grief is a process and we must open up and allow that process to begin. No one should suffer grief alone. Your friends, family members or even a stranger can help carry the burden of grief until its weight becomes lighter, soon to be taken to a distant land on the wind and dispersed to nothing.
Talking about what you are feeling could be internal too. It is very cathartic to write down thoughts and this could be a short paragraph or 2 that could be offered up for friends to read or an article offered to a magazine to help offers with their feelings of loss.
Writing a letter to your pet can also be very soothing. If you didn’t get the chance to say goodbye write your pet a letter with all the things they did that made your heart soar and what they meant to you. And then burn the letter to release the emotions. maybe ask some friends around to help with the process of saying goodbye. Have a little ceremony or celebration of their life. It really does help and it a lovely thing to do.
My friend, who I mentioned above, had a ceremony for her cat which they held at sunrise and by the sea. It was a beautiful calm morning and a few of us sat silently in his memory watching a perfect sun rise from the horizon. We then read poems as we each said our goodbyes and paid our respects in our own way, plus we, as friends, were able to hold their hand emotionally and spiritually as they also said their personal goodbyes. It was a very special moment and our tears felt genuine and bonded us in that moment.
FIND A NEW FURRY FRIEND TO PASS ON MORE LOVE AND CARE
When the time feels right you may wish to step into the arena of finding a new furry friend to love and nurture. This really does help with the grieving process and many of us tell ourselves that this is what our previous pet would have wanted – for us to offer love, hope and kindness to another pet. I tell myself this and I tell other friends and clients who have lost their pets, not because it’s the thing to say, but because I truly believe in its healing powers.
At some stage we have to let go and move forward and what better way to do this than to find another sentient being who needs a helping hand or who needs the companionship of a good human! It is a two way relationship after all. To care for another sentient being, outside of ourselves, is an action that will prove our greatest teacher – like holding up a mirror to ourselves. Pets teach us so much whether we recognise this or not.
This article has covered grief from a human perspective. However my book Let’s Talk About Cats discusses cat grief in depth with Dr, Jessica Walker in chapter 7 pages 109-120
We discuss grief from a cat’s viewpoint (loss of a companion cat) and talk in depth about how cats are affected by loosing a companion cat and the behavioural changes observed and what they mean.
Within chapter 7 I also discuss one of my behaviour cases of a cat suffering from what appears to be cat grief after the death of his companion. Talking through these issues with other experts shows it is not just humans who can feel the emotional changes that grief brings.
The most important things to remember are:
- Clear one’s mind for acceptance
- Talk about your feelings
- Write your feelings down
- Accept grief is a process
- Don’t feel ashamed or hide how you feel
- Don’t feel embarrassed by your depth of grief
- Ask for help
- In time consider a new pet to love and be loved by
Please see links to various recommended pet bereavement services:
To read my article on pet euthanasia please click HERE
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anita Kelsey holds a first class honours degree in Feline Behaviour and Psychology (work based BA Hons) and runs a vet referral service dedicated strictly to the diagnosis and treatment of behaviour problems in cats. She is also a qualified cat groomer and specialises in grooming aggressive or phobic cats. Anita writes for Your Cat Magazine and is on their experts panel answering readers questions on cat grooming. She also advises on feline behaviour for the CFBA (Canine and Feline Behaviour) magazine as well as being a full member. Anita, a strong advocate of a vegan lifestyle, is based in East Sussex but consults all over the UK as well as international requests. She lives with her husband, a music producer, and two Norwegian Forest cats, Kiki and Zaza.