COPING WITH GRIEF

Over the Loss of Your Cat

by Joëlle Steele

When Diane Moldenaur lost her ten-year-old Siamese, Chi, to a genetic kidney ailment, she felt like her life had come to an end. "Chi was my best friend. He was always there for me, especially during my very messy divorce. I felt so alone and so hopeless without him. I cried myself to sleep for weeks, and to this day, I think I shed more tears for Chi than I did when my father died."

Diane's story is typical of cat lovers everywhere. After all, a cat can be so many things to humans: a friend, a child, a companion, a support system, a nurse, a silent therapist, or a reminder of past events or people. A cat can even provide a purpose in life for the elderly, the infirmed, or the mentally or physically disabled person, and could well be their sole reason for living. Is it any wonder we feel such heartache, misery, and pain when they pass from our lives?

When it comes to death, coping with the loss of a beloved feline companion is no different than dealing with the passing of a friend, relative, or spouse. The feelings are the same, varying in intensity from one person to another, and the tears shed are just as wet. And, the process of recovery from such losses is the same.

There are several steps necessary to deal with loss and overcome grief. The usual progression is built mainly of shock, denial, anger, depression, and acceptance, although not necessarily in that exact order. Some steps may happen at the same time while others may not happen at all and you may experience feelings that do not fall into any of those categories. This entire process is comprised of very individual responses that are dependent on the person, the pet, and the circumstances surrounding the death.

FIRST REACTIONS

"I can't believe it." These are usually the first words uttered when someone, either cat or human, dies. Even when a cat is old and infirmed and death is imminent, there is still a feeling of disbelief and shock that accompanies his passing. We all know our cats can't live forever, but no amount of advance preparation can ever make us fully accept their deaths immediately.

Shock is usually characterized by a lack of feeling or a numbness and is a natural response to any tragic event, even more so if the loss was sudden and unexpected, such as from an accident which you may have witnessed, or if your cat succumbed to a heart attack in the middle of the living room floor.

Denial, believing that the cat we loved so much is not really dead, is also a common reaction. Richard couldn't believe that his cat-buddy Roger had died on the operating table. He insisted it was all just a case of mistaken identify because Roger was a common-looking orange tabby cat. "Even when the receptionist told me there was no other orange tabby in surgery that day, I refused to believe it. Even when I saw his little body I was busy trying to think up reasons why it couldn't be him, or how maybe it could be him but he really wasn't dead and would suddenly, miraculously revive himself."

With adults, denial is usually a momentary reaction, but with children, denial can become a problem if the child refuses to accept that a cat is dead. A child who is in a deep state of denial may require psychological treatment. If, after a couple weeks, your child persists in believing that the cat is just lost or got mixed up with another cat that looked like him, and that all will be well because he will be coming home eventually, it is time to seek professional counseling.

EXPRESSING GRIEF

Once reality sets in, the loss is realized. This is when grief is naturally expressed by crying. Heavy emotional responses may be triggered by the mere sight of the late cat's favorite toy or personalized food dish, and by the absence of the animal from your lap or bed. These emotions may be followed or accompanied by depression or melancholia. The house suddenly seems so empty without a beloved cat around. Some people feel this depression more deeply than others and may be unable to function, not caring about anything, not eating, suffering insomnia, withdrawing from others, and reminiscing obsessively about "the good old days."

Accompanying or following these feelings of sadness are fear and panic. There may be a very real fear that you will never recover from your pain or that you will never be able to love another cat again. You may even feel panic at the thought of losing another cat, either one that you already have that is still alive and well, or an unknown cat that you may have in the future.

Feeling bad is a normal response. If, however, your grief leads to such a profound depression that you cannot overcome it within a reasonable period of time, or if you have suicidal tendencies or physical symptoms such as headaches or flu-like symptoms, it is a good idea to talk to a professional counselor, preferably someone who specializes in grief therapy.

WHO'S TO BLAME?

"It's all my fault. If only I had ..." If only you had what? Kept him in a hermetically sealed environment safe from germs, people, cars, other cats, dogs, etc.? Not likely. Most cat deaths are not the fault of the owner, but that doesn't stop a grieving pet lover from trying to assume all the responsibility and then wallow in feelings of guilt. After all, we always reassure our cats that we are going to protect them and take care of them, and we want to keep them safe and secure at all costs. So, when they die, we naturally try to determine what went wrong and who was to blame. Most of the time we blame ourselves, and convincingly so.

When my cat Misty died of feline leukemia (back in the pre-vaccine days) I blamed myself for not noticing her symptoms sooner. Never mind the fact that she seemed perfectly fine until two days before she died. I was sure that I had missed something. When I was finished blaming myself I began to blame her previous owner who had abandoned her when she moved and left her outdoors, exposed to other cats. But, that was still not enough, so I moved on to blaming the veterinarian for not having a cure for her. This only brought me back to blaming myself for not getting a second opinion sooner (an appointment for a second opinion was scheduled for the morning after she died).

Not getting a second opinion is a "biggie" when it comes to self-blame and guilt. This is particularly true when euthanasia is at issue. Don's cat Mac was diagnosed with an intestinal cancer. Don was torn between letting Mac live out whatever time he had left, possibly in pain, or having him euthanized. After much careful thought and consideration he decided to have Mac put to sleep. Afterwards, he was filled with self-doubt, guilt, and remorse over his decision and felt angry with himself for not seeking a second opinion or alternative treatment.

In the process of placing the blame on ourselves and on others, there is usually a considerable amount of anger that comes out. In my case, I was angry at myself, I was furious with Misty's former owner, and I was mad at the veterinarian. The only one who really deserved to be on the receiving end of all my wrath was Misty's former owner for being so insensitive, uncaring, and irresponsible as to abandon her in the first place. But, when you are in this stage of grieving, it is hard to see things clearly.

Anger is sometimes expressed directly at the cat who died. "I was so angry at him for running out the door at night," explained Doris, after her ten year old cat Zachary refused to come in after escaping one night and was killed by a raccoon. "It took me a long time to get over my anger and realize that he just wanted the freedom to be a cat and couldn't possibly understand the risks that come with that freedom."

MOURNING

Mourning is that time during which you are actively dealing with your loss. You may carry around a little memento of your cat such as his I.D. tag or his collar or even his favorite toy. One woman I know slept with her cat's pillow-shaped bed next to her at night. Some people choose to memorialize their late friends with a framed picture on the wall, a special urn for his ashes, or a little statue or tree over his grave. Doing these little rituals helps you come to terms with your loss. It is a way of accepting that loss and finalizing it so that you can resolve your grief and get on with the business of life.

When you are mourning you are missing your cat, even if you have other cats that are still alive and well. They too may be missing their absent feline friend and you may all provide mutual support for one another. These feelings of missing your cat will never go away entirely, but they will become much easier to bear in time. If you are having a particularly hard time getting past your initial grief and into a mourning stage, you may find it helpful to talk about your feelings with a supportive friend. If you can't find a willing ear, you may want to put your feelings down on paper, just writing whatever comes to mind about how great your cat was and why, and how much you miss him.

Constant and painful reminders of our losses are all around us and they can make it hard for us to cope. My childhood cat Candy died while I was away at college. My mother was taking care of Candy when she became very ill and had to be put to sleep. For months after that, my mother would get all teary-eyed when she walked through the cat food section of the store or when she went in the back yard and saw the apple tree under which Candy was buried. If you are not strong enough to cope with the reminders, avoid them until you can handle them emotionally.

Periods of mourning vary in length and intensity. If you feel that it is taking you too long to come to terms with the passing of your cat, maybe it is, or maybe it isn't. If you are not sure whether your reactions are within the range of normalcy, it is best to get professional guidance.

FAMILY REACTIONS

Families handle grief as individuals, depending on their personalities and their unique relationships and attachments to the cat. Children usually handle their grief better because most people find it acceptable for a child to cry and they give comfort to the bereaved child more easily than they do the adult who is experiencing the same loss.

Children usually go through the same stages of grief as adults, provided that the parents do not suppress their child's natural reactions by scolding him for crying or for talking so much about the deceased cat. Causing a child to deny his own grief because the parents deny that it is the right and proper thing to do can lead a child down a path of suppressed emotions throughout his life.

The death of a cat or any household pet, may be the child's first experience with death and how his grief is handled during his youth will determine in large part how well he handles similar situations as an adult. For that reason alone, it is important not to lie to your child about what happened to the family cat. Telling a child that the cat "ran away," "moved away," or "went to live with someone else" (even if that someone is God) can cause a child, particularly a very young one, to believe that either the cat may some day come back or that the child somehow caused the cat to leave because he didn't love it enough or did something to make it want to live elsewhere.

On a similar note, telling a child that their cat "went to sleep forever" may lead to a child to fear going to a sleep from which he may never wake up. It is best to tell the child what really happened. This will vary in detail depending on their age level and what they can understand at that point in their life. Children over five years of age can usually comprehend death, but, the amount of explanation they require will be dependent on what their level of comprehension is and that is something you will know as their parent.

When children have problems dealing with grief, they may express it by prolonging their grief, having nightmares, or becoming angry, irritable, and withdrawn. If a parent is unable to comfort their grief-stricken child or cannot get the child to open up and confront the problem, this is the time to seek professional help.

Adults in a family may be very supportive of a grieving child but may not be able to comfort a grieving adult such as a spouse. June had Tiger long before she met her husband Bob. When Tiger died at the age of fourteen, June was devastated as was her six year old son Brian on whose bed Tiger slept each night. Bob, on the other hand, had never particularly cared for cats in general and didn't feel any remorse on Tiger's passing. "I was so unhappy and Bob acted like I was crazy," said June.

It is not realistic to assume that everyone in a family will react the same way to a cat's death. People all handle their grief differently and some, like Bob, may not feel any grief at all. If your family members are not understanding of your feelings, turn to other cat lovers or seek professional support when you need it.

When an animal is dying and euthanasia is an option, it should be discussed by the entire family. Leaving a family member out of the decision, even an older child or a spouse, can lead to feelings of resentment in the family. So can having a cat put to sleep without letting everyone have a chance to say their goodbyes. With a family cat, a little memorial service of some kind is usually in order to help everyone come together and express their love and respect for a valued family member.

SUPPORT SYSTEMS

Some people, no matter how much they loved and adored their little friend, find it hard to express their sadness, cope with and adjust to their loss, and get on with their lives. This is especially difficult if they are surrounded by people who do not understand why they are upset. When my friend Anita's cat died, she didn't feel like going to work the next day. She kept bursting into tears and didn't want to make a scene in front of her co-workers. When she finally went to work two days later, her employer remarked, "For God's sake Anita, it was only a cat."

Only a cat. If ever there were three wrong words to say to a grieving cat lover, those must surely be the ones. Even Anita's boyfriend was not too sympathetic, assuring her that, "You can always get another one," when no other cat can ever replace the one that has just died.

It can be hard to find supportive people when you need them the most. In most cases you will find that fellow cat lovers are going to give you the understanding and sympathy you need. They will realize that you had a special relationship with your cat and that it was important and can't be replaced. If you must be in contact with the non-supportive faction, never hesitate to explain why you are so sad. Explain why the cat was so important to you, how he was there when times were tough, how he used to lay on your desk while you worked, or how he always slept in your lap while you watched TV. And, emphasize that you miss him being there.

GRIEF WITHOUT DEATH

The death of a beloved cat is not the only forerunner of grief. A cat can disappear, be lost, be stolen, given away. It can be turned over to an animal shelter, or left with friends when a person moves away. All of these are legitimate reasons for grief. They are losses that are not necessarily caused by death but may be just as devastating. When a cat disappears you may feel more distressed than if he died in your arms. Not knowing is often far worse than death itself because the human mind imagines all sorts of awful things that might have befallen the missing feline. Having to give up a cat because you have to move where you can't take him with you is also a painful experience that may be accompanied by long-term feelings of guilt.

As with the death of a cat, these non-death losses result in the same processes of grief: shock, denial, depression, anger, guilt, and mourning. Express the grief in the same way and seek counseling if necessary. A loss is a loss, whatever the cause, and suppressing your emotions is not healthy.

Another kind of non-death loss that results in grief of a different sort is that of premature grief. This occurs when an animal is old or ill but is not dead and may not even be dying. A person projects what life would be without the pet and may be preoccupied with the fear of possibly having to choose euthanasia when their cat's health fails. Premature grief of this kind can be sporadic or chronic. With me, it's sporadic. When writing this article, I read several books on grief, including one called, "When Your Pet Dies: How To Cope With Your Feelings" by Jamie Quackenbush, MSW, and Denise Graveline. As I read these books my fifteen year old cat Twinkle was snoozing comfortably in my lap. I looked down at her and start to cry when I thought about what it would be like to lose her. I got worried about the possibility of having to make a decision about euthanasia. I was a temporary basket case like this on a couple of occasions, but, the experiences forced me to think realistically about what I want Twink's last days to be like and how I will probably react to her inevitable passing.

Premature grief, while unpleasant to say the least, can help you project what the future may hold and can give you the opportunity to reconcile your feelings about the issues of death, dying, pain, suffering, and euthanasia before you are confronted with them and are forced to make decisions while in a highly emotional and unobjective state. While I dread the day when Twinkle is dying or dies, I at least feel better having made some decisions about what I want to do when that time comes.

If you become temporarily preoccupied with premature grief, especially if it follows directly on the heals of a real death, this is normal. But, if you get stuck in this cycle of fear and concern about an otherwise healthy cat, you may need to get some professional help.

LIFE GOES ON

At the end of all the pain, anger, and sadness comes the feeling of hope, that sudden realization that life does go on and that you can survive without your feline friend. Eventually, you may even see the possibility of some day having another cat. Wait until you are sure you are ready. Most people do get another cat when they have come to terms with their loss. The new feline addition to your home will never take the place of the one who died. But, your new companion will offer a unique and different relationship that will provide a welcome source of love, affection, and friendship for many years to come.

The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.





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