In January 2005, my beloved Cornish Rex, Jordan, experienced a rapid decline in his health. At 14 years of age, Jordan had already lived a long life — but I still wasn’t prepared for the emotions I felt when I realized that he likely would not be a part of our family for much longer. It soon became apparent that his health wouldn’t improve and that he was suffering, so I made the difficult decision to help him pass — and the grief I felt took my breath away.
What Is Normal When Grieving A Cat’s Death?
At the time, I asked myself why I had such a difficult time coping with Jordan’s loss. I have since learned that the emotions I felt were perfectly normal, though they may not be the same for someone else going through a similar situation. Saying goodbye to a senior cat — even when the loss isn’t sudden — can bring on a range of emotions specific to each person experiencing the loss, according to Joseph Dwyer, president of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB).
“Loss is as unique as a fingerprint and is based mostly on the relationship we have with the cat,” Dwyer says. “If it is a senior, it is more likely that a lot of time [was] spent with the cat. That could in fact raise the level of grief.”
Coleen Ellis, CT, CPLP, founder of the Pet Loss Center, agrees, noting that each person’s grief journey will be different, because each person’s relationship with their cat is different. She notes that people may experience a range of emotions, including “anger and sadness for the loss, or possibly relief if the cat was sick and battling an illness that was difficult to watch. However, whatever the emotions, whatever is considered normal for a person, there is an absolute truth: It’s OK for people to feel what they feel.”
Coping With Grief From The Loss Of A Cat
I’m comforted now to know that the overwhelming emotions I felt when my old cat passed were normal. I’m lucky that at the time, my family and friends accepted my grieving and helped me cope with my sadness.
Like grief, coping mechanisms can vary widely from person to person. For me, I turned to photographs I had taken of Jordan throughout the years. I found ways to display them in my home, and I wrote down many of the memories that the photographs brought to mind.
Engaging in activities they enjoy can help cat owners deal with their grief, Dwyer says.
“Regardless of the nature of the loss, the most important thing we should focus on is self care,” he explains. “We seem to give up on the things that bring us joy and peace. I just recently reminded someone of this, and her daily walks have returned and so has a little healing.”
Ellis reminds cat owners that when they lose an older cat that they love, they will grieve. She encourages these pet owners to give themselves permission to mourn; in other words, to express their grief.
“For when we mourn, we mend,” she explains. “Therefore, it’s not a sign of weakness to cry or to show those emotions with a loss… all of those outward expressions of grief will assist in the grief journey and the healing process.”
Helping Children Cope With The Loss Of A Cat
As I mourned the loss of Jordan, I made sure to consider the feelings of my 10-year-old daughter and my 6-year-old son. As soon as I learned of our cat’s medical condition, I let them know what was happening and answered their questions as truthfully as possible. Dwyer confirmed that my approach can help children cope with the loss of an old cat.
“The most important thing we can do as parents is to be as honest as possible with children when a pet passes away,” Dwyer says. “We do not want to tell them that the pet went away for a while, but gently explain that they did pass away. Celebration of the pet’s life with pictures and discussions is helpful for children as well as adults.”
Including children in a memorial or remembrance of the older cat can help, too, Ellis says.
“I’d also make sure that the children get their opportunity to say goodbye to their cat friend,” she adds. “While parents will want to protect the child from this, thinking that it’s too sad for them to handle, children are very organic mourners and want to have that opportunity.”
Sudden Passing Versus Expected
Jordan’s death was painful and difficult, even though I had a little time to prepare myself for it. But can grief be even more difficult if an old cat’s death is unexpected?
“There is typically more shock and disbelief involved when a cat’s passing is sudden,” Dwyer says. “If the sudden nature is due to an accident, then guilt plays more of a role in the grief. This happens regardless of the circumstances since there is an attitude that something could have been done to prevent the accident.”
Preparing For A Cat’s Passing
Owners of old cats can help prepare themselves for their pet’s passing, a process that may offer comfort, especially if the cat has a terminal illness. One way to do so is to talk to others who have experienced such a loss.
“At the APLB [website], we have an anticipatory chat room where people can gather to prepare as much as possible for the passing of a senior cat,” Dwyer says. “Some of the suggestions [made by participants] are to make after-care arrangements if the person is up to doing that.”
Some typical considerations, as suggested by Ellis, include the following:
- Should I choose a burial or cremation?
- Will I want to have a memorial service?
- Will I want the opportunity to have my friends and family say a final goodbye to my cat?
- Should I have a clay paw print made?
- Should I save a fur clipping?
- Is there a charity that can be supported with memorial donations in my cat’s honor?
Honoring A Cat’s Memory
If you decide to have a memorial for your cat, another activity that may bring comfort involves looking up prayers, poems or quotes dealing with the loss of an old cat. These can be incorporated into whatever method an owner chooses to honor a cat.
Ellis encourages each cat owner follow their hearts when honoring their old cat’s life.
“Be kind to yourself and mourn and honor the cat in the way that’s right for each individual,” she says. “Whatever it is, do it in honor of the cat and as a tribute to what the cat meant to your family.”