One of the hardest things to accept as a pet parent is the undeniable reality that we will likely outlive our furry friends. Proper veterinary care can certainly help you get many long happy years with your kitty, but the difference in our average lifespans means that you will probably have to say goodbye to a beloved friend and part of your life. For many, this can be as emotionally difficult and painful as losing a human member of the family. The resulting grief can be debilitating and can cause wider problems if not dealt with effectively.
Fortunately, there are strategies for coping with the death of a beloved pet. The first step is to better understand your own emotional response. There are five generally accepted stages that one passes through on the journey from the initial loss to a place of healing and recovery. Let’s look at each one a little more closely:
1. Shock, disbelief and denial: When a cat parent first loses a beloved friend, the enormity of the situation, the intense pain and the feeling of bereavement often overwhelm the person’s capacity to handle them. Refusing to believe or accept reality is a fairly common mechanism for coping. Denial of the grief associated with the loss can also help the person continue to function when forced to deal with “necessary evils” like cremation or burial arrangements.
2. Anger: Once the initial shock wears off and the person accepts the reality of the situation, it is not uncommon for him or her to grow very angry. This anger can either be expressed outwardly, inwardly or in both directions simultaneously. In the first case, the person might blame the veterinarian or seek to identify ways in which the cat’s care was responsible for the death. He or she might also get angry at the cat itself for “going away” and leaving the parent behind. It is also common for people to blame the universe, fate or some other higher power for letting them down. In the second case, the bereaved turns his or her anger inwards and blames him or herself for not having done enough to save a beloved friend.
3. Bargaining/making deals: People try to often overcome their feelings of helplessness by trying to strike a real or imaginary deal to effect a change in the circumstances. This is often called the “if-only” stage.
4. Depression: Once the full weight of the situation has been understood on an emotional level, the bereaved tends to become consumed by feelings of sadness. The feelings at the root of the depression can often be put into two categories. In the first are sadness and regret. Sadness at having lost a beloved family member and regret that the parent might have neglected other responsibilities while caring for the sick cat. In the second are more subtle and private emotions, such as a feeling of isolation and an inability to express one’s feelings. These are often accompanied by a general sense of confusion and difficulty concentrating on everyday life.
5. Acceptance: The final stage of the grieving process is when recovery starts. The bereaved can talk more freely about their loss and begins to access the situation on a more objective and rational level. Often this stage of the grief process also incorporates remembering the pet during happier times instead of focusing on the sadness and loss.
In considering the different stages of the grieving process, it is important to remember that the duration and intensity of the feelings experienced at each step will depend on the individual person. And even more crucial is the understanding that all of the feelings are completely normal. Perhaps the most important part of the process is understanding that your grief is real and that it’s validated. Losing a pet is losing a member of the family and it’s only natural that you’ll need to grieve at your own pace.
Throughout the grieving process, finding healthy outlets for your emotions can be a good way to ease the pain associated with the loss. One that many pet parents choose is to find a way to memorialize their beloved feline friend.
• Buy and wear a piece of jewelry in memory of your cat. Many vendors make pendants into which a little piece of your kitty’s fur or cremains can be placed.
• Get an urn that reminds you of happier times. If you choose to have your cat cremated, there are urns that allow you to put a picture of your kitty on them.
• Make a photo tribute to your cat. Decorating your house with photos of your beloved cat can help you feel like your kitty is still with you.
• Have a portrait of your kitty painted. Similarly, immortalizing your cat in piece of art that hangs on your wall can be a good way to keep them from slipping from your memory.
• Plant a tree or a flowering bush in your cat’s honor.
• Keep a journal. Writing down things that you remember about your cat in the immediate aftermath of its passing can help ensure that happy memories are preserved forever. Reading through it later can remind you of the joyful moments you shared with your feline friend.
• Donation to a local cat shelter or rescue foundation in your cat’s name. Sometimes helping other kitties and their parents can be both a good way to deal with your grief and to keep your own cat’s memory alive.
Whatever the circumstances of the passing of your cat, it is important to remember that other people understand the bond you had with your pet and can offer you support and understanding throughout the grieving process.