How Can We Help Our Cats Grieve When Another Passes On?
Recently, my 16-year-old cat Karma was diagnosed with a tumor in her jaw. The tumor grew rapidly and Karma only had two to three weeks before we had to help her pass over. It all happened so fast that I'm not sure I've processed it yet. I'm not sure the other cats have processed it either.
When the vet made the diagnosis, she asked me if the other cats had been acting differently. I realized that yes, they had. They had been grooming Karma more, and paying more attention to her. Particularly attentive was Chester, my buff cat who loves to take care of everybody. Chester and Karma were always a good match, because Chester was so caring, and Karma so sweetly and thankfully accepted the care. This was true for Karma's whole life -- healthy or ill.
When Karma passed on, Chester suddenly seemed bereft. This Catster article lists behaviors or circumstances that we might observe if a cat is grieving. Chester was sitting continuously in front of the fire, in the place Karma loved. He looked lost. It sounds like anthropomorphism but I really felt that there was a void for Chester. Suddenly, he had no sweet Karma to care for. How could I fill that void for him? Should I?
This experience is new to me. When other cats have passed on in the household, their feline friends had been very matter-of-fact about it. I never noticed any grieving behaviors. This time, it is different. I am not sure if this is because of the nature of Karma (truly sweet) or the speed and very little time we all had to get used to the fact that she was leaving.
In reading through some of the related articles (links at end of this post) and the comments, there seem to be a lot of perspectives on what might work and what might not work. But here is what I've done so far. And in a way, we are still going through the process.
1. I let the cats see the body of the deceased cat
I need time with the body, if possible, so I let my cats have that time as well, if they want it. When we brought Karma back from the vet (after she passed on), I sat with her for a long time. I let each cat come by, if they wished. Generally, they take a short look, and leave. But when Kali passed (earlier this year) I actually had a very touching thing happen. I sat with Kali, meditating, and grieving. Chester came and sat with us both, not moving, for at least 45 minutes. It was as if he was doing a vigil.
2. I try to keep things as normal around the house as possible, and stick to routines
Familiar routines seem to make my cats comfortable. In Karma's case, while she was still alive, I was supposed to travel for training. I canceled travel plans because we were really operating day by day, and I wanted to be with Karma as much as possible, whether she passed on or continued on. (We really had no idea how anything would transpire.) I am really glad now that I was here, not only for Karma, but for the others (prior to and after her passing). The cats are always happiest when both my husband and I are here, and I am so glad that we've been able to be here.
3. I'm as available to the cats as I can be
I've been working in the house during the day so that the cats can be with me. If they want to come and be next to me, they do. Things are still shifting and changing and the cats are a little unsettled. Karma had been part of our household for 16 years. But Jamie Bluebell was extra snuggly the other day. I've given Chester many treats, and thanked him from my heart for how well he took care of Karma while she was ill. (For example, he groomed her many times, extensively, when she started to become too ill to do more than wash her face.)
I do feel that the cats appreciate our presence and our attempts to establish as normal an atmosphere as possible. As I write this now, I am in the office, but it's evening, and my husband is in the house and with the cats. I will be in the house, soon.
4. I let the cats use cat furniture that Karma used
I have two small cat beds, and all the cats use them. Karma loved them both, and really loved a brown one with high walls, especially when she was ill. I had to wash the beds all the time in Karma's last weeks. When she passed, I washed the bed again and put it out, in the place where she liked it near the wood stove. The cats would lay by it or lay in it. I like to think that they were enjoying that reminder of her.
Like I said, Karma would sit in front of the fire for hours. After she passed, I watched as cats took her place there. It was almost as if they rotated shifts. Two of my cats had never spent much time by the fire before, and now I observed them, sitting next to Chester (who had loved to sit with Karma by the fire) in front of the wood stove.
Maybe the best thing we can do to help a grieving cat is a balance between getting out of the way and making things comfortable and familiar. On the one hand, step in, comfort the cats, make things familiar and steady. On the other hand, also let the cats do what they need to do. They have a way of working things out.
How do your cats grieve? What have you noticed? Have you been able to make this easier for your cats? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Read more on grieving in cats:
- Nine Signs of Grief in Cats
- 5 Ways to Help a Cat Grieve the Loss of a Feline Friend
- Losing a Litter of Kittens: Do Mother Cats Grieve?
About Catherine Holm: Told that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books, and the author of a short story collection about people and place. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots from the city.