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Do Cats’ Shorter Life Spans Teach Us About Our Own Mortality?

I look at death differently now, after years of helping cats pass on. Here's what I've learned.

Catherine Holm  |  Jun 30th 2015


One very common theme we deal with as cat guardians is that, generally, we outlive our beloved friends. That means that a lot of us get to consciously let go of our animals, depending upon the situation.

In the past 25 years or so, I’ve said goodbye to four dogs and seven cats. I’ve also helped two humans pass on; and of course, I have had other people die in my life. Each time is different, and much of it has given me cause to think about my own mortality.

I am in my 50s. I have long-lived relatives on at least one side of the family, and I hope to be around for a long time yet. But as people and loved beings pass from your life, I think you can’t help but be affected.

Does dealing with the shorter lifespan of cats cause us to examine our own mortality? I can safely say it has for me. Here are some of the ways it’s changed me, after many years of helping beings pass on:

1. I like to think I am less afraid

I like to think that all of this has better prepared me for my own death. But life, and death, are unpredictable. I have thought that going through this many times would make it easier, but that’s not necessarily so. All I can say for sure is that each time it is different. Will I be afraid, when my turn comes? I don’t know. I am not religious, but I don’t think I’d derive any security if I suddenly adopted a religion. It’s not the unknown that scares me. I think it’s the letting go that might be hard.

2. I have no control

I definitely have learned this through years of dealing with end of life with cats and humans. At some point in the process, it is going to go as it goes, and there’s no controlling that I can do. This is so basic — but it was a huge learning for me. The process takes its own twists and turns and you simply need to show up, be ready, and do the best you can do.

3. Death is a big deal

Think about it — something (soul, essence, whatever you call it) is leaving a physical body. (And I use these words for my animals, as well.) That’s a big deal. I hope my death is a little bit special. This process could be just as amazing as birth. If I’m well, and it is hopefully a peaceful and pretty pain-free process, I would like it to be sacred and special. I would like to bring honor to the process somehow.

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Cat and kitten by Shutterstock

4. I don’t want to suffer

Who would? Of course, this is tricky, too — what is suffering? I suspect I will clearly know, if the situation arises. Of course, it can be much muddier when it comes to our animals, because they can’t tell us in words. Then, we need to rely on what they are showing us, and any information we have access to about their condition. It still can be hard.

5. Saying goodbye will be tough

I know saying goodbye will be tough. I have a hard time saying goodbye to my cats. I watched my father die. He had a good death, with loved friends surrounding him, and his three kids with him through the process. I saw many loving goodbyes take place in that hospital room. Did my dad seem sad about leaving? I am not sure. Will I handle my goodbyes as gracefully, if I have the chance to say goodbye? I hope so.

On this topic, I have seen some amazing goodbyes as my cats approached their end of life. I have seen them make efforts (sometimes pretty amazing efforts) to say goodbye to me, or my husband, or other special pals in the household. These are things I will never forget.

6. I should do the best I can with my life now

Life is a gift. The shorter life spans of my cats constantly reminds me of that. How can I be the best me I can be? I am trying. As I have often said, that’s another great gift from my cats — I think they make it easy for me to be good. They make life so fun, and they love unconditionally. It certainly would be a different and less full life without them. Life is a great opportunity, no matter where I am or how I am doing. How do I best use this gift?

7. I keep learning about non-attachment

Another big deal. Cats have taught me this in a huge way. Every time someone passes on, I learn all about my desire to remain attached, over and over again. I imagine I’ll face that in life, and in death, if I have a death where I am conscious of letting go.

My cats have taught me a lot about mortality. It has been one of their greatest gifts. What have your cats taught you about life and death? Tell us in the comments.

More by Catherine Holm:

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 Great Purr, 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 two short story collections. 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.