I remember once hearing a story from a friend, and it stuck with me for years. She had gone to a support group for grief, but it was her cat who had died, not another human. My friend had been very close to this cat, and was really hurting after losing him. She told me that she felt sheepish about going to the group and admitting that she was grieving a beloved cat and not another person.
As it turned out (thankfully), the group was completely supportive and did not belittle or minimize her grief. But it made me wonder why we are ashamed of such a common human emotion. It also made me wonder why some have a hard time understanding the depth of this grief. It’s not any less for some of us just because it happens to pertain to an animal rather than a human.
My unsubstantiated theory is that we humans have a hard enough time with grief. Perhaps some of us would like as little to do with it as possible, and I certainly understand that sentiment. Grief is hard work, and it can knock you sideways or down completely. I’m no grief expert, although I’ve had my share of losses (and I imagine many of you can say the same). But I wondered what those who work in the grief-related professions would have to say about this, so I asked some of them.
According to Mary St Onge, grief workshop facilitator, yoga therapist, and cat lover, the loss of anyone or anything that is precious to us brings about the same emotions that all loss and grief evokes. After our initial shock, grief can initiate a path of confusion, fear, and intense sadness.
When the loss is the death of a beloved cat, it is tempting to minimize our own experience of suffering. We, or others, may compare our situations to those who have lost a human companion or their homes or livelihoods. We may then feel that we don’t have the right to feel intense grief because at least it wasn’t a child who died or at least we still have a roof over our head.
Compassion for other people’s situations that may appear more dire than ours is a way to keep our struggles in perspective, but St Onge says that “we must not disregard our own pain. This can lead to denial and repression and ultimately numbness.” St Onge says that repressed grief can results in low energy, increased physical pain, and altered sleep patterns.
Fully experiencing our own hurt is not only necessary for our physical well-being but also our spiritual well-being. “If we reject our emotions because we think our experiences are not dramatic or important enough, we are missing out on our own humanity.” Accepting our emotions and feeling them fully connects us to all human beings and all human suffering. Then, says St Onge, “our hearts can resonate with understanding and compassion for all.”
Nothing stings like the dreaded, insensitive comment, “It’s just a cat!” When I hear this (and it’s been a while), I try not to give it my attention or energy. I know there are people for whom the human-animal bond is different than it is for me. Truly, if they’re not being cruel to animals, I guess I’m okay with the fact that they don’t understand my connection to my cats. I try not to let it bother me. If I’m going through grief, I’m going through enough stuff and I don’t need to add extra baggage or angst. In a pinch, I try to remember to breathe! That always calms me down.
Here’s an interesting and well-written Washington Post article in which an author ponders the question (and brings in research) of why a pet’s death might, in some cases, hurt more than a relative’s death.
I took the death of my first cat very hard. (Many cats later, it’s still hard, but that first one was a milestone.) At the time, one of my parents told me that it was “time to move on.” At the time, I probably let my feeling about that comment get the best of me. I felt that it was very insensitive. But looking back now, I believe the parent was simply concerned about me and worried that I would never climb out of the grief. Any good parent would probably have such worries. I also know that this parent was never the type of “feeler” that I am, and that they probably couldn’t come close to understanding what I was going through.
Lesson here: Seek support from those who will understand. They are out there, and hopefully, they exist within your circles.
As I’ve repeatedly said goodbye to beloved animals (and people) in my life, I’ve learned that there’s no predicting the process of grief. It can be different each time. I have learned that I need to honor it. If I stuff it or try to rush it, or not feel it, it will come back with a whammy. Some grieving periods are faster than others. All are different, just as the bond we have with each cat, human, or being is different.
It’s not that I want to stay in grief forever. Who does? But I have also learned that grief must be felt, or it will make itself felt. You must go through the process, one way or another, or the process will go through you. And there’s not predicting its path. Grief is a great teacher about life. Go with its flow, honor yourself and the grief, take care of yourself, and move on when you’re ready (you determine that; not someone else). Process it as you need to. One thing I have done in the past, because I am a word person, is to write a love letter to my cat. I’ve also honored my cat out loud, by myself, by speaking to them as if I was telling the story of their life. These things worked for me in helping me get through grief. You will know what works for you.
I’m not sure I’ll ever go to a grief support group — I’m a private sort of griever and would rather talk one on one to a trusted friend — but my friend’s story stuck with me. I hope there are support groups out there that would recognize, support, and affirm the grief that comes with letting go of a beloved cat companion.
Have you been supported (or not), when you’ve grieved a loved cat or animal? Have you gone to a support group? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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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 (cat fantasy novel out June 1), 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.