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What My Cats Have Taught Me About Death and Grieving

I recently talked to a woman about her son dying, and I found myself digging from my well of experience in grief with the passing of my kitties.

 |  Jun 27th 2014  |   3 Contributions


I had an interesting experience the other day. I was talking to a woman I'd just met, the kind of person who doesn't make small talk but gets right to the deep stuff. She mentioned that her son was dying. It brought me up short at first, but I found myself digging from my well of experience in grief. I have lost a parent, but the biggest part of grief and loss in my life (and the source of many huge lessons) has been when I've helped many of my beloved cats pass on.

I was conscious of my response, which I think was careful and respectful. Having experienced the loss of a pet and having been through the letting go process many times now, I was aware that my response was different, and hopefully more educated, than it may have been in the past.

I have heard parents say that their children are their greatest teachers. I don't have children, but I believe that my cats and dogs have taught me some beautiful lessons. This was the first time I was consciously aware of bringing those lessons into a discussion about death, dying, and letting go.

Norton and Zorro relax together in a window, reminding me to enjoy the present.

How I helped

Here's what I found myself doing during this conversation with a lady. I believe my experience with my cats shaped how I responded:

I found myself listening, and deliberately using body language that would encourage her to share if she wished.

I didn't try to brush off the topic or act afraid of it. I'm probably less afraid of talking about it than I was once, and I do understand that sometimes a person going through this just needs someone to listen.

I didn't pry, but I tried to let her know that I was willing to listen if she needed to talk about it.

It's something that we all go through -- the loss of a loved one, furry or not. As l listened to her story, I remember thinking -- "I've been in her place; I know somewhat how it feels to go through this." We can never exactly know how another experiences grief, but I think we can do our best to be understanding.

I consciously told myself, "This is her experience, not yours." She may experience it different than you would. Don't diminish it, don't sanctify it -- just listen and do your best to offer support without an agenda. Just offer kind and freely given support.

We move through stuff in our own way

I recall going through the death of my first cat. I was devastated, having never been through such a loss before. Tigger was such a beautiful and stunning cat, inside and out, that I simply could not comprehend how an ugly disease like cancer could exist alongside this beautiful cat. Three days after her death, I remember being stunned and hurt when a relative told me that it was time to "move on." I know that this relative was concerned about me and afraid for the grief that I had to go through. But one thing I've learned is that we have to go through this our own way. Our fear or expectations for another's grief really make no difference, and can even potentially make the situation more hurtful for the grieving person. 

My friend painted this beautiful mandala of Tigger for me, after Tigger passed.

Years ago, after leaving a bad relationship, I went to an amazing support group for women, run by a fantastic organization. One of the "sayings" that the organization had was that "every woman has her own time." It's so simple, but I've never forgotten it. We HAVE to move through stuff in our own way (including the loss of our loved cats or pets), and we need to respect that others will move through this differently than we might. My cats have taught me this.

Every letting go is a little different

As I continued to listen to this woman's story, I remembered the passing of many cats. Every time we go through this, it's like a new path through new territory. It's not that it gets easier, or harder, it's just that it continues to be different. I was reminded of that as I listened to my new friend. It helped me not force an agenda of mine on her -- this process is never the same, and it makes no sense to tell someone that it's going to play out a certain way, or that you need to be ready to "move on" at a certain time.

If someone is talking about death and they mention that their faith is helping them through it, I keep my mouth shut. Faith, grief, and letting go are very personal experiences. I just try to be there and be supportive, without an agenda. Again, I recall statements that I may have made when facing a cat's passing, statements that may have been "woo woo" or bizarre to some. I appreciated the friends who listened with support and without judgement. That was what I needed.

Funny Norton is a good teacher, too, even though he's young.

With cats, the situation is further complicated by the necessity, sometimes, to factor possible euthanasia into the situation. Is it time? Is it not yet time? What does the cat want? Why was the death of one cat harder than that of another? Does that mean that I loved one cat more than the other? No -- it simply means that each relationship is different, and each process of letting go is also different.

To put a positive spin on this, think of it as a grand adventure. It's not pretty and not fun, but there's great potential for huge learning and deep love during this transition time. The process of letting go is as significant as the process of birth.

All these things came up for me as I listened to my new friend talk about her dying grown child. I think I provided good support; I have my cat teachers to thank for much of that. If there can be a good thing that comes from letting a loved one go, maybe it's what we learn about ourselves and our ability to be better.

Has the process of letting go of a loved cat helped you in your interactions with humans? Were you aware of it? Tell us your experiences in the comments!

More by Catherine Holm:

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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.

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