A Certified Grief Coach Talks About Death and Celebration


Last week, I talked with grief coach and author Wendy Van de Poll about how to manage the grief we experience when we find out that our cat friend is dying. This week, we talk about what happens after that final vet visit.

We always wonder if maybe we waited too long or not long enough before we have a cat euthanized.
Sometimes I wonder whether I waited too long before I had my Dahlia euthanized. She was very sick with cancer.

Speaking personally, when I’ve had cats euthanized, I always wondered whether I did the right thing. Was it too soon? Too late? Was there something else I could have done? I still sometimes wonder whether I waited too long before I had my sweet Dahlia put to sleep. She was clearly suffering, but I wanted to know whether her cancer was treatable. The fact that it’s been five years since she died doesn’t make it any easier.

Wendy acknowledges that it’s a big decision, making the choice to end the life of a creature we love, and it’s a really hard responsibility.

“It’s never too late to apologize if you feel guilty,” Wendy says. “Say ‘I apologize for what I did, but it was the best decision I could make because you were sick.’ On a spiritual level, it shows trust and respect.”

As a way to process guilt you might feel after having your cat euthanized, Wendy recommends writing a letter to her. If you’re not comfortable writing, try speaking into your phone and recording your words.

“Doing something out loud or on paper is extremely helpful,” she says.

It's never easy to know when it's just the right time to let your cat go.
With Siouxsie, I feel the timing was just right. I was able to hear her tell me she was ready and act on that.

As a medium, Wendy has had the chance to communicate with many animals who have passed: “In all the work I do, I have never met a pet that said they are angry because they were euthanized. On a spiritual level, they really appreciate it.”

The early days after your cat has died are usually the hardest. You put her dish away and clean out her litter box, or you find a beloved toy buried in your blankets, and you break down in tears all over again.

Grief is a process, and it can go on for some time. But how long is too long?

“It’s a myth that we need a prescribed time to get over grief,” Wendy says. “Grief never goes away. It’s always there, but it changes. There’s no right way or wrong way or time frame.”

But every time your grief does come up, Wendy recommends viewing it as an opportunity to say “I love you” to your cat.

“If grief does come up, stop, take a breath, and feel it,” she says. “It’s very normal to have grief for a long, long time, and it is going to change. You will develop a new normal.”

Thomas is 16 years old. He has kidney disease, but he's holding his own for now. I'm enjoying every minute I have with him.
Thomas is 16 years old. He has kidney disease, but he’s holding his own for now. I’m enjoying every minute I have with him.

Get to know what normal grief is so that you know the difference between normal and abnormal grief.

“If you become severely depressed or suicidal, that’s not normal grief, so reach out,” says Wendy.

But be careful when you start to look for your support team. When your heart is tender and raw from grief, your might find support where you least expect it. Sometimes your great friends cannot always be there for you, as they may not be able to handle or understand what you’re going through.

“Death is not an easy thing for people, and many people fear it,” Wendy says. “So people might say some really silly things that might trigger grief. They don’t mean it, but it’s still hard to hear things like ‘It’s only a cat’ or ‘Are you still grieving?’”

Consider looking for support in places you’ll find people who “get it” — maybe a pet-loss grief-support group or a pet-loss grief coach.

In my own journey with the grief of losing cats, I’ve found it helpful to do a ritual of remembering and make a shrine to my beloved kitties who have crossed. It’s crucial for me as a way to find closure.

It's important to me to have a way to remember my cats, and this shrine is the way I do it.
I have a special shrine where I keep my departed cats’ collars and pawprints.

“Grief and mourning are different,” Wendy advises. “We have our inward grief feelings, but it’s important to express those externally, and that’s mourning. Write a eulogy. Design a celebration of life. Do a remembrance. Have a special place for memories — ashes, photos, and the like. Do a little celebration on your cat’s birthday. Write a love letter with a picture of your cat and a candle. Any way you can outwardly express the grief and remember your cat with love will help you process your feelings.”

It’s easy to wonder what happens to your cat after she dies. Is she in heaven? Is she happy on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge? Has she reincarnated? Or is there just a great big nothing after your cat dies? What do you do with those questions?

“My first reaction would be to talk to an animal medium, if you believe in the afterlife, and find out if your cat is at peace and what she is doing and what messages she may have for you,” Wendy says. “Many people feel so much better after they talk to their cat in the afterlife. It also gives them a chance to say I love you, I miss you and I am sorry!”

One thing a lot of people don’t think of is that men experience grief at the loss of a pet just as deeply as women do. I asked Wendy if she had anything special to say to men who are coping with the loss of a beloved cat.

Men experience grief as deeply as women do, and they need support and kindness too.
Men feel grief just as deeply as women do, and they need space and support, too. Photo by Aidan Meyer via Unsplash

“Sometimes men feel left out because they may not feel that grief support is available to them,” she says. “They too need to know that their grief is normal and that everyone is on their own unique journey. It’s particularly important to help men feel safe and reassured that they’re not ‘unmanly’ because they’re expressing their feelings.”

To read more of Wendy’s advice on dealing with grief and celebrating your cat’s life, pick up a copy of her book My Cat Has Died: What Do I Do? It’s available through her website and at Amazon.com.

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