Everyone that loses a cat experiences some degree of grief at their death.
How that grief is expressed will depend upon personality, upbringing, life experiences and numerous other factors. For many, a good cry is a sufficient expression of the loss of a companion that gave lots of pleasure but others may find it much harder to come to terms with their loss. As grief is a very personal thing it is extremely hard to predict exactly how each person will react.
There are several recognised stages of grief that you may experience at the loss of a loved one, even if that loved one is a cat or any other pet animal. You may feel an initial sense of shock and denial when you first realise that your cat is dead. You may experience a distinct inability to concentrate your mind on the concept of death and the fact that you will never see your cat again. The sense of denial can be so strong for some owners that they may keep the body of their cat at home for a prolonged period before being encouraged to make the appropriate arrangements that need to be made when a pet dies.
After this stage of numbness and denial may come an angry phase. This is a period when you may feel tremendous guilt and wonder whether your cat’s death happened through some omission or negligence on your part. “Could I have done more?” or “Should I have spotted the signs sooner?” or “Did I allow my cat to suffer for too long?” are some of the common thoughts that plague the bereaved. After this period some people experience depression and an inability to believe that they can ever feel truly happy again.
There is no set way to grieve – although stages of grief have been recognised and described, not every individual experiences each phase or passes through them in any particular order. As grief is such a personal thing it is difficult to generalise about how it will feel when it happens.
The expression of grief
The manifestation of grief will differ from person to person and any number of physical, emotional, intellectual and social symptoms can be experienced as part of a perfectly normal but painful journey to recovery.
Physical signs may include crying, shortness of breath, tight chest, nausea, loss of or increased appetite, tiredness, dizziness, inability to sleep or disturbed sleep, and general aches and pains.
The emotions experienced range from sadness, guilt and irritability to loneliness, helplessness and even relief, particularly if the cat had suffered at the end. You may experience confusion or an inability to concentrate, or even think you hear the cry of your deceased cat at night. You may need to talk about or rationale the loss and become preoccupied with death and the concept of an after-life. All of these symptoms may feel alarming but are well documented and are part of the process for some.
There are many complicating factors that can exaggerate or prolong grief, for example, you may not have experienced a death previously or received insensitive comments from others who have trivialised the loss. Whatever happens, the advice is to accept that grief is inevitable and to succumb to it. Problems can occur when you don’t allow these feelings to express themselves fully.
A common consequence of all these mixed feelings is withdrawal from contact with others, even family and friends, and a rejection of help when it’s offered. However it is often with support and encouragement from friends and family that people eventually accept their loss and feel ready to get on with the rest of their lives.
Help and support
Many bereaved owners are not fortunate enough to have supportive people around them and find themselves in a position of having to cope with their grief in complete isolation. This is an incredibly difficult task for anyone, no matter how strong, so reaching out for a helping hand at this difficult time would be entirely appropriate. Your veterinary practice or doctor’s surgery should be able to provide you with details of local bereavement support groups. These are run by volunteers who have been trained in helping skills for the bereaved and they will inevitably have been through a similar loss and have an immediate empathy with you. Never be afraid to ask for help.
It is important to look after yourself at this difficult time but accept the need to mourn. When the time is right, that could be weeks, months or years, you may consider sharing your life with another cat, seeing this not as a betrayal but as the ultimate compliment to the memory of the departed.
Paws to Listen – 0800 024 94 94 (Monday – Friday 09.00hrs–17.00hrs GMT)
Paws to Listen is Cats Protection’s free and confidential grief support service.