How To Handle the Loss of a Cat

  • Author:

  • Losing your cat is one of the most painful things you will ever experience. We love them and make them a part of our family. We never want to think of them as… leaving. But death is an inevitable part of life, even if we don’t want to think about it.

    Sometimes it’s a slow decline over a period of days or weeks or sudden. However, it never feels like we have enough time. In October 2020, I adopted an orange cat named Apollo; he was two months old. Just after Christmas 2020, he started showing symptoms of being sick. During an emergency vet trip, he was diagnosed with Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), which is fatal. He was put to sleep at four months old.

    I tried to hold back the tears until I got to my car, but one sympathetic look from the secretary later, I was done. It was impossible to hold back.

    What should I do if I can’t stop crying?

    Your pet dying will elicit emotions you didn’t know you had. I am usually a stoic person, but putting my cat down was the end. I cried endlessly, with no way to stop it. Over time, I could develop a method to help myself and others. It won’t end the grief, but it may make it bearable to continue about your life.

    Feel the emotions

    The best thing to do during this time is to let yourself feel the emotions coming through you. Even when it seems like you shouldn’t have anything left to cry, it keeps coming. Some people try to hold back their feelings, but this is the opposite of what you should do.

    Live the emotions. Give into them and let yourself remember. It’s okay to be sad. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. You’ve lost a vital member of your family. You deserve to let yourself feel however you feel.

    If you don’t feel sad, that’s okay! Grief is not a singular process. We all process death differently. Someone may be angry or disappointed at first. The big thing is to let yourself feel however you need to feel in the moment.

    Remember

    People will try to bury the memories or avoid bringing up the topic because they don’t want to make themselves or you sad. If that’s what you want to do, go for it. However, it’s best to let yourself remember. You will honor your pet’s memory by talking about them with friends and family.

    The hardest part of my journey was having to tell my friends and family that my cat died. People are naturally curious and will want to know what happened. But don’t make these conversations just about the circumstances. Use the time to speak to your family and friends about your pet and the happy memories. We would joke about how my cat would constantly try to attack a nail hole in the wall because he thought it was a bug. It hurt to remember, but it made me happy too.

    Journal

    If you’re not the type of person to share your feelings with others, that’s okay. Journaling may be a method you could benefit from. This is a judgement free place to share your thoughts and feelings on their death. In the future, you can reread it to remind yourself how much you loved them. You can write the happy and sad memories, as sometimes we forget things as time goes on. I am glad I wrote in my journal during this time. Memory lane can be saddening, but we must honor theirs. You could even create an electronic journal with photos and videos included within the journal entries. When Apollo came home, I took a video of him wrestling with Burr. I almost deleted it because it was fuzzy, but I didn’t. Today, I feel grateful, as it’s one of the few videos I have of him.

    Celebrate life

    There are multiple ways you can celebrate the life of your pet. Some people like to hold a memorial service to share stories and laughter with your close ones. You could celebrate your pet’s life by volunteering with rescue pet groups or the animal shelter. However, some prefer not to do this as it’s too close to home. In that case, you could donate money to the animal shelter in your pet’s honor.

    One of the most important parts of the grieving process is to have a proper goodbye. Some people don’t want to be in the room when their cat dies, but it allows for closure for both of you.

    There are people out there who create jewelry from one of your cat’s teeth. Others keep hair or whiskers on an altar at home. Vets sometimes offer noseprints or footprints from your pets. I have known multiple people who have gotten tattoos to honor their loss family member.

    Active

    It’s tempting to stay at home and do nothing, allow ourselves to wallow in the grief. To let it take us over. It’s good to let yourself feel your emotions, but not to let them overwhelm you. There is a balance. A large part of that balance is to stay active.

    Go to the things your friends invite you to. Continue to work and live and flourish. Your cat would not want you to stop living life and enjoying it. Staying active is hard sometimes, but it’s a necessity.

    Seek professional help

    If you’re concerned regarding the amount or length of grief you’re experiencing, you can seek the help of a counselor or therapist. These services are common to seek after the death of a loved one, as they help give us reach our own version of closure. Therapists have tips and tricks to help us continue living after a loss, and how to best live our life.

    What happens when my cat dies?

    Often when your cat passes away inside a vet’s office, they will discuss options for burial with you. With my cat, we discussed options before he was given the infection since many people are too upset afterwards to deal with it.

    The first decision is burial or cremation. With burial, you can choose between a burial at home or at a pet cemetery. Some pet cemeteries have places to visit. However, it’s recommended you check local laws if you plan to bury at home. With cremation, you can choose between individual or communal. Communal cremations have multiple animals or pets inside and don’t allow you to get the ashes. Individual is more costly but you can receive the ashes. Private cremation costs between $150-$300, but it depends on the size and weight of your cat. Additionally, vet offices may offer decorative urns or boxes to have the ashes returned in. With my cat, I went with communal cremation, but purchased an imprint of his paw.

    Once you’re decided on the ultimate resting place, you may have to return to the vet’s office to retrieve the ashes. Honestly, this was one of the hardest moments for me. Having to come back to the place I lost him to get his paw imprint was not a good day. Some vets offices make it easier by offering to bring it to your car. If you’re worried about this, it might be a good idea to inquire.

    How long does grief last when you lose a pet?

    There isn’t one answer to how long grief is supposed to last. Grieving is a natural response to losing a family member. The symptoms of acute grief can last one to two months, but can persist much longer. Grief doesn’t go away completely. Rather, it eases slowly. Additionally, it comes in waves when something reminds you of your pet.

    There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. It was thought for a long time that grief follows this process exactly. However, we have learned since that people can experience these emotions in any order and may double back. You may even skip a few.

    For me, I experienced denial first. When sitting in the car after hearing the news, I told myself the vet was wrong. Afterwards, I was angry. Angry that I hadn’t paid enough attention and that I could’ve done more to help him, even if it was a fatal disease. Your emotions during this time aren’t reasonable and that’s okay!

    If you’re crying, you may be in the depression stage. It’s one of the longest for many people because there are a lot of emotions and feelings to process.

    Why is it so hard to lose a pet?

    Losing a cat doesn’t just mean you’re losing a pet. You are losing a family member and a source of unconditional love. Pets can represent security and comfort. It’s a life-changing event and can be just as hard as losing a human friend. Honestly, it hurts so much because we love them.

    How do I help my kids understand?

    If you have kids, it’s a hard conversation and process to help them understand the passing of a pet.

    Toddlers and babies don’t understand death, but will react to what you are experiencing. Keep routines intact if you can. Routines help your children during difficult times.

    Preschoolers will see the death as something temporary. They may ask when the pet is coming back or where they have gone. This concept comes from cartoons where characters die and come back to life in the same episode. Don’t use euphemisms; be direct. Children at this age are concrete thinkers.

    School-aged children can understand death as permanent. You should be honest with your children about the situation and what happens next. At this age, you could involve them in goodbyes or memorials to help them cope. With death for school-aged children, your child may be more clingy or desperate than normal because it can present the idea they can lose their parents. Your reactions will inform theirs.

    With teens, they understand death the same ways adults do. However, they may not reveal their emotions. Their abstract thoughts may mean they question the meaning of life or other large questions. Teens can experience guilt or anger over their lack of control in the situation. To help teens, have open and honest conversations, but don’t force it.

    Does my cat know I loved them?

    Yes, cats know we love them. It’s easy to doubt during this time, but if you gave your cat love, they knew it.

    How do I get my other pets to understand?

    If your pet doesn’t see or smell the body, they won’t know the pet has died. They know the cat is missing. Their reaction to the disappearance or death will vary based on their relationship with the cat. Those who were close with the pet may exhibit signs of grief similar to yours. Those weren’t close could be indifferent.

    When is the right time to get another pet?

    Getting another pet is a rough question to consider. At the core, it’s a personal question. Some people wish to honor their pets by adopting another. Others cannot stand the thought for months or even years. Whatever you do, don’t rush the process. I know the house feels empty and strange. But you should let yourself process your loss before considering another pet during a hard time.

    Author

    • Elizabeth is an animal lover who is owned by three cats: Vivan, Burr, and Puck. Her passion for writing started in the 9th grade when she began writing her novel. She hasn't stopped since.