Animal companion grief
June 15, 2007 2:08 PM   Subscribe

What steps do you take to grieve companion animals?

I thought I knew the answers to this, but I am overwhelmed. I had three cats; two of the three have had lyphoma. One was diagnosed last August, and had been in partial remission after a course of chemo--he had 9 good months. But, the cancer came out of remission the same week that my oldest cat was diagnosed.

I chose to do chemo with them, since lymphoma in cats can be controlled. For over six weeks, they were a seond fulltime job. I am not complaining. They were two of the sweetest, most loving cats that I've ever known, and were always worth the effort.

I made a decision, and made clear to my vet, that I would do all I could to bring them back to health as long as they could recover and were not suffering. One passed that threshold last week, and the other this morning. To lose both of them so close together is crippling me.

I have the first's ashes from cremation, and will also have the second's. I have never had pet ashes before, and loving ideas as what to do with them are welcome.

What I really need is ways to grieve. I am so very tired of people saying, "It's just a cat."

I have already made a donation to the society where one was adopted.

I have one very sweet gregarious cat remaining, and I want to keep him comfortable as well. It is too soon for me to get another cat, but I will if he shows signs of suffering for companionship. Ideas to keep him happy are welcome. He has been on my lap though the long time it took me to type this.

Please help, and please be gentle.
posted by vers to Pets & Animals (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I am so very tired of people saying, "It's just a cat."

I think it might help to be around better sorts of people for a while.
posted by kmennie at 2:17 PM on June 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Sorry if that came off as brusque. I really do think talking to people who 'get' cats would help; that crap can't be making you feel anything but worse.

I'm very sorry about your kitties.

posted by kmennie at 2:25 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: There have been a couple of threads on this. My idea - a shrine. It helps with the grieving process. Put it away (or downsize it) when you come out of the grieving. In the shrine I put my dog's ashes, my favorite photos of him, his collar and tags. I also shared the news with friends who knew my dog - reading their kind, compassionate responses helped a lot and I saved them to read over and over.

So sorry!
posted by HeyAllie at 2:28 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: First, I am so sorry for the terrible loss you must be feeling. I lost one of my 2 cats a few months ago, he was a dear sweet pet and companion, and his death was very painful for me; so having to face that twice in so short a time must be incredibly hard to bear.

As far as what to do with the ashes, I have a couple of ideas about what I was going to do with my cat's ashes, so I'll pass them along to you. First, he was not an outdoor cat but when my parents would take care of both my cats when I was out of town for any stretch of time, he loved to hang out under a certain tree on their screened-in lanai (this is in Florida). So I was thinking I would spread some, but not all, of his ashes there because that was a happy place for him. If either or both of your cats had a happy outside place, that might be a good place to sprinkle some. Also, I was going to take what remained of the ashes and seal them into a container. I have not decided what yet, it has to be just right. Then I would keep that container near a picture of him. Nobody need know what is inside the container because it would not be a blatantly "THIS-IS-AN-ASH-URN" type of thing, just for me so I can remember him.

It's tough. Hang in there, time will do wonders in helping you heal from this.
posted by contessa at 2:28 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: People that say "it's just a cat" are jerks. You and I know they're so much more than that.

I've lost more than my share of dogs in a short time, so I know the pain. My wife and I went through it together, which probably helped. I'm not sure what specific advice I can give - people grieve in their own ways. I mostly let time do the healing, and eventually got another dog when it felt right.
posted by O9scar at 2:33 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: I am so very sorry for your loss. I too lost one of my cats in November. I know how hard it is. A great website I found the day before I lost my boy was The Cat Site. This thread in the forum is for people grieving and it is so helpful. Since it is a dedicated cat website, every single person there knows what you are going through.

As for ideas: When my boy passed the vet made pawprints in the clay for me. (I know you have ashes, but the symbolism is the same) I got a shadow box and put the clay, his collar, and one of his favorite mouse toys in it. It may be too hard to look at everyday right now, but in time it may help you feel like they are still around.

My cat's companion was alone for about a month. He seemed to be ok, more social than he had ever been, but ok. Just give your last kitty all the love it asks for. He will help you through this.
posted by MayNicholas at 2:50 PM on June 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Have a funeral. Invite your friends over and BBQ a salmon. Make a big altar with your cat friends' photos and mementos. Put some salmon in their dishes on the altar. Wear dark sunglasses and your best black suit. Write a story about the things you loved and will remember about each one, and ask a friend to read it aloud.

Cry, and celebrate your dear companions, and let your friends be of comfort to you. (Except those odious "it's just a cat" people. No salmon for them!)

(Oh, and if you can find fire dancers, definitely invite them to come and spin fire in your back yard. The cat funeral these suggestions are based on had fire dancers, and it was the best funeral I've ever been to, human or feline.)

I'm so sorry for your losses, and wish you the solace of happy memories.
posted by ottereroticist at 2:56 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: When one of my cats died a couple years ago we buried him in the back yard and planted an orange tree over him. I've long ago moved away, but still think of him and his tree.

When we still lived there, the oranges the tree gave each year made us think of him.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 3:09 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: My cat also passed in October, and one of the ways I'm coping with the grief is to try to orient my life in ways he'd approve of -- or be thrilled about.

For instance, he loved toys -- both his own and those owned by his human companions.

So today, I bought a whole mess of tools at the hardware shop. Throughout, I thought about how happy he'd be to see me playing with my new loot. And the pleasure he'd get from inspecting the open boxes and new equipment.

I'm also giving myself more chill time in the evenings. He liked to see me relax and enjoy DVDs.

Each day I think about the type of person -- er, mammal -- he wanted me to be. Somebody who knows the meaning of hard work, hard play, and luxurious, no-holds-barred relaxation.

Of course, this might not be doable at your stage of grief. If I had to do it over again, I might consider therapy or anti-depression meds.

I can't recommend this route, not having experienced either, but maybe another Mefi'er might weigh in on their usefulness for severe grieving.
posted by Gordion Knott at 3:47 PM on June 15, 2007 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I'm so sorry for your loss. In the past, I've channeled grief into creative projects inspired by my memories of the deceased, whether human or animal. You could do this in whatever medium you prefer--music, painting, sculpture, poetry, prose.

As for the ashes, you could incorporate them into such a project, or perhaps you could scatter them somewhere peaceful where you could go to contemplate your fond memories.
posted by fermion at 3:49 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: One of my cats was recently diagnosed with cardiac myopathy, so as morbid as it sounds, I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do with his ashes when the time comes. The best idea I've come up with is to get a kit for one of those garden stones. You can get the kits at craft stores. You pour some kind of cement-looking material into a mold and decorate it and once it dries you have a stone. I figured I'd mix the cat's ashes in and put it out in the garden. I could also take it with me when I move.

As for moving on...honestly, the best and only thing that's gotten me over a pet's death is getting a new pet. I know you say it's too soon, and I've said that each time I've gotten a new pet, but knowing that I've given an animal a loving home always comforts me. Also, the energy a new pet takes distracts me from my grief. So maybe you should consider a new pet.

Oh, and ignore those "it's just a cat" people. They have no clue.
posted by christinetheslp at 3:52 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: The people saying "it's just a cat" aren't just being jerks; they're damaging your greiving process. Nobody would ever say "it's just a baby" or "it's just your brother." You should feel absolutely no need to be polite to these people, because there's absolutely no excuse for not knowing better.

It's very important that you surround yourself with people who understand the important roles pets play in our lives. You need affirmation from your friends; greiving is a tiring enough process without having to spend time being pissed off at people who minimize your loss. You need to focus on you, and you need to be around friends who will let you do that.

Greiving is one of the few times in our lives when we're permitted to be absolutely and completely focused inward; it's just what you have to do. Take some time for you, and remember the love you shared with your departed friends.

I wish you well. This is never an easy process.
posted by hifiparasol at 3:59 PM on June 15, 2007 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm so very sorry for your loss. Losing a pet is so hard. I think I've mentioned some of this in earlier threads so pardon the repeat, but here's what I did when a beloved dog and cat passed a few years back. Perhaps this will give you an idea of what you want to do - what will help you grieve. You will know what is right for you.

My partner and I took our dog's ashes to a nearby beach and spread them on the sand so the wind could gently pick them up and the water from the ocean would gently pull them away. I really liked that this was a place where air and water met. We liked thinking of Hannah as now being part of the ocean and the air around us. I put some daisies around her ashes so as the water lapped it picked up the flowers as well as the ashes. They looked lovely slowly floating away. Now when I visit that ocean I fondly think of her. Every once in a while I take a daisy and watch it float off into the water.

The cat we had loved to get dirty. When he died we buried his body in the backyard that he loved with nothing on him but the dirt that he used to get into. I planted a bush that has white blooms on it - he was a white cat.

When I think of them I sometimes light a candle near an area of the house where they liked to sleep. I imagine that the flicker of light is their spirit, hanging around the house a little bit, comforting me, saying hi, sleeping nearby.

People that don't understand this grief are very upsetting. Try not to listen to them. Best wishes finding the way to grieve that works best for you and your family of cats. Again I am so sorry for your loss.
posted by dog food sugar at 4:09 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: Keep a journal, write down how you're feeling, write down everything you think about your cats. I did this when my favourite cat ever had kidney failure, and when I read it now, even though a lot of it is terribly sad, there are also a lot of happy, funny stories, and quite a lot of little details which I would have forgotten if I hadn't written them down, and it also really helped me to figure out what was going on with my emotions without feeling like I had to explain a lot (as happens with the "just a cat" people you've encountered).

These weren't "just cats" to you, and people who say that aren't helping. I agree that you need to find a circle of people who understand how important animals can be (maybe look online), or you need to be more vague with those less close to you (it's perfectly reasonable and true to say that you lost someone very dear to you recently). Get a nice urn for the ashes (they even make ones which don't look like urns, or you can get ones made to look like the animal if that works for you), you may find you don't need them after a while, but I know it can be a comfort to have them. I'm so sorry, even when you know it's coming, it's still so sad when it happens.
posted by biscotti at 4:17 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: I'm very sorry for your loss; our cats are like children to my wife and myself, and I know a lot of people that feel the same way, so you are certainly not alone.

When we recently lost the first of two cats, my wife and I kept a candle next to her picture, and we lit it every night for a few weeks. Her urn is now next to that picture, along with the first toy we ever gave her.

When we found out six months later that our other cat had cancer, we bought one of those kits that will let you keep their pawprint in clay (man, was THAT an ordeal!). And once he passed, we did the same with the candle next to his picture and pawprint. The kitty memorial still ocupies a prime shelf in our living room.

It's been over a year since we let them go, and it still hurts. But we've adopted two more of the greatest cats you could ever imagine, and that has helped us heal more than anything else.
posted by malocchio at 4:24 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: I can sympathize; we lost a cat in March. She'd been sick for all of a month, so we didn't have as much time to acclimatize. We didn't keep the ashes. Somehow we managed: her illness was so much of an ordeal -- for her as much as for us -- that her death brought on a sense of closure. Finality. If not exactly relief.

I can't offer any advice on what to do; having a shrine strikes me as a little weird. All we really did was blog the event; maybe giving our cat an online eulogy was cathartic. We haven't looked back much. Time heals.

It's a truth we often forget: unless we keep parrots, alligators or turtles, we will usually outlive our pets. If you always have a cat in the house, you will go through at least four or five of them in your lifetime. They will die from something -- if not cancer, then renal failure or traffic accident -- but they will die and you will have to deal with it somehow.

Chalk it up, grimly, through gritted teeth, as another fucking opportunity for growth.
posted by mcwetboy at 5:08 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: Just cats? WTF? I can't think of anything more deranged to say to someone grieving.

Both of my dogs - my best friends for over fifteen years - died a few months back. The grief was crippling, but in time I was able to transform it a bit. This is different for everyone, of course, but it worked for me like this -

- I'd wake up in the morning and be alright until I remembered that I would never, ever see my dogs again. I would cry until I doubled over. After a few days of this, I started talking to them like I used to when we'd go for walks and swims. I talked to them like I was on the porch petting them, not sobbing on the floor. This helped me remember that, when they were alive, I seldom got a chance to mope. If they got me getting emo on them, it was probably time to throw the stick again.

No single thing got me back to Okay by itself. I tried to think of all the good times we shared, how much joy this pair of retrievers brought into my life. I tried to picture how they would act were they in the room with me. I never stopped talking to them.

I didn't stop crying either, but my grief could not long withstand their memory. Just picturing all the goofy, wonderful stuff they used to do made me laugh and sob at the same time. After while, it was just laughter. Even in death, my dogs would not abide moping.

I'm so, so sorry for your loss - the only concrete advice I have is to focus on your good memories as much as you're able - if these cats grew up together, then I'll bet you've got some hilarious stories about how they used to chase and wrestle and get each other into mischief. Don't try to rush your mourning to any conclusion - it will come in it's own time, no matter what you do.

Best wishes.
posted by EatTheWeek at 5:19 PM on June 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm so very sorry for your loss. People who can't understand it are being inconsiderate and you should ignore them completely.

I just cried for a very long time when I lost my childhood cat and again when I lost my first horse. I still kind of tear up when I try to talk about them - so be prepared for that - and mine died about 10 years ago. It's one of those things that never goes away. I do have to join the chorus though, on getting a new kitty if you can - one of the things one misses most about one's pets is their ability to fill up a house with life. When our boy died, we brought another cat in so much faster than we thought we would, just because the house was so empty without a cat. Sometimes that emptiness can become more painful than almost anything else.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:46 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: my Flower's ashes are on the mantle, along with her pawprint in clay. i took a day off work to sit at home and cry. it helped to have her brother still around (she only made it to 15, but he's 16 and still spry). i told my boyfriend a bunch of cute stories about her. and then i thought about how she is better off now, because she was suffering before, and that makes me feel better. the other day at the pet store i saw a kitten that looked just like Flower, and got misty, and that's ok. it's because i have so many happy memories. ( and she wasn't just a cat, darn it, i got her and her brother for my 10th birthday, and had her until i was 25. we grew up together. she would sleep by me at night if i was crying from a bad day at school, or having trouble with boyfriends...)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:07 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: As for moving on...honestly, the best and only thing that's gotten me over a pet's death is getting a new pet. I know you say it's too soon, and I've said that each time I've gotten a new pet, but knowing that I've given an animal a loving home always comforts me. Also, the energy a new pet takes distracts me from my grief. So maybe you should consider a new pet.

I totally agree with this, I have lost 4 wonderful cats and 4 wonderful dogs over the years. I grieve totally for a bit and I never forget any of them but the best thing is to know you can save a new life, some puppy or kitten who otherwise would never have a loving home. Let the pet love grow and you will feel better. So sad for your loss.
posted by cellar at 7:16 PM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I had a good family friend, a psychologist, who specialized in the grieving process surrounding a pet death. He wrote a book, here, that I haven't read but have been told is very good and is written for those who are grieving a recent pet death.
I hope I don't get called out for a semi-self link, but he was considered a leader in the field while he was active. Unfortunately, we had to mourn him last year. : (

I wish you the best through this process. My kitty is getting too old, and I'm not sure what I'll do when she goes.
posted by ohio at 9:28 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: About 17 years ago, when my (now) wife and I first moved in together while in University, we got a cat. He was awesome; agressive and weird but so friendly, scratched the spines of all my record albums, peed all over stuff...he drove me crazy but he loved us so much that it was forgiven.
2 years later my wife brought another kitten home with our roommate at the time, and I never hit it off with this cat. She was kind of bitchy to me, only hung around the roommate (who didn't have a job at the time and was constantly lying on our couch in her pyjamas, so I probably transferred some hate to the cat...the cat would lick her face for extended periods of time and it kind of grossed me out.) Nevertheless, the two cats were friends.
Fast forward to this past December and we're married now with 3 kids and during the day, the male cat starts acting weird and then very, very rapidly declines and dies very quickly in my arms while the kids are having piano lessons, it was all very fast and really traumatic, all three kids are crying, we got them to come and say goodbye, our 9-year old is just wailing. Really awful.
So about 2 hours after something seemed wrong with him, we're digging a hole in the backyard on a cold December evening and having a family funeral. Our 7 year-old daughter ran to get a tiny blanket from her dolls and put it in the hole so he wouldn't be cold.
And it was weird for a few days after, I would start sobbing in the bathtub or whatever, and didn't really tell anyone because of the "just a cat" thing.
It's gotten easier, now we joke about all the crazy things he did, like going to a Chinese restaurant everyday (even getting locked inside it one night as we discovered when we couldn't find him and stood on the street looking in the restaurant window as he meowed at us), or him coming home smelling like perfume.
The bitchy remaining cat was freaked out for a while, and I guess out of habit or sadness I was more affectionate toward her and continue to be...she's still an odd one, though. The funny thing is that the male cat was totally the alpha male, king of the neighbourhood kind of cat, and defended our high-cat-traffic backyard with vigour. Soon after his death, we noticed that so many cats began coming out of the woodwork, daring to enter our backyard, come up our steps and even (twice) come in our's like they knew he was gone.

But just last week I heard a familiar sound, the low groan of the male cat fending off an unwanted intruder, but this time it was coming out of the small female cat. She's either flipped out or is taking up his role.

Don't know if this answered anything, but it kind of felt good to tell it.
posted by chococat at 10:41 PM on June 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am sorry to hear about your loss. I work for an organization that funds veterinary research. We receive many donations as memorials from people in memory of their loved pets...and believe me that we are all animal lovers and understand the sentiment. Just an idea, but we fund researchers working on understanding cancer in cats and dogs and other animals. It might make you feel better to know that there are individuals whose lives are dedicated to ending this disease.
posted by fieldtrip at 11:24 PM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've gone through this several times myself and there's no easy way through it. Know that you did the best you could for your cats and that they had a good life.

After the last of my three cats died (aged almost 20) I decided not to get another cat for a while, but he left a cat-shaped hole in my life that only another cat (two, in fact) could fill. I found my new cats at a local rescue centre. Perhaps helping out at a cat shelter might help the grieving process, allowing you to be around - and help - cats who need it, whilst at the same time giving you space to grieve before a new cat chooses you to be his carer.
posted by essexjan at 2:03 AM on June 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm so sorry for your loss. It's so hard to lose one of our friends like this, and when you lose two of them, it's heart-breaking. I'm glad you still have your one kitty to comfort you.

When I lose an animal it helps if I have a photo of them out where I can look at it frequently: by my computer, for example. The loss doesn't seem quite as strong then, and I can look at it as often as I need to. Eventually the need becomes less.

I also make sure I keep their toys nearby. That way I can still feel as though they're not too far away.

I've learned that it's o.k. to think about them a lot; now I don't try to push away the sadness (I, too, know a lot of people who say "it's just a cat" and it's hard to not be indoctrinated with that).

Sometimes working with the loss creatively helps. It doesn't matter if you're not a professional artist or writer or musician or whatever--even drawing stick figures that show how you feel can be useful.

If you like listening to music, you might like to sit with your remaining cat and listen to whatever music you find comforting. Lighting a candle while you do this can be nice.

Definitely write about it. Don't worry about spelling or grammar or punctuation. Just write down all the stories you can think of about the two of them and write about how you felt during their illness and write about how you feel now. Write it over and over again if you feel like saying it over and over again. Eventually you won't feel the need to do so any more, and then that stage of grieving will have passed.

It can be nice to put together a photo album or scrapbook about them. Collect photos of them and if they had favourite toys take photos of them (if you don't already have photos of them) and put these into the album. Maybe write a little biography of each cat: when they were born (if you know it), how they came to live with you, what they liked to eat, what they hated, what games they liked to play, any little quirks they had. Combine the photos and the writing and then reread it as necessary.

Many communities have pet loss support groups; ask at your vet's. You might like to join one of these.

It can be helpful to remind yourself that you gave them a home where they were always well-fed and warm and safe and loved and happy. You cared for them when they were sick. You did everything you could for them. They would have known that.

It can also be helpful to do things in their name: make a donation to your local humane society or vet hospital. I agree that planting a perennial is a good way to remember them. It gives you something concrete to do for them and for yourself now and in the future it will provide you with happy memories.

Whatever you do, don't try to force yourself to "get over it." Your grieving will end slowly and almost imperceptibly whenever it's right for you. One day you'll realise that it doesn't hurt as much to think about them, and even later you'll notice that it doesn't hurt at all, that you just have warm memories of them.

I have mixed feelings about getting another cat now. I've done both--gotten one shortly after and waited for a while. Sometimes it works getting one right away, but sometimes it doesn't: at least once I felt as though I couldn't pay as much attention to the new cat as she deserved because I was still wrapped up in my grief for the one who had died. I also felt as though she were an intruder. I got over that, but I felt bad because of course they can pick up on our feelings. So now I just play it by ear, and what I find works is to not go looking for a cat, but if the universe seems to be sending me one, then I accept it (for example, if someone finds a stray who needs a home).

You might also like to try these two links: Lightning Strike Pet Loss Support and the Pet Loss Support Page.

I hope that some of these answers (my own and the others here, some of which I know I've repeated) are helpful. Best wishes--it's hard, and I'm glad you still have your one kitty to comfort you.
posted by purplesludge at 2:30 AM on June 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your kindness, suggestions and understanding. This is going to be a process, and I appreciate the resources that some of you have pointed me to. The next thing I will do this morning is make and send a thank you card (with a picture of my sweet cats) to my vets--they have been outstanding in their support and professional care.

Sincere thanks--
posted by vers at 3:59 AM on June 16, 2007

Best answer: I've heard that the loss of a pet involves the same stages of grief as the loss of a human loved one. However, you go through the stages faster because there is much less conflict in the relationship. You won't be recalling hateful words spoken in anger, for example.
posted by happyturtle at 4:23 AM on June 16, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you, fieldtrip-- your organization looks to be a perfect place to make a donation in recognition of the excellent vets who helped us.
posted by vers at 4:36 AM on June 16, 2007

Best answer: So truly sorry for your loss.
Many university veterinary departments in the US and Canada (not sure where you're located) offer 24/7 pet loss counseling hotlines. For example:
* The University of Florida
* Washington State University
* UC Davis.
I'd call UC Davis because they have a toll-free number and the others I've found don't: (800) 565-1526. They are staff by veterinary students with grief counseling training who should be able to help you cope with your own emotions and suggest ways to help your surviving kitty.
posted by Jaie at 11:37 AM on June 19, 2007

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