It's OK to cry, it's not 'just a cat'

Posted: Friday, September 05, 2008

A cat is a very small creature, but when your cat dies, there is a big empty spot in your life.

It's important to express and grieve that loss, not tamp down your feelings because "it was just a pet." That is denying the reality of a very special relationship. Grieving can strengthen and enrich your life - and help you heal.

Ways of coping with that loss was the topic of a recent conversation I had with a new friend, Debra McBride. Debbie helped lead a support group that Hospice and Home Care of Juneau offered for people who had lost pets.

She once went to a 40-day party for a cat. "Fortunately," she said, "this cat had liked people food." The event featured human food that the cat liked.

That prompted me to confess that I'd started crying at Foodland not long after the death of my dear, old Clementine. What prompted the tears was a display of Tillamook cheese, which she'd loved.

Debbie and I concurred on the importance of sharing your feelings with people who understand. That, she explained, was one of the benefits of the support group, where participants showed photos and told stories about their pets.

Talking with friends helps. So does journaling or writing about your cat. One couple of Debbie's acquaintance posted on the refrigerator a list of things that they had learned from their pet. They kept adding to the list as things came to them.

I've been thinking of making a list of the funny and quirky things Clem did.

Another activity that helps is making a "memory box," in which to keep special photos and things that belonged to your cat, such as her collar and favorite toys.

Ceremonies help, too. You might invite special friends to join you for an evening devoted to sharing memories of your cat or celebrating the special bond between people and pets.

I had note cards made with a favorite photo of Clementine. I sent them to family members and friends who live at a distance, just letting them know that she had died peacefully after more than 18 years. I didn't want to blubber over the phone, but I wanted them to know, and I got back some very thoughtful notes and e-mails.

It's healthy to cry (even in the grocery aisle) and give yourself permission to grieve, thereby validating your loss.

When her old cat was dying, Debbie whispered, "It's OK to go, baby." I said much the same to Clementine. Our much-loved pets are so attuned to us that I think they sense the reassurance that it is alright with us for them to let go,

Debbie and her partner buried her cat in the yard and planted a tree on the spot. I like the thought that the pet is contributing to ongoing life, and a tree prevents digging by animals or future residents.

For those who haven't a yard or whose pet dies when the ground is frozen, the option of cremation may be just right. Bridge Veterinary Services here in Juneau offers pet cremation. You could scatter the ashes in some of your cat's favorite spots.

One of my dearest friends plans to keep her cat's ashes until she dies and then have them mingled and scattered with her own.

Especially hard for people to deal with is the disappearance of their cat. "When you don't know what happened, conjure up good endings," Debbie suggests. "Instead of worrying about the worst things that could have happened, visualize the best."

And if a friend or co-worker is grieving the loss of a pet, acknowledge that person's loss by sending a card or a simple note. It helps to know that others know and care.

One of the kindest things anyone ever did for me occurred years ago when I went in to work and mentioned that my cat had died. My boss, who wasn't a cat person and never has been described as the sensitive kind, kindly but firmly sent me home.

"It's what we do here when there is a death in the family," he said. He understood.

• Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She's a believer in spaying and neutering to reduce the number of homeless cats. She can be contacted at lindadaniel@gci.net.



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