When a friend suffers the loss of a family member such as a parent or a child, you know what is appropriate in our Western culture. You express condolence, send a sympathy card, donate a memorial, bake a casserole, and visit the family. But when that family member is a cat, you may be uncertain as to what to do or what is expected. Our society simply does not have formalized rituals for this kind of loss. These ten considerations can help you navigate unfamiliar territory.
1. Never say “it was just a cat, get over it”—Such a statement compounds the grief of the caregiver and belittles the relationship and connection the two shared. For many people, the loss of a pet is just as painful as dealing with the death of a human. For some, the cat has seen the caregiver through life-altering events such as marriage, divorce, death, promotions, job loss, moves, and more. In essence, the cat was only constant in the caregiver’s life. For others, the cat has played the role of surrogate child or spouse. It was “not just a cat” in the eye of the caregiver.
2. Never suggest “oh, you can get another cat”—Yes, it is true that there are a multitude of cats in local shelters that need a home, and it is not difficult to adopt. However, in the immediate days following the loss, the owner may not be psychologically or physically ready for another cat or may not even want another animal. This statement also diminishes the life of the cat that has passed on. Each cat has its own personality, and a cat cannot simply be replaced with another cat of the same breed and color and expect all to be back to normal in the caregiver’s household. Everyone, including other family members as well as remaining pets, need time to adjust to the gaping hole left in their lives before filling the void with another cat.
3. Avoid giving a kitten as a grief gift--This approach is problematic for the same reasons mentioned under number 2. Many years ago my precious orange marmalade kitten, Taittinger, died suddenly. A few weeks later a friend visited me while on a business trip. She was traveling with a kitten, and it wasn’t long before I realized she expected me to keep the kitten when she left. The orange marmalade kitten was adorable, but I was unable to accept. My friend thought she was doing me a big favor and helping to console me. I know I hurt my friend’s feelings, but the kitten’s arrival was simply too soon for me emotionally. About a year later, I did adopt another kitten when I was ready physically and emotionally. Only the caregiver will know when the time is right to open the heart to a new cat.
4. Send a card—Your friend will appreciate receiving a pet sympathy card. The cards are easily available, and you will find messages for a variety of situations. You can also add a personalized note about your fond memories of the cat. E-cards are acceptable, but my preference is to send a card from a store or to handcraft a card. A traditional card is easily tucked into a pet’s memento box or placed in a scrapbook. I have received many cat sympathy cards in the past three decades, and they are part of the cherished keepsakes for each of my animals.
5. Write a personalized story or poem—If you have a special memory of the caregiver’s cat, I suggest you write the story down. A dear friend of mine knew how much one of my cats, Katarina, loved to laze in a sunny window sill. So she wrote the following poem: “Tribute to Katarina, 1988-2005, Dainty purring presence, Catching sun in the window, Filling my heart with light.” I framed the poem and hung it over Katarina’s favorite window along with a series of photographs of her in the window sill. I so appreciated the original poem and my friend’s love.
6. Make a donation—A donation can be made in memory of the caregiver’s cat. The donation can be to an animal shelter or an animal-related organization that you know the caregiver supports. A favorite cat book can be donated to a local library or a school. You can donate time, towels, or bedding to a local shelter or donate money for a veterinarian scholarship or feline research.
7. Encourage the caregiver to stay home—Companies do not provide pet bereavement leave, but many companies do offer a couple of personal days annually. The loss of a pet can be a legitimate reason to use a day or two to begin coping. If you are a supervisor and have an employee that loses a cat, consider suggesting the employee take the day off. If this is not possible due to company policy or the employee’s desire, you can still be understanding and not expect full productivity.
8. Frame a photo—If you have a picture of the caregiver’s cat, a kind gesture is to get a copy made and place it in a special frame. My brother did this after one of my cats passed away, and I so appreciated his gift. He had walked around my house with camera in hand during a two-week vacation one year and had taken some fabulous shots that I did not even know about. You can never have too many pictures of your pets—especially when they are gone.
9. Offer to do something specific—If you say, “call me if you need something,” chances are you won’t hear anything. However, if you offer to pick up the kids, walk the dog, order takeout food, or dig a grave, your helping hand may be appreciated and accepted. Just hours before my beloved Katarina passed away, a dear colleague called me and offered to pray for us over the phone. A couple hours after she passed away in my arms, another colleague appeared on my doorstep with hot chocolate and a stack of buttermilk pancakes. The hot chocolate and three bites of pancake got me through an excruciating evening. The pancakes were microwaved several times the next day and that is all I remember eating for two days. Later, still another friend volunteered to take Katarina to the veterinarian’s office the next morning for cremation. I accepted these kind offers, but probably would have never asked for them myself. Katarina and I were truly blessed to have had these three compassionate souls helping us in the final hours.
10. Sit and listen—You may not understand what the caregiver is going through. You may not even understand how anyone could be so upset about a cat. But you can still be present. You can sit quietly, listen to stories, and even encourage the stories by saying tell me about the time. There is no need to worry what to say. In truth, there are probably very few words that can be spoken that will really help. But your mere presence and love will make all the difference and will never be forgotten.
If you keep just one of these considerations in mind, your grieving friend will be eternally grateful for your gesture of comfort and support.
Copyright © 2008 Linda A. Mohr
Linda A. Mohr is the award-winning author of Tatianna—Tales and Teachings of My Feline Friend and Catnip Connection blog for Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a professor at Northwood University, and the co-founder of Pet Apothecary. She is a member of Cat Writers’ Association with human-animal bond expertise. Visit http://www.lindamohr.net or http://blog.seattlepi.nwsource.com/catnipconnection