Few things make a person feel more helpless than watching a friend suffer through the loss, or impending loss, of a cherished cat. While there is probably nothing you can do to change the outcome, there are ways you can help your friend work through the grieving process.
What to Expect
It helps if you understand the different stages your friend will likely experience. Usually, the first reaction to discovering about the death or terminal illness of a pet is shock. People feel stunned. The situation seems unreal. They often move on to anger at God, the veterinarian, spouses and even themselves. Feelings of guilt are common during this stage. From there, they move on to denial or bargaining by seeking second opinions and searching for cures to the illness. When that doesn’t work, people experience depression, during which time they feel sad and hopeless. This stage usually lasts the longest. Finally comes acceptance, when they can look back on the good times without falling apart. They may even want another cat. Difficult as these stages are to witness, they are the natural process of grief through which everyone must progress.
While you may feel powerless, there are some things you can do to help grieving friends. Most important — Listen. It can be very difficult for bereaved people to find someone safe, with whom they can share their feelings. Even with training in grief counseling, the simple words, “I’m sorry” and “I know that hurts” assure bereaved people that you hear them.
Avoid the phrase, “I know how you feel,” because this minimizes the loss, according to Cheryl M. Nahas, the psychologist and pet loss bereavement therapist who trains phone personnel at the Tufts University Pet Loss Hotline. Also, now is not the time to talk about the cat that died beneath the wheels of a garbage truck last year.
Nahas also warns against suggesting a replacement pet. “You may be feeling helpless and think this might take their mind off their loss, but it will do the opposite,” she says. Nahas explains that the person may feel guilty about adopting a new pet and resent you for suggesting it.
If your loved one wants a new cat, let her bring it up. At that time, you can provide an adoption gift certificate from a rescue group so your friend can pick the time and pet that’s right for her.
“Don’t comfort grievers with clichés such as, ‘Time will heal,'” Nahas says. “It minimizes their pain, and they’ll be reluctant to share.” Also, it isn’t always true.
What To Do
Offer to drive your friend to the veterinarian’s office for the euthanasia appointment. Alone, this can be the longest drive of her life. Ask your friend what she needs from you. Offer to pick up the cat’s ashes from the vet’s office or to dig the hole if she wants a backyard burial.
Bring your grieving friend something to eat or a care package. Among the items she might appreciate are: a pet sympathy card, can of soup, comfort food, a small wooden box to hold a whisker or some fur, a kitty photo frame, cat jewelry, Bach Flower Essences Rescue Remedy (good for grief and trauma), candles, facial tissues, Forget-Me-Not flower seeds, a wooden box for the cat’s toys or collar and even a stuffed animal.
If you live far away from your friend, there’s a nice selection of pet sympathy cards, both for post and email, that can brighten her day. And don’t forget flower power.
You can also give books and phone numbers of pet support call centers such as the Tufts University Pet Loss Hotline (508-839-7966.) These assure those in mourning that they aren’t alone in their grief.
It may take a while, but with your unconditional support, your friend will eventually work through the grief. And hopefully, when the time is right, she will open her heart to another feline friend.
Dusty Rainbolt is an award-winning freelance writer and member of the Cat Writers’ Association. She lives in Texas with her husband and several cats.