I wanted to continue the conversation about coping with the loss of a cat companion and offer some concrete steps you can take to help physically process your grief. At the end of this post, I address guilt and self-doubt – common feelings among pet guardians who have recently lost a cat.
How Do I Cope with the Loss of My Cat?
The question I get most often from grieving cat guardians is: “How do I get through this?” I don’t think many of us were taught to process strong feelings like grief as children and most of us have developed maladaptive coping mechanisms like avoidance, numbing, or escaping to deal with strong emotions.
I know for myself, the loss of Squish broke me open and I felt as if I was reliving every single loss in my entire life over again. It made my grief feel unmanageable. Since then I have learned some techniques about processing strong emotion that I would like to pass on to you. I am not a therapist and if you find your pain unbearable, I urge you to seek professional help. I did, and there is no shame in that.
What is an emotion? There is actually no consensus on the definition of an emotion. My best interpretation of the literature is that emotions developed as an adaptive means of dealing with our environment, our fight or flight response, and social interactions. Emotions give us information about our environment and interactions that our conscious mind may miss. The physical response tied to an emotion can be the same whether we are experiencing an event directly or reliving the event in our mind. For me, the takeaway message is that emotions have a biological basis, therefore processing emotions must have a biological basis as well. Two other things about emotions to keep in mind:
- Emotions tend to come in waves. If you can ride the wave of an emotion, you will find that the wave will naturally ebb and flow.
- While you may feel like you can’t survive the magnitude of the emotion you are feeling, you can and will survive them.
Why can’t I just use the coping mechanisms I’ve always used? While avoidance, numbing, and other adaptations to stress may work in the short-term, they may have long term consequences for your mental and physical health. You may wind up feeling tired, irritable, or even sick. I think it is okay to fall back on them occasionally, in addition to physically processing your emotions. Just don’t rely on them completely.
Four Simple Steps for Physically Processing Your Grief
STEP ONE: Acknowledge and Identify the Emotion.
Try sitting in a quiet place on a straight back chair, feet firmly planted on the floor. Roll back your shoulders and make sure they are in a relaxed position. If you meditate or do yoga, a cross legged sit will work too. Now, ask yourself what you are feeling. I want you to be curious (not judgmental) about your response:
- Is the answer to this question “what are you feeling” confusing? Do you feel multiple feelings at once?
- When you think about what you are feeling, where is it located in your body? For example, I feel grief in my heart and chest and I feel fear/anxiety in my right shoulder bade and along the back of my neck.
- What happens if you pay attention to that feeling, does it move? Does it shrink or grow?
- Ask yourself if your toe feels sad or angry. How about your right elbow? Can you move the feeling around so that you use your whole body to absorb the emotion you are feeling?
The goal of this step is to identify the emotions you are feeling and how your body is responding to your emotions physically. Being aware of the location of your emotions allows you to open up your entire body to processing the emotion, not just one tight corner of your heart, for example.
If you find yourself resistant to even taking the first step, be curious about that. Observe what thoughts are in your mind, how your body feels when you think about processing your grief.
STEP TWO: Validate Your Emotions.
What you are feeling is appropriate: If you are grieving, your body is sending you feedback that you have lost something important to your life. It is an appropriate response for a social animal like the human, who has evolved to survive through interdependence and cooperation. Plus, as I said in my blog, Beyond Grief – Coping with the Loss of a Cat Companion Part I, our daily lives are built around our cat’s routines and they are with us through thick and thin, so it only makes sense that we would feel their loss deeply.
Accept and validate your emotions: Come up with some words to speak to the emotion. This may seem silly, but it helps with acceptance and validation. My words are “I can feel you, sadness. Thank you for sending me this message. Losing Squish was really hard and it makes sense that I feel very sad.”
The goal of this step is to lead you towards accepting the strong emotion instead of fighting against it or denying it. This will help your body process the emotion in a healthy way.
STEP THREE: Learn Healthy Ways to Self-Soothe.
How to comfort yourself: To self-soothe simply means to comfort yourself. The healthiest self-soothing activities deal with one or more of the senses. Your goal is to calm down the feedback loop between your mind and body that gets activated when you experience strong emotions. Your emotions result in a cascade of physical responses, so using a physical method to comfort yourself is tremendously helpful. Here are some examples of how to self-soothe for each of the senses:
Sight: Watch a sunset or sunrise, visit a garden or a park with a scenic view, go to a museum, or look through your favorite photos.
Sound: Listen to calming music or nature sounds like birds chirping or waves crashing. Chimes, bells and chanting are also calming for some people. Listening to a cat purr is very calming and some people hum to calm themselves.
Smell: I find lavender, vanilla, and cinnamon soothing. I have heard that jasmine, rosemary, cedarwood, eucalyptus, and citrus fruits like lemon and orange can be also be calming as well. What scents are calming for you?
Touch: Take a warm bath or shower, get a massage, or learn self-massage techniques. Use a worry stone, stress ball, or strand of beads to keep your hands busy, or work with clay or play dough. I like to wrap myself in a super soft blanket and use a heating pad on my lower back or neck. Petting or holding an animal also satisfies this sense.
Taste: Sip some chamomile tea, have a bit of dark chocolate, or try eating something crunchy. Taste is one of the easiest ways to self-soothe, so be careful you don’t get carried away and over eat. However, a bit of your favorite comfort food won’t hurt. Try and eat slowly and savor the taste and texture.
Kinesthetic: Rock in a rocking chair, sway to music, go for a walk, box a few rounds, stretch or do yoga. There is unspent energy in your body from the strong emotions you are experiencing. Find a way to help your body expel that energy through movement.
The goal of this step is to help calm your emotions through your senses. You may find that doing some of the above activities activates your emotions. That’s okay too. The goal is to process emotions in a helpful way, not try and escape them. Sometimes purposefully activating your emotions can help release them. This is especially true if you are feeling numb or disconnected. I am a firm believer that a good cry can be very therapeutic.
STEP FOUR: Practice and Repeat the Steps and Have Patience with Yourself.
Repeat the Steps: The key to successfully processing your grief is to repeat the above steps. Don’t wait until you are being overwhelmed by your emotions before you try the steps. Ideally, you would go through the steps above when you are feeling fairly calm, in addition to self-soothing when you are feeling overwhelmed.
Be patient with yourself: There is no time limit on grief. Treat your strong emotions like you would a wounded animal. Administering self-care through self-soothing will help your emotions heal, but it won’t happen overnight.
Use every coping mechanism you have at your disposal: You will naturally want to go back to your tried and true methods of coping, like avoiding, numbing or escaping. That’s okay too. Do you what you need to do to get through. The point is to also work on physically processing the emotion, which I don’t think a lot of us know how to do.
Other Techniques for Processing Grief
I wanted to acknowledge that there are other techniques for processing your grief. I am not writing in detail about those techniques here because I feel they are more commonly known. They include things like:
Distraction: Sometimes you need a bit of space between you and the grief to help get you through so don’t be afraid to distract yourself with hobbies and activities. It is okay to look at cat pictures, play video games, or do volunteer work to help keep your mind off the loss of your fur friend.
Social Support: Having the support of people who truly understand what you are going through is tremendously helpful. Never underestimate the power of a hug.
(Images are the property of Walt Disney Company and DreamWorks from the movies Frozen, Shrek, and Aladdin)
Challenge Unhelpful Thoughts: Gently question thoughts that bring you guilt or amplify your grief. Is it helpful to be thinking about x, y, z? What would your cat companion say about those thoughts? Is the language you are using dramatic and is there a way to re-frame the unhelpful thoughts?
Self-Doubt and Guilt
This is a topic I am just starting to explore and I would love feedback, advice, or any references in regards to dealing with feelings of self-doubt and guilt after the loss of a pet.
I know that I tortured myself with whether I had made the right treatment decisions for Squish after she died. You may feel doubt or guilt for not having caught your cat’s illness sooner, for not choosing the right treatment options, or because you feel your carelessness may have caused or contributed to your cat’s death. Guilt over having to euthanize your pet, even when you know it is the right decision, is very common.
My belief is that these feelings are a natural extension of the grief process. As cat guardians, we hold ourselves responsible for our cat’s health and happiness. Chronic illness, accidents, and even old age are out of our control, but we still feel like there is something we could have done.
Coping with Self-Doubt and Guilt
Here is what I have learned from dealing with my own feelings of self-doubt and guilt:
- I take comfort in knowing that my feelings are normal and a common reaction among cat guardians.
- I know I did the best I could with the information I had at the time when it came to my cat’s care. This is the most anyone can expect from themselves or anyone else. When we know better, we do better.
- I have learned to try and treat myself like I would a friend who has lost their cat. I would never blame them or torture them over the decisions they made. I would show them compassion and kindness.
- I ask myself what my cat Squish would want. I know she would never want me to torture myself over my decisions regarding her cancer treatment.
- I have learned to forgive myself. I am an imperfect human who tried to do her best. Most cat guardians I know love their cats with all of their hearts and truly try to do what is best for them.
- I try and focus on my cat’s life. Squish would not be happy if she found out how much time I spent wallowing in guilt and grief over her death. I had 10 amazing years with her and she brought so much good to my life. Focusing on her death does not do her life the honor it deserves.
I am in the process of writing Part III and would welcome any input. I would like to address how to make plans for your cat’s passing, including options for euthanasia, and link you to pet memorial artists and businesses that I or my friends have used. Please let me know if there is anything else I should include.
(Images are the property of Pixar Studios from the movie Monsters Inc.)