Story and photos by JaneA Kelley
I remember the day I realized my cat was really old.
She was sitting on my lap, curled up for warmth and comfort, and suddenly I realized just how little she weighed. My once-robust Siouxsie Mew, who had once been threatened with a diet because she was getting too fat, now barely tipped the scales at 7 pounds.
Not that I hadn’t logically known that before—after all, I diligently took her to the vet for her semi-annual senior checkups and kept tabs on her blood work—but sometimes it just takes a while for the emotional realization to kick in.
Once I realized how light she was, and I thought about how old she was (17, at that point), it also occurred to me that Siouxsie and I would have a lot fewer tomorrows together than yesterdays. My eyes brimmed with tears and I looked down at her frail body on my lap and told her, “I promise you, you don’t have to end your life in pain. When you tell me it’s time, I’ll make that final appointment because I love you enough to let you go rather than leave you suffering. Meanwhile, I’ll cherish every moment we have together.”
She looked up at me as if she knew exactly what I’d just told her, and she rubbed my hand with her cheek.
The process of grief is never easy, but when you have an old and/or sick cat, the grieving process starts long before your feline friend actually passes away.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross once categorized the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When you grieve, though, you may not go through all of the stages in the order in which she placed them. In fact, you may not even go through all the stages at all.
So, what exactly does the grief process look like, according to the Kübler-Ross model?
The first stage is denial. It helps us to survive the loss. The world becomes meaningless, and we move into a state of shock and numbness. That helps us get through the first realization and gives us the bandwidth to only deal with as much as we can handle at any given time. It’s the first stage of not just the grief process but the healing process as well. I remember going kind of numb when I realized just how old Siouxsie really was. But at the same time, I knew I couldn’t numb out or close the connection between Siouxsie’s heart and mine—when a cat is old and frail, they need your love and closeness more than ever.
Next comes anger. It’s a necessary part of the healing process for many people. The more you feel your anger, the more it will begin to fade. You may feel angry at your veterinarian for giving you bad news. You may feel angry at yourself because you can’t afford an expensive treatment for your cat. You may feel angry at God (or whichever deity or deities you believe in) for giving you such a short time with your beloved cat. Anger helps you break through the denial. While I don’t remember feeling angry about Siouxsie’s inevitable demise, I certainly was angry at the people in my life (who are fortunately few and far between) who didn’t take my sadness and grief seriously because Siouxsie was “just a cat.”
Bargaining is the next stage. At this point you start wishing there was a way your beloved cat could be saved. You often get a case of the “shoulda/coulda/wouldas” when you’re bargaining, thinking that if only you’d noticed your cat’s symptoms earlier, if only you’d pushed for more answers, if only you’d had the money to pay for that treatment. The trouble with this kind of thinking is that when you begin to blame yourself, you extend your own pain even as you try to negotiate your way out of it. As a part of bargaining, you may decide to dedicate yourself to a cause, to helping other cats who are in the same situation. I’m not going to lie; my experiences with Siouxsie and with my current elder kitty, Thomas, were the inspiration behind my new blog, The Ninth Life. I’m hoping I can help people who are in a similar place with their own cat to be able to manage their grief and find a compassionate place to share their feelings.
Then comes depression. You come to the sad realization that you have a lot fewer tomorrows together than yesterdays, and that can break your heart into a million pieces. This is a totally normal feeling and a normal part of grief. The loss of a beloved cat, either in the future or in the recent past, is a really depressing thing. If you already have depressive tendencies, as I do, the depression of the grief process can hit really hard. When I lost my Dahlia to cancer at the age of six, and then another cat six months later to one of those freak one-in-a-million surgical complications, I was so profoundly depressed that I didn’t even realize it at first. It affected everything from my personal life to my performance at work.
I’m fortunate that when I was going through the end of Siouxsie’s life, I was surrounded by supportive friends and I worked at a place that allowed pet bereavement days—unlike my previous employer, who didn’t even care that I’d lost two cats in six months and assumed my performance problems were totally unrelated to that. Let’s just say I have feelings about that. The depression I felt when I realized Siouxsie was dying was a lot easier to handle, being in a place where I felt supported by everyone from my friends to my employer.
Finally, there is acceptance. This doesn’t mean that everything is suddenly okay; it means that you understand the reality of your upcoming loss. You learn to live with that feeling of emptiness, and eventually you can smile through your tears. I can’t count the number of times I bounced between numbness, depression and acceptance as I prepared for Siouxsie’s inevitable passing. I can’t count the number of times my eyes filled with tears as I stroked her once-black and now-faded fur and felt her bones underneath my fingers. I had her on meds for hyperthyroidism, but she never did gain back her weight despite having a good appetite. I can’t count the number of times I told her, “Siouxsie Mew, I love you so much, and I’m so grateful that you’ve been such a wonderful part of my life. Thank you.”
You may not go through all the stages of grief. You may go through them in a different order than Kübler-Ross described them. As I mentioned, I bounced back and forth between numbness, depression, and acceptance. I don’t recall feeling angry or bargaining, as such. I do know that one way I’ve chosen to honor Siouxsie’s life is by writing a blog to help people get through their own grief processes.
How have you dealt with the “pre-grief” stage that happens before your cat passes away?
JaneA Kelley is the author of the award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect. Her new blog, The Ninth Life, is a place where she talks about her elder cats’ journeys, and the journeys of some young cats who turned out to be ninth-lifers, too. Her work has also appeared on catster.com and in Catster Magazine.