Grieving the Family Cat in a Painfully Violent World

Yves here. Richard Eskow has been an occasional correspondent, and I was sorry to read about the death of his cat. But more important, I suspect many who have lost an animal friend feel the same sort of ambivalence he describes: that it somehow feels wrong to be so undone by the death of a (mere) pet when people all over the world are on the receiving of vicious and unnecessary tragedies, starting with the Israel genocide in Gaza.

By Richard (RJ) Eskow, a journalist who has written for a number of major publications. His weekly program, The Zero Hour, can be found on cable television, radio, Spotify, and podcast media. Originally published at Common Dreams

The ancient Sumerians had a proverb: “A loving heart builds houses.” I’ve thought of it many times since a member of our household, a cat, died last month. People who think cats are indifferent or self-centered would have been astonished at the depth of this one’s compassion and love. She built houses.

I’ve been a little reluctant to admit how much I’ve grieved for her. Who am I to mourn so much for one small creature? Am I weak? Self-indulgent? That led me to some psychology papers about the experience of losing a pet, or what some therapists call an “animal companion.” (Other groups use the term “non-human persons.”)

“Psychologists should view pet loss as an important domain,” one paper says. It cites “human–animal attachment,” “the benefits of pet companionship, and “the profound sense of grief that can be experienced in response to the death of a pet.” This mourning sometimes becomes “disenfranchised grief,” either because others don’t recognize the depth of the resulting sorrow or because the grieving person doesn’t feel they have the right to such profound emotion.

Those papers told me what I already knew, but still needed to hear: that it’s only natural to mourn someone who lived by your side for years. Too often we try to dictate our emotions, ordering them this way and that like we’re some border guard of the heart. That’s a mistake. In fact, it’s worse than a mistake. It’s an apartheid of the spirit.

The Sumerian proverb continues: “A hating heart destroys houses.” The wars go on: wars of attrition, wars of starvation, wars of extermination. I ask myself: Who am I to feel sad when people around the world are losing everyone they love, from infants to the elderly?

But grief can’t be quantified or compared. It’s like a neutrino. It has no mass, just energy. It’s the dark-mirror image of “the Guide” in Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita: “primordial poet, smaller than an atom, inconceivable, brilliant as the sun.”

Our Palestinian friends have been among the most compassionate about our loss, despite the magnitude of the ongoing horror in Gaza. That makes sense, come to think of it. Grief should soften our hearts and help us recognize the personhood and pain of others.

A confession: For years, I called myself a “dog person.” But those distinctions feel artificial now. Consciousness knows no taxonomy. It just is.

Cats are still maligned in Western societies, which is probably a holdover from European superstitions. But they’ve always had their advocates. The famously dissolute Charles Baudelaire wrote about them in his then-scandalous Flowers of Evil, using language so sentimental it could embarrass a schoolchild. Pablo Neruda wrote several poems about them. One says:

the cat
only wants to be a cat
and any cat is a cat
… from the night to his golden eyes.

It continues:

There is no unity
like him,
he is just one thing
like the sun or the topaz,
and the elastic line of his contours
is firm and subtle like
the line of a ship’s prow.

The image above isn’t a sketch of the cat who just died. It’s her sister, who she cared for like a mother. That solicitude saved both their lives in the shelter when it was time for them to be euthanized. The volunteer who brought them to us said she saw it and thought, “I can’t let that love die.”

It didn’t, until now.

Sleep, sleep cat of the night,
with episcopal ceremony
Take care of all our dreams …

Here’s the thing about grief, as I’ve been reminded: You can’t think, read, or write your way out of it. You have to treat it like a new roommate, cohabiting with it until the new arrangement becomes comfortable for both of you.

The Buddhist teacher and therapist Dharmavidya David Brazier wrote a book on grief called “Who Loves Dies Well.” That phrase could have been this cat’s epitaph. A loving heart builds houses. They’re sturdy houses, with room enough for all the people who come looking for shelter. Once there, they remain your companions forever.

This house seems lonelier, for sure. But it was built to last, and it will always be home.

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35 comments

  1. wellclosed

    “Grief causes you to leave yourself. You step outside your narrow little pelt. And you can’t feel grief unless you’ve had love before it—grief is the final outcome of love, because it’s love lost. You do understand; I know you do. But you just don’t want to think about it. It’s the cycle of love completed: to love, to lose, to feel grief, to leave, and then to love again. Jason, grief is awareness that you will have to be alone, and there is nothing beyond that because being alone is the ultimate final destiny of each individual living creature. That’s what death is, the great loneliness.”
    ― Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

    Reply
  2. Steve H.

    Love is love.

    Cosmic permeating all-Love is great, but there’s nothing like bone-talking. I’m old, I miss being touched, sometimes desperately. A cat, a dog, comes and makes demands and pulls me back into this world. The kitty fur of Arcadia Black Velvet as my fingers run through it. The stupid smile of the Happiest Dog Ever.

    There are always dogs as the people gather at the food bank. I walk by the pile of clothes and flesh behind the dumpster and a dog peers out. Love-object and security system wrapped in fur. They’re sleeping on gravel and afraid of being attacked and have no opinions on Gaza. Who am I to say otherwise. I’m glad they have someone to care for who cares back to them.

    Reply
  3. Bolivar

    Thank you for this little article.

    A couple of years ago my father died. His death was soon followed by the death of both of my cats, a mother and her daughter, who had been living with me for 20 years. I too felt guilt for griefing for them, as if mourning the death of these animals diminished or belittled the grief I felt for my father.

    The author puts it very nicely, that grief can not be quantified or measured. It simply is, and has to be accepted as such.

    You have to treat it like a new roommate, cohabiting with it until the new arrangement becomes comfortable for both of you.

    This sentence perfectly encapsulates how I feel about it. I’m glad someone could put such simple yet accurate words on it. I think with time, this new presence cohabiting with us can even teach us some things, and make us better persons.

    Reply
  4. Stephen V.

    Karl König, a doctor who founded the Camphill Movement, care homes for special needs people, wrote:
    …we should keep animals in order to be near to the wellsprings of all existence and creation.

    Reply
  5. mrsyk

    Our society’s so eff’d up we can’t even grieve without feeling guilty.
    My beloved cat KT disappeared in the night. Been almost three years, and we have three amazing cats now, yet I still can’t bring myself to really write about it. I loved that cat so hard, and I’m not in the slightest embarrassed about it. Shit. Sorry for your loss Richard.

    Reply
    1. Terry Flynn

      So sorry to hear that. Lovely words. I’m in the “family home” I actually never grew up in (house having been bought after I graduated) and as such have become “parent number 2” to the family cat.

      She’s intelligent but skittish. Won’t be around certain family members who knew her in her “youth” but who have now moved away. She now pays loads of attention to me, particularly when “main mum” is…. Not conducive to interacting.

      In my ideal world I am rich and have two cats – a Siamese to interact with and a ginger cat to be part of the “ginger cat collective that shares one brain cell” (look up reddit stuff if you don’t get that). Instead we have a cat who interacts with the YouTube critiques of “The Acolyte” when I cast the video to TV in bedroom. WHY are you watching? Either you are mad as a box of frogs or you’re more intelligent than most humans.

      Reply
      1. mrsyk

        heh heh, I’m going with “more intelligent”. As we say here on the cat range, orange cats are the best cats.

        Reply
  6. Randall Flagg

    >Here’s the thing about grief, as I’ve been reminded: You can’t think, read, or write your way out of it. You have to treat it like a new roommate, cohabiting with it until the new arrangement becomes comfortable for both of you

    This paragraph certainly opened my eyes a bit for dealing with the loss of my son years ago. I’m not sure I’ll ever get comfortable with it but certainly helpful to accept it a little more.

    On losing a pet, I am reminded of years ago when my better half had her cat disappear. She was really upset, that cat was really a special creature. She really had a sense of how you were at that moment in your life if that makes any sense at all. Anyway, we are driving around the neighborhood searching and we go by a yard with a young child outside playing. This kid probably was 5/6 and completely bald, I’m thinking Jesus, there’s some perspective. We’re worried about a cat and this kid is probably fighting for his life. At least that how it appeared in my mind. But all that was before I came to understand the power of the companionship of an animal and its power on people. Dogs, cats, horses and their owners, oxen, the list goes on.
    The power of a pet also came crystal clear when not too many years ago my daughter was in a bike accident and though didn’t kid any teeth, had some get rearranged during the face plant. Poor girl was in a dentist chair for 4 hours as part of the attempt to save the teeth ( taking tge whole process much better than I would have), and when done, we walked quietly out to the car and she sat in the backseat. The most wonderful dog we could have asked for ( and one we got as a puppy and the kids were little so they kind of grew up together),had come with us and must have sensed the pain and stress my daughter was in. She put her head in my daughters lap and it just opened the floodgates for my kid, releasing the stress and anxiety in a good cry that lasted I don’t know how long and it was better than any words of comfort I could have ever dreamed of conjuring up. That dog died a few years ago very peacefully and she is very much missed.
    Still.
    Thank you for this post and allowing my rambling.

    Reply
    1. ChrisPacific

      Our dog always seemed to know when I was sad or upset, and would react the way you described. I don’t know how they do it (maybe they read our body language, maybe we smell different) but they seem better at it than most humans.

      Reply
  7. Nikkicat

    I am sorry for your loss, my heart aches for what you must feel. My cats were both taken in because, we had learned from watching over a neighbors cats while on vacation that they were loving and noble as any dog and pined for the owner as well. Not ever having cats, only dogs, I never knew that they indeed had all the loving emotions and devotion of a dog. Always professed myself a dog lover and even thought it would be easy to care for these cats as they wouldn’t care that much about the owner. They cared. Both of them pouted, pined and generally acted as lonely
    As the dog. Nothing we could do, soothed them. They were completely bereft. My cats are also as loving as any dog,, I’ve ever owned. Both rescued from being abandoned by ignorant people. Neighborhood cats, we had come to know and love. Always a meow and a brush against the legs or a drop to the ground to be petted as we came down the sidewalk. When we moved across country two years ago, they came too. In the back of our ford, sleeping on pillows, exploring the hotel rooms every night. Happy to be with us. I’ve loved them as much as any other pet I’ve ever had the joy of having. I know you will go on to save others and share your life with them, even as you feel you cannot. The fulfillment you will have from these relationships, each different and rewarding in memory of those who came before, both human and animal. God bless, May the memories
    Comfort you until you meet again on another plain of being, where they will gather round to once again offer their comfort and companionship
    Nikkicat

    Reply
  8. Alice X

    Twenty five years ago my pooch of 17 years passed. Occasionally she still comes to me in dreams. The heartache was deep so I’ve never had another animal, though one would benefit me. Now, however, one would probably outlive me, and that wouldn’t be fair to them. I cherish all life in nature and that is animating.

    Reply
  9. Heather

    My heart truly goes out to you. We can mourn anything we love that is now gone, don’t you think? We lost our beloved Lucy several months ago, a very noble Maine Coon cat we had had for 14 years. My 17 year old grandson was beside himself with grief. He talked his mother, my daughter, into getting another cat, and much as we all love her it is not the same. She will never be Lucy. She IS Freya, and is delightful in her own way. I love finding her sleeping on a box, way in the back of my closet in my bedroom, yawning in my face because I’ve disturbed her! I recommend to everyone here, if you haven’t already read it, a children’s book called, The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth. It was read to me when I was a child and I recently got a copy for one of my sisters when her very old cat passed on. It’s a beautiful story.

    Reply
  10. ChrisFromGA

    All life has value, animal and human. I don’t think suffering in the larger world negates the right to feel the loss of a family pet.

    Such things are deeply personal.

    Reply
  11. Lena

    My 14 year old kitty has been sick for almost 3 years. A “mystery illness”. She is very fragile now and needs my special care. Several times she has come close to leaving this world and I have cried until my entire body hurt with the grief, yet she is still here. I am so grateful.

    She has been with me through some of my darkest times. In the middle of an ice storm, when I got the call my mother was dead, I was alone except for my sweet kitty who comforted me. When I received the news of my terminal illness, again over the phone, I was alone except for my sweet kitty who comforted me. She is my constant companion. The thought of losing her frightens me more than losing my own life. She is that dear. My precious baby.

    Others who have loved and lost kitties will understand. Peace be with us all.

    Reply
    1. mrsyk

      I’m feeling’ for you Lena. Hold that cat and whisper the sweet nothings that make the world alright into her ear. A cat’s purr is magic of the strongest fiber. If there is any continuation after physical life, she and you are not done just because the here and now are winding up.

      Reply
    2. playon

      Best wishes to you Lena. I don’t know if this would be helpful, but you could try changing your cat’s diet perhaps? Besides dry food we give our cat a small amount of chicken liver every day, and we also add brewers yeast to the dry food and make sure that she has plenty of water. Despite a few health issues she seems to be thriving.

      Reply
    3. Retired Carpenter

      Lena,
      All of us who have “loved and lost” understand. Alas, in my experience, understanding rarely brings solace.
      Peace be with us all“. Well said. Peace be with you. Amen.

      Reply
  12. The Rev Kev

    We have had a few cats over the years, including a great ginger cat (the wifes) named PJ, but my favourite was an all-black called Midnight. We actually called him Spooky because of his ability to disappear against dark surfaces and shadows. He lived a very good life but one day I went up to the shed to find him dying and convulsing. Must have been a snake that got him so I stayed with him until he went. You may not always realize it but cats can become a part of your lives like another member of your family. You know that you will outlive them because of their short life span but better that than to have a cat that outlives you and has no family to take care of it. Still miss you Spooky.

    Reply
    1. Laughingsong

      Our all-black kitty is also called Midnight, though I mostly refer to her as My Little Girl. She’s 18 now, so sometimes I call her My Little Old Lady. She’s been a difficult cat, she was abandoned and it certainly seemed to damage her some. Although there are times that difficulty makes me grouchy at her, I know I’ll miss her terribly when she goes. She’s on my lap right now, as I write this.

      Her “brother”, The Stig, was a special kitty. We brought him with us when we moved to Oregon from Ireland. Oh how he loved summer over here! Unfortunately he was hit by a car a couple of years after we moved here, and we still mourn.

      Reply
  13. playon

    After neither of us having a pet for decades, my wife and I got a rescue cat two years ago and we just love her to death. Her mother was feral and she is quite eccentric, even for a cat. I know if anything happened to the little critter that we would be in a lot of pain.

    When we were looking for a cat we came across a craigslist ad for two cats whose elderly owner had died, the ad mentioned that the two animals seemed quite lost without their owner. Cats are definitely just as affectionate and caring as dogs, they just express it differently. The best cure for the loss of a pet is probably getting another animal, there are a lot of unwanted cats and dogs out there. But of course it’s never the same.

    Reply
  14. Christina Borland

    Feeling grief is a sign of our humanity. Its ability to be expressed, just like love, is not limited to just a few circumstances or beings. You are so right to feel and express your grief, about anything that pains you! Our ability to feel connection and compassion to another living creature, regardless of species, is what allows us to grieve the suffering of people unknown to us in Gaza and elsewhere, because we have the capacity to care about life. Thank you for sharing your beautiful kitty memories with us !

    Reply
  15. Alex Cox

    The death of a loved one – like the incomprehensible horror of war – inevitably brings grief.

    Want to know the remedy for grief over the loss of a loved animal?

    A trip to the pound. The animal shelter is full of beings waiting to be loved by you, and to love you back.

    This remedy does not fail.

    Reply
  16. philip roddis

    I relate 100%. I spend half my life reading and writing about Ukraine and Palestine, and the tectonic shift underlying them – both to be welcomed and feared. But one of my dogs only need go AWOL for half an hour and my heart sinks to the pit of my stomach. No contradiction, other than that of being human.

    Was it Anatole France who said, “until we have loved an animal a piece of our soul is missing”?

    Reply
  17. southern appalachian

    I don’t know that it’s healthy to close ourselves off to grief.

    I believe this sort of ranking of hardships, let’s call it, is an unintended outcome of efforts to recognize systemic oppression and violence in our society. Which is real.

    We love our animals dearly, some do anyway, and they pass. It’s hard, but a testament to their meaning, I suppose.

    Our compassion in this I think is one of the best parts of ourselves.

    Something I think about often- there is quite a bit of aggression in our cultural messaging , and I think behind that there is a good bit of grief. We do aggression, we don’t do grief. That’s quite a loss.

    This is probably not clear, I apologize. There is a lot of anger out here, which, if you can get past, comes out of some form of grief. Starting with a dear cat is good. Let’s allow that.

    Reply
  18. Kate

    I am a widow with a very unexceptionable male tabby, except when I had my first Covid illness 6 weeks ago he never left my side for two weeks. There is so much more love than we can grasp. My “big lunk” was there for me and I’ll never forget it.

    Reply
  19. tawal

    Thanks to all! Such an emotional Sunday Wake-up. Thought I’d share the cats in my life:
    1) Fellow, Olympia, WA, I was an infant, I don’t remember him but according to my parents, we adored each other.
    2) Moved from SF, to Palo Alto, when I was six, came with the rental home, not sure we ever named her. Was blind in one eye, probably from michering blue jays, she mostly lived on the car port, but came in the upper bedroom window to stay with me and my younger brother, at night.
    3) Taffy, long haired taffy CA cat. She was the quintessential female warrior. Her first day, as a kitten, wearing her red ribbon, jumped on our neighbor’s German shepherd and scratched at his eyes until they screamed, Get your cat off our dog. That Shepherd later had to be put down for viciously tearing up my parents’ friends leg when he was knocking after being invited. She had her first litter on my bed. 2nd Litter, she brought like six baby starlings in a stuffed them in the leg holes of our couch to teach them how to bird, nudging them forward because they were as scared as the baby birds. TBC

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  20. tawal

    4) Cogo, my brother’s cat. He named him after Coors beer and Pogo. Not neutered male Coon cat, from a good Family. Appleton, WI. 2 stories, we moved to Buffalo and stopped in Chicago maybe Milwaukee to Hotel. I had him in a box, strongest one so everyone but me is bringing in suitcases, and I’m holding the box lids down as hard as I could, like 1976. He used to sleep under warm cars in the drive in Buffalo winter. My parents had friends over and they inadvertently ran over his tail bone. My parents took him to the Vet, who said really nothing he could do. Dude dug a hole in winter frozen flower bed, moaned for 3 days and nights, like a Frozen Lodge. Then emerged, no discernible change after whatever had mercy.
    TBC

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  21. tawal

    5) Striker. Short haired orange, white markings. Fit boy. Named after his marble play, as good as any Siamese I’ve played with.
    1 short story, my dad came over to watch our daughter when we went out for anniversary dinner. My dad was reading and our daughter was asleep. Striker kept unplugging the light with his front paws over and over and over. Guess he should’ve played marble ball with Striker!
    Oreo, my wife’s cat. Wasn’t weened long enough, came with pneumonia. Didn’t know how to clean himself. Wife had to wash his butt in the bathtub. TBC

    Reply
  22. tawal

    Despite his poor hygiene habits, he was very astute. He was a long hair brown and black mostly, boy. He was neutered. Our most memorable memory was how he adored Judge Ito of the Simpson trial. He knew exactly when his Hero would come on every day. He would jump up on his couch spot and land sitting and tell my wife Ito time, with his meows. She’d come rushing to turn it on for them. He’d would watch unwaveringly, intently, no breaks, giving my wife his opinion as he warranted throughout the session, Daily

    Reply
  23. tawal

    So that was Oreo. My wife grieved for many, many months, when he disappeared. Devastated.
    I think was 5) but I ain’t counting no more.
    6) Boca, loud mouth, she told you exactly what she wanted, we were too dumb to understand most of the times, but that’s reality, they understand us, but us dumb as*es.
    Boca was an Ocicat, don’t remember where we got her, but I think a pet store.
    She was a small female, neutered, that could jump almost 6 feet in the air on 1 bound and catch beenie baby bean bag thingees in the air, and return them to your feet for more and more and more. She adored the lizard one. She died in my arms probably from feline aids when she was around 8; she really suffered in last two weeks of her life. We were too poor and hoped against hope to put her down. Glad we shared that final moment
    TBC

    Reply
  24. tawal

    In my arms while we slept, I may add. A cold hard board, when I awoke, the spirit went to happier grounds. TBC

    Reply

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