Betty writes in: There is so little information to be found on how to deal with the loss of a pet…not death…worse, their being lost and not knowing where they are or if they are scared or hurt or dead. It is true that if you just knew what happened to them, the healling could begin. For me, it has been 54 days since my cat was lost. We moved to the country in a heavily wooded area and I have imagined all sorts of things that may have happened. I also imagine he will just walk out of the wood one day. To put his things away is like giving up, and I just can’t do it. I considered helping an animal to have a home from the humane society, but what if my baby comes home. How will he feel? We have another cat in the household (my husband’s cat before we moved in), and I feel so guilty for just touching him. I know it’s not his fault, but I want to love my cat, touch my cat. Where’s my cat? This is the worst pain I have ever felt. I cannot imagine how parents of missing children cope. I know that I do not see an end to my grief for him. It is so very sad.
Richard Beck responds: Many issues are raised in this question, many important issues as they relate to loss and grief, not only of a beloved pet –“my baby,” as Betty referred to her missing cat –but to the grieving process that we undergo when people die as well.
As a pet lover, this scenario is one of the most dreaded a person can experience. The beloved object of love, whose name was not uttered in the email, perhaps because it was to painful to put words to the missing or deceased, is missing, and missing for a long period of time.
Whenever a loss occurs, be it human or a pet, I always wonder out loud, what was the person’s relationship with the missing, with the deceased. The answers often surprise me and are a good indicator as to how complicated or not the grieving will be. In this email, the cat sounded like it was beloved, and that to even touch her husband’s cat would be a betrayal of her love for the missing cat.
When one’s attachment to the missing is ambivalent or even negative or hostile, grieving takes on a different texture, a different process. In our email, there are no paws to bury, no last hug. There is no body to mourn, as is often the case with missing animals as well as with humans who die in such a way that there are no remains to bury.
I heard in this email a feeling that this grief will be eternal, which it might feel like. There was also expressed a powerful sense of guilt over the cat that went missing. “If only I had done something different, perhaps the beloved cat would still be alive.” Guilt, and its dissolved subcomponent feeling, anger, only punishes the writer as she bemoans “what could have been had I done something different.”
The anger at oneself, and perhaps more subtly, the anger at the beloved cat for disappearing (how can I be angry at my pet who might be dead.. how can I be angry at my beloved pet for acting like and animal and exploring the countryside) is often not felt or expressed for a long time. Nobody knows what happened to this animal. Is it dead? Is it injured? Is it in another household? Is it wandering the woods? Will it return?? Nobody knows the answer to these painful questions. All we know is how we feel and what we think we can do to move forward.
There are no formulas for grieving. We all grieve in our own way and in our own time frame. It’s so much harder to grieve when we have no body, feline or human, to mourn. We listen to our own hearts, we listen to our own souls, as we move forward in time, without our beloved pet, while eternally grateful for the time our pet shared his/her lives with us and loved us the unconditional way that they do.
My heartfelt sympathy goes out to Betty. My hope for Betty is that you will remember more of the love that your cat shared with you than how your cat was lost.
RICHARD BECK, LCSW, BCD, CGP, FAGPA is an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Social Work, and a psychotherapist in Private Practice in New York City, with expertise in treating trauma and working with individuals, couples and groups. Richard both trains and treats therapists who work with trauma.
After the events of 9/11 and the Hurricanes of 2004, Richard conducted well over 1000 hours of trauma groups with survivors, their families, witnesses and rescue workers. He continues to lecture, teach and lead demonstration groups throughout the country, dealing with trauma and the importance of groups following a traumatic event and loss.
Richard recently published the “Unique Benefit of Group following Traumatic Events“, and co-authored an American Group Psychotherapy Association Trauma Protocol entitled “Lesson’s Learned in Working with Witnesses, Survivors and Family Members after Traumatic Events”.
Richard was a guest expert on the radio show Healing the Grieving Heart, discussing Recovering From a Traumatic Event, to hear his interview with Dr. Gloria and Dr. Heidi Horsley. click on the following link: