Earlier this year, we had to say goodbye to our old buddy.
He was 19 when he died, which is quite an accomplishment for a cat with several serious conditions.
Losing him was very difficult because he was a part of our lives for so long.
When I got an SMS from the vet, that Oscar’s urn was ready to be picked up, I read the beginning of the message in the notifications before swiping it right back up where it came from and put my phone down.
I couldn’t decide if I wanted to rush out and go pick it up right away or just ignore it altogether.
Oscar’s absence was still so palpable around the house that I didn’t want to admit that he wasn’t coming back.
When I finally did go, I had such a hard time wrapping my head around how Oscar, my fluffy, raggedy, grumpy old boy, was in this tiny little box now.
He was supposed to be fuzzy and warm and constantly trying to sit on me to the point of annoyance.
As I was driving home the song on the radio was almost exclusively made up of the words “and you never come back” set to a repetitive electro-dance beat and that was a very long 5 minutes that I struggled to keep it together.
I made it home clenching my jaw and staring intently at the road.
I felt numb when I took the paper bag with the urn out of the car and walked home thinking how ironic it was that the bag had a picture of the cutest, fluffiest little blue-eyed kitten on it.
And inside was my… yeah. Still can’t finish that thought.
I went in, grabbed the basement keys and gently placed the bag on top of his carry box that sat immediately inside the rickety little basement cubby door.
Putting him in the basement felt odd but I simply couldn’t imagine having this box in the house – this box that both was and was not him.
I kept thinking, how could such a small box hold such a huge part of my life?
It felt like a part of me had died with him.
This whole ordeal got me thinking that, though the loss of a pet is hard for anyone, especially sensitive people and empaths can experience that loss more deeply.
We may also take longer to recover from it, and having people say to you “it was just a cat” doesn’t make the grieving process go any faster for us.
Learning how to cope with loss and allowing yourself to grieve is the only way you can move through the sorrow and continue that cherished relationship in your heart.
In order to find some stillness underneath all the emotional turmoil, you need to learn how to sit with scary and uncomfortable emotions because you experience them so deeply.
Here I put together some thoughts about why losing a pet is especially challenging for sensitive people and some tips on what you can do to cope with this kind of loss.
We got Oscar for free, though he wasn’t really a rescue
His old family was worried that their kid was getting too handsy with him since the arrival of baby #2.
Oscar didn’t scratch, claw and hiss the kids they way their other cat did and they worried that he was being bullied.
He was 11 years old and they didn’t think they were going to find him another home.
So, they had decided it was either give him up or put him down.
Still makes my blood boil just thinking about when she said that to me.
Oscar was fat and very reserved, but he turned out to be the friendliest, most social cat I’ve ever met.
When we went out for walks, he wanted to run over to the dogs and make friends (regardless of what the dogs thought of it).
His diet of supermarket cat food and zero dental care had wrecked his teeth and he drooled every time he purred.
And not in a cute way. More like a “did you swallow a miniature tennis shoe” kind of way.
He was also allergic to the colourants and carbs in the cheap food and within a few years of moving in with us he also had diabetes and his kidneys were failing.
We fixed one thing after the other: bathed and cared for his swollen, itchy face and force-fed him every meal with a syringe for two weeks while we transitioned him to real food.
Started him on supplements and medications for one problem after the other.
Gave him antihistamines when his pollen allergies got bad in spring.
Throughout it all, he kept his good humour
He always looked grumpy, but he was the cuddliest couch buddy there ever was.
Sweet and gentle, he charmed everyone who came to visit and made them his scratch-behind-the-ear slaves.
He came to us already at an age where his interests were purely leisurely and the extra weight meant he never really got into playing.
His favourite pastime, besides sleeping and eating, was to sing the song of his ancestors. In the middle of the night.
And he always went and found the corners of the house with the best acoustics for it – like the corner in the shower where the tiles made his song reverberate like he was in a valley.
Despite his previous owners’ misgivings, he was the best nanny ever.
He was never anything but respectful and gentle with our daughter.
And he had infinite patience for letting her play dress-up with him, fiddle with his fur and just play with him.
And he set clear boundaries, but never harshly because he was a sensitive soul.
In three years, he used claws on our baby only twice. And she heard him when she said no.
When she went off to daycare, he waited for her by the door when it was about time for her to come home.
If they were late in coming home with grandma, he’d come and complain to me in my home office.
And once they made it back home, he’d sit with them – no matter what they were doing – for a few hours at least because his best friend was back.
He bounced back from so many health problems
Until he didn’t.
We knew that it was gradually getting worse and that every time there was a big problem, he may not come back.
Finally, after he got the flu (which he’d never had before), he just never recovered.
It was just all downhill from there until the day he completely lost the use of his legs.
It was painful to watch as his body just gave up.
And though it was absolutely the right thing to end his misery, the sorrow was staggering.
It still comes over me and feels almost unbearable – it’s been about three months since he passed away.
In the days and weeks leading up to it, I would burst into agonising tears.
By the time we took him to the vet for the last time, I thought I was cried out.
But once the vet confirmed that he was gone, this crushing wave of grief washed over me and I sobbed uncontrollably into his soft fur.
How to cope with losing a pet as a highly sensitive person
Losing a beloved pet can shatter you emotionally, whether you’re highly sensitive or not.
Our pets are beloved members of the family, and saying goodbye is excruciating.
I’ve been through this several times, and it doesn’t get any easier.
If you’re reading this because you recently lost your animal friend, I’m so sorry.
I fully understand the heartache you’re feeling right now.
Losing a pet can be hard for anyone, but for highly sensitive people it can be even more difficult since we are impassioned animal lovers.
Animals provide us with the companionship, acceptance, emotional support and unconditional love we need without draining our energy in the same way people do.
Animals are predictable, emotionally stable, honest, easy to understand and even easier to please.
We completely lose our hearts to them and build deep bonds with them.
And grieve their loss even more deeply.
Highly sensitive people tend to process things very deeply under normal circumstances.
The way we’re wired means that we think deeply about our experiences and search for meaning in them, even answers to big questions.
Not only do we process information deeply, but we also feel deeply.
This makes it impossible for us to “just get over it”.
Let the feelings come
It’s completely natural to feel overwhelmed by the depth of your sorrow when you lose a beloved friend.
It’s important that you give yourself permission to let your feelings come and experience them as they show up.
We all grieve in our own way, and you may find that you cycle through different emotions, such as shock, numbness, denial, anger, guilt, loss, loneliness and depression.
Losing someone is so personal.
Nobody can possibly know exactly how you feel and there are many factors that make the circumstances around your loss unique.
There is no right way to grieve and the best thing you can do for yourself, and to honour the relationship you had with your animal friend, is to let the feelings come as they come.
And then let them go.
Acknowledge them, experience them, label them and let them go.
Grieving won’t change the way you feel – the sadness and sense of loss will always be there – but going through it will change your perspective and experience of those feelings.
It can often feel like the emotions come out of nowhere, the smallest things can trigger them, and they can quickly overwhelm you.
By maintaining your awareness as you simply allow your emotions to rise, to wash over you, for however long it takes, the intensity of them will eventually subside.
Eventually, you’ll be able to find a place of stillness beneath it all.
A place of calm in the storm that is yours and cannot be taken away.
A place to which you can return again and again and from where you’ll be able to remember the ones who have moved on with a sense of joy.
It wasn’t until after Oscar died that I started thinking about how I wanted to remember him
He’d been sick for so long and I’d been his primary carer; cleaning wounds and giving medication several times a day, watching over him as he ate and constantly thinking about how to best manage his blood sugar.
I had become used to thinking of him as frail and feeble and needing a lot of care.
Drastic weight loss in the last weeks and fluctuating blood-sugar levels had turned him into a husk of the cat he used to be.
Now when I think of him, sometimes I think that I can hear him jumping down from the sofa or gagging up a hairball, and in those moments I remember him as he was when he was healthy.
Of course, I know what he looked like the last years, but that’s not my memory of him.
Remembering him as he was when he was still relatively healthy and feeling strong is my way of honouring our relationship and cherishing it even after he’s no longer going to come sleep at my feet as I work.
Even when that space next to me feels so empty I remember him with joy and find that I’m incredibly grateful for everything he gave us.
Immediately after his death, my emotions were all over and it was like a raging sea with huge rising and falling waves.
Now my emotional turmoil has calmed and even though I still get caught unawares sometimes, my sorrow washing over me, it’s no longer constant nor as abrupt as it was before.
Let go of any guilt
For weeks I secretly hoped that Oscar would just fall asleep in a nook somewhere and never wake up, but that’s rarely how it happens.
One of the hardest things in caring for him was having his life in my hands.
I often wondered how long we could wait, for how long we’d be able to make him comfortable even while sick.
I dreaded getting to a point where I’d realise I had been waiting for too long.
When I thought about putting him down, without a clear indication that it was the right thing to do in order to prevent more suffering, I felt guilt over having to make this decision for him.
Because of his condition, we worked closely with our vets for several years.
Always, he was a point of curiosity at the clinic as vets and nurses all stopped to say ‘hi’ and remark that it wasn’t often you’d see a patient as old as Oscar.
Even with that clinical support, I agonised over making the decisions to euthanise him, worrying that it was premature, or conversely, that it was already overdue.
In the end, when it became clear that life had become a trap rather than liberty, the choice was clear. It didn’t make it any easier, though.
In the end, death was a gift we gave him with love and compassion, though it was incredibly painful.
He died with those he loved around him, and I spent our last day together sitting with him and caring for him, giving him one last brushing and gentle massage that made him sigh with contentment and a barely audible purr.
Lower your guard
If you’re a highly sensitive person who tends to withdraw when you get hurt, you may find that you become isolated in your grief.
Unfortunately, as long as you continue to carry your pain alone, you will not heal.
As impossible and uncomfortable as it may seem, it’s important to reach out to someone you trust and share your grief.
Don’t worry about burdening someone else with your sorrow, the people who love you want to help.
If the roles were reversed, you know you’d want to do anything you could to share in their grief and help in any way you could.
So, go and get a hug from someone you love, like Oscar would crawl up onto my husband’s shoulder when he was feeling crap about having to wear the cone of shame to manage his allergies:
Respect the privacy of your grief
And just because you reach out and share your grief with one or two trusted people, doesn’t mean that you can’t retain a sense of privacy around your grief.
With Oscar, I learned that there are parts of my grief that I want to keep just for myself.
I’ve cried alone as well as with my family over Oscar’s death, and though we share an acute sense of loss, some parts of my sorrow and loneliness are mine alone.
Because I process things so deeply and keep things in mind a lot longer than my husband does, some memories, some feelings, are just for me.
When I repeatedly and persistently revisit something, he hides that look of “not this again” pretty well from me.
This has taught me that, since I enjoy revisiting some thoughts and feelings more than others may, I can just enjoy doing it by myself sometimes.
I don’t need to run for comfort or talk about it afterwards either, this is just something that adds to my own experience.
I cherish these thoughts and feelings when they arise because they make me feel like that’s how I continue my relationship with Oscar and keep him in my heart.
As an introvert and an empath, it’s important for me to be able to sit with my own feelings, even with the difficult and scary ones.
I’m allowing myself to grow and practising self-care by learning how to cope by taking agency over my own emotions.
Find healthy ways to cope
Consider what you can do in order to cope with your loss and allow yourself to process your feelings.
Some things to consider:
- Writing about your feelings can help you process. Poems, essays, short stories, articles or journalling are all good ways of unloading mental baggage and gaining some insight into yourself. Writing this article has been very cathartic for me and I have a story highlight on Instagram that’s a kind of scrapbook of Oscar (and even though it’s public it’s really just for me).
- Honour your pet by making a donation, planting a tree, putting together a scrapbook (the picture in this post was a mini scrapbooking project for me) or putting something in your garden to remember them by. We’re planning on burying his ashes as soon as we find a lovely spot that feels right.
- Get together with friends and family to hold a memorial service. You can say goodbye and celebrate your pet with the people you love most.
- Create some art both as a way to keep your hands busy and to process. I painted some simple gradients in acrylic while I was grieving because it made me feel so much better to have something to do when I felt like the feelings of loss and sadness were too much to bear.
A pet dying, especially if it’s sudden, can add a traumatic component to your loss
Symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, obsessive thoughts, panic and recurring flashbacks, and they can cause sleep loss, irritability and interfere with your day-to-day functioning in the long run.
If you’re experiencing PTSD symptoms that persist over weeks or months, it may be time to speak with a mental health professional.
Discussing your feelings with a stranger can sometimes even be easier than opening up to loved ones.
And it can help you relieve self-doubt and other ruinous tendencies.
Make time for extra self-care
Losing your beloved pet can exhaust both your energy and emotional reserves.
Feeling fatigued and numb makes it hard to take care of yourself.
Make time for yourself and give yourself space to grieve.
When you feel overwhelmed, just try to take care of yourself.
You can leave off doing things that aren’t important and get back to it when you feel more capable.
Sleep is nature’s great healer and making sure that you get plenty of sleep, and even daily naps, will help keep your brain in tip-top shape for processing a large volume of strong emotions.
Not sleeping enough will lead to a decreased ability to process thoughts and emotions, and make you extra irritable and prone to negative thought patterns.
If you feel too distracted to do your job, take some time off or work from home when possible.
Most people will take a leave of absence from work when there’s a death in the family, but few will do so when an animal companion dies.
It’s totally okay to do both when you have the opportunity to do so.
Taking care of yourself and your mental health will make you a better employee in the long run.
You can even find gentleness towards yourself by going to the hairdresser, getting yourself a chance to relax with a massage or at a spa, or finding support for processing your grief in traditional and bodywork treatments.
Sometimes, you just need to take a long walk out in nature by yourself as a way to give yourself space to process.
I often find that going down to the beach and being near the sea helps me tremendously.
Give yourself time
Losing a pet that you feel very close to and connected with is one of the harder things you’ll go through in life.
At first, it won’t seem real when you’re still in shock.
You’ll understand the loss logically; you’ll comprehend that your loved one is gone and won’t be coming back.
But part of you will still expect to see them; around the house, at dinnertime, on the sofa and greeting you when you come home (or at the latest when you open the fridge door).
When you’re highly sensitive, grief can also make you hyper-sensitive.
If you already feel like daily life is overwhelming, having the added load of dealing with your own (and possibly other people’s grief, sorrow or guilt) can magnify your feelings.
You may feel them so intensely that, at times, it may seem as if your body can’t physically withstand the pain.
That’s the perfect time to take a nap, do some breath-work, meditate or just spend time alone, and allow your brain to reset its capacity for handling emotions.
As a sensitive person, allow yourself to make space for yourself
Take time away from toxic or stressful people and relationships to focus on yourself.
If you can’t function, then you won’t be of any use to anyone else either.
As time passes and you allow yourself to grieve, you’ll go through the highs and lows of emotional turbulence.
You’ll progress through your grief gradually and you can’t force it or hurry it along.
You may start to feel better and then feel worse again.
It may take you weeks, months or years to get to a point where you can find a measure of calm underneath it all.
Whatever your experience, please be patient with yourself and simply go at your own pace.
Take as much time as you need to allow your grief to settle down and become a trigger for beautiful memories and shared love, rather than overwhelming pain and sorrow.