Losing My Cat Almost Destroyed Me, A Grief Expert Explained Why It Hit Me So Hard

“It sounds ridiculous but I worry so much about how I’ll cope once my cat Collie dies”, I said to my now-partner on our first date.

I meant it. I’ve lived in 23 homes, faced a lot of trauma and upheaval but getting Collie and his sister Jess in 2011 gave me a sense of home that I’d been longing for my whole life.

I found them on recycling forum Freecycle. I’d spent the summer sofa-surfing after a lot of difficulties in the home I’d been living in and once I finally got a permanent flat, I was looking for furniture and comforts to fill it when I saw a picture of two cats snuggled together.

I didn’t hesitate.

I got a train to a nearby station, picked them up in their carrier and waited in the rain for the train to come while they both shivered. Once I brought them back to the tiny one bedroom flat, Jess wandered everywhere but Collie just couldn’t take his eyes off me.

I’ve always had pets, always loved animals but my bond with Collie was immediate and all-consuming. He was lost, scared, and timid. Just like me when I got him at just 21 years old.

I’d spent years feeling that nobody understood me but then suddenly, this small animal with big eyes seemed to understand me in a way that I didn’t know was possible from pets.

We moved another three times after this with Collie and his sister getting me through breakups, multiple surgeries and losing relatives.

Then, he got sick

After 12 and a half beautiful, healing years together, Collie got sick. Very sick.

We were napping on the sofa together when I realised his breathing was different. It was laboured and he seemed to be struggling. This cat who had been given everything I could give him for the entire time we had been together suddenly had a problem I couldn’t solve.

My loved ones often joked about how spoiled my cats were. They never went to a cattery. Catteries are wonderful and staffed by people far more educated on cats and animals than I could be, but I couldn’t let my cats be inconvenienced for even a second. They’d given me the world, the least I could do was keep theirs as familiar and calm as possible.

But now, I couldn’t fix this. He was scared, I was scared. I’m not the lost 21 year old girl I once was. I have a stable, loving life.

In that moment, though, I was taken straight back to who I was before I got them. I was lost and the future only seemed terrifying.

I knew enough to know he wasn’t going to be by my side for much longer.

Once I took him to the vet, she confirmed that he needed to go for tests and into an oxygen tent to improve his breathing.

I waited at home for a call.

I thought about how, just two months earlier, I’d been for major abdominal surgery and, sensing that I was fragile and couldn’t have a cat lying on me like I often did, Collie instead rested his head on my hand while I slept.

I thought about all the times I spent in bed struggling with Endometriosis symptoms with him spooned next to me like a living, breathing hot water bottle.

I thought about the bad days I’d gotten through knowing I was going home to him and knowing that, no matter what happened, I had a cat waiting for me at the end of the day.

I thought about the times I held him like a baby while my friends looked on in bemusement at our silly, loving relationship.

I asked my partner how I was supposed to do anything without my sweet boy loyally by my side.

He was in heart failure

The call came and, as I feared, he was dying. He had right-sided heart failure and what looked like a tumour. Fluid had gathered around his heart, putting pressure on his body and making his breathing laborious. The vet said cats are particularly good at hiding illness and it could have been going on for years.

How did I miss that? I noticed if he had a whisker out of place but not that his heart was failing?

There was no cure. The fluid was drained and we were given medication for him but were warned he could die at any minute. It could be days, weeks, months, but it was coming.

In the following weeks, our ever-so-gentle relationship was put to the test for the first time ever. He hated tablets, he didn’t want to take them, and every trick provided by the vet wasn’t sneaky enough for my clever boy. Every night was a fight that I desperately didn’t want to be in.

After two and a half weeks, he had a seizure. I took him to the vet and was told that it was time.

I sat cross-legged in front of the bed he was lying on and looked into his beautiful eyes for the last time. I said: “Thank you. Thank you. I will miss you forever. I will love you forever. Thank you for everything, you were my whole world.”

Then, in what was one of the worst moments of my life, I let my boy go and said goodbye to the sweetest era of my life.

I’d had Collie for longer than I’d lived in my hometown of Liverpool, longer than I’d ever had a relationship, and longer than I’d even been in school.

Pet grief destroyed me

Collie was not my first loss and won’t be my last but still, the grief took me by surprise. I either couldn’t stop crying or felt nothing, as if it hadn’t even happened.

It’s been three months now and while I don’t cry every day anymore, I cry most days. His cat-shaped urn is on my knee as I write this. The grief has consumed me just as much as the love did when he was alive.

I spoke with Annalisa de Carteret, Pet Loss Support (PLS) manager at national pet charity Blue Cross, to understand just how normal this feeling is, and how I can help myself.

I asked De Carteret how long I can expect to feel like this, and if there is any timeline I can expect. She said: “Everyone is individual, there is no timeline for grief unfortunately. The loss will be with your forever but your world will grow around that grief.”

This is starting to feel very true. He’s everywhere, but I still have the world I had before and can’t stop building the life I was pushing towards before I lost him either. De Carteret also assured me that crying every day is normal and that showing my feelings is encouraged, if anything.

While intellectually I know that I didn’t really have a choice but to euthanise Collie, there is a part of me that still aches with guilt. It was my choice even if it wasn’t one I wanted to make.

De Carteret said: “Guilt is a very common emotion in relation to pet loss, especially when you have to decide to euthanise your pet. You may have feelings, thinking could I have done more, or did I make the decision too early or too late.

“We are ultimately responsible for our pets, so it’s important to remember these feelings are normal and talking about how you are feeling may help put these feelings into perspective.”

Finally, I wondered if I’d be able to adopt a cat again. I have three other cats that I love so, so deeply and that hasn’t changed but I did worry that my heart would harden against a new animal.

I hope to have pets for the rest of my life but right now, a kitten is a painful thought.

De Carteret advised: “Don’t rush into anything, you know when you are ready. Some people will get a new pet straight away, but other people need time, or never feel it’s the right time to get another pet, and that’s okay.

“You may have friends or family pets you can interact with, or volunteering at your local rescue centre may help you reconnect with animals but don’t feel pressured to do anything that does not feel right for you. You will know when the time is right.”

Pet Loss Support (PLS) service is celebrating 30 years of helping people with the trauma of losing a pet, whether through death, rehoming, theft and other loss. Call 0800 096 6606 or email PLSmail@bluecross.org.uk for free and confidential support every day of the year, including Christmas Day.