Pets and Human Grief


Pets can help humans be happy. Survival and instinct drove me to offer my home and attention to two cats, 5 months after my husband died.

During the first six months after the death of a spouse, surviving spouses cry nearly constantly, and I was no exception. Those of us (surviving spouses) who are parents of young children, then, usually worry about how our utter sadness is making our children feel. I could remember worrying about my parents, when they cried during my childhood. When that happened, it was not over a loss as profound as the loss of husband/father.  Given how I worried over the less significant and lasting sadnesses of my parents, I knew that my children were probably worrying about me.

I needed to stop crying sometimes. I wanted my children to have happy moments. I didn't want life to be full of sadness. I decided that my children and I needed a happy

focal point, and I knew from experience that I could commit to caring for a cat.  My son’s 10th birthday provided the purr-fect opportunity to bring some joy into the house – for good. (Brings to mind the sad question: “So, what do you get a 10-year-old, whose father has just died, for his birthday?” YUCK!  What a terrible question to have to ponder!)

So, on a warm Friday afternoon, I picked the children up from school, and we headed off to the no-kill cat rescue center. The trip was an adventure in itself, as the center was far out in the suburbs. It was a big center, with lovely facilities for cats and dogs.  There were rooms with cats of different ages. My children and I made a beeline for the kitten room – a room sure to hold boundless and bouncing joy.  

I had prepared the kids for the difficulty of deciding which cat to take home and which to leave behind. That is always a hard one. At least with a no-kill center, you know that you are making space for another stray animal to be saved. While it was only my son’s birthday, I was getting each child a kitty, because sometimes pets must be left home alone, and I think they are happier when they have a house-mate for company. 

The children played with all of the kittens for a long time. They needed to see which one was really the right one. There was an odd kitten that was bigger and older than all the others. The volunteer who was assisting us explained that this big kitty refused to graduate to the next room for the over-6-month-old cats. This bossy 6+month-old preferred the kitten room, and he somehow always made his way back into it.  He did not leave my daughter the entire time she was in the room.  He played with the string hanging from her shorts, and stayed right with her no matter what she did.  So, he (now named Mickey) chose her. My son was torn between two siblings, both sweet and playful, one with picture-perfect markings of stripes, spots and white fluffiness, and the other a basic, but adorable gray tabby. I think he was afraid no one else would see how special the plain gray tabby was, and he knew that lots of people would be happy to have the more picturesque spotted kitty. So, he took little Lucy, and she purrs like a loud motorcycle for him, still.

Instinct was right for us in deciding to bring these cats home. We now had two playful creatures full of nothing but happiness and silly escapades upon which to focus.  Bedtime and morning routines were re-arranged around the new little creatures for which we all needed to care. We had a thing upon which to focus happily together. We had little creatures to love anew. We had creatures to talk to, other than one another, two new friends/family members.

I now credit the cats with saving my life. I felt as though I would slip forever into the black hole of grief if I hadn’t reached for some bright spot at that moment. It needed to be a sort of rope that my children could also hold onto, and something independent of us. Most of all, we needed to laugh and have fun.

I’m not suggesting this for everyone facing the “What do I get a child for the birthday after their parent has died?” question. What I am suggesting is that a time comes when you will be ready to try to have moments of joy and laughter. You will not be forgetting or leaving your lost person behind. You will be adding some ray of sunshine back into your life. It was a part of the healing of my soul. The giant hole that I had felt in my torso for months was beginning to grow and fill itself in, and the first bit of healthy new tissue was the bit that allowed for momentary happiness – the kind one enjoys when watching a kitten play, or enjoying a pet who curls up in your lap to sleep. Moments of being present with only what I had, and appreciating the good that was there, and giving myself a break for a moment from the gigantic absence of my life-partner. My children, I think, were relieved to see me consciously decide to add happiness into our family.  We talked about it openly. I was choosing to let myself be happy. Children have that wonderful ability to play and enjoy moments more easily than adults, usually. So, for them, it was adding some moments of even greater, real childhood excitement.

Here are a few links for shelters in the US (I am listing these because I have friends who work with these. I am getting no benefit other than the nice feeling it gives me to think about my nice friends doing nice work):