Cats really do become members of the family. Domestic creatures form bonds with everyone from grandparents to tiny tots and make themselves at home in our family dynamics. Those of us who have welcomed animals of any size of shape into our lives will understand that, when it comes to love, the species doesn’t matter. Sadly, the joy of having a cat goes hand in hand with the heartbreak of losing one. It can be very hard to bear, not least for the children in the family. In fact, the loss of a family cat is often the first time a child will be confronted with the concept of death and it’s important to be able to discuss this with them so they can understand the grieving process, what it means, and how to deal with death.
It is natural to wish to shield your child from painful life experiences and it can be tempting to explain away the loss of a cat. My aunt used to tell her children that their pets had “run away”, hoping to protect them from the idea of death. After two rabbits, a guinea pig, a chinchilla and a cat had “run away” her children no longer engaged with new pets out of fear they would “run away” again and leave them bereft. Ultimately it is best to speak openly and honestly in a sensitive way to prepare your children for the realities of cat ownership.
For me, a big part of understanding the circle of life was watching films with my parents that introduced death in an engaging and non-threatening way. Films like Babe, Bambi and All Dogs go to Heaven can provide prompts for asking questions about death, and being able to provide the answers will help your child process the concept in a healthy way. It might be wise to read up on one of these films (be aware that All Dogs go to Heaven has some mildly frightening scenes) to arm yourself with answers and ways of talking about the issue that you are comfortable with. Speaking confidently and calmly about difficult matters can make your children feel more secure and less frightened. There are plenty of websites that can give you a detailed synopsis of the plot, or you could watch it alone to gauge whether it is suitable to provoke a discussion with your child.
Introducing the idea of death before the event can help to take the fear out of it, if not the sorrow. In the case of death by natural causes you have ample opportunity to gently discuss the ageing process with your children. As your cat slows down and gets older you can talk as a family about the changes in your cat’s behaviour and lead on to talking about them eventually passing away.
It shouldn’t just be your child asking questions, either. Asking them what they are thinking and how they are feeling is a way to help them assess their own emotional reaction to events going on around them. When they express these feelings it is an opportunity for you to let them know that it’s normal to react this way. Validating their sadness by empathising and being open about grief is a way of sharing the load. Grief is a process, not an event, and it is a lot easier to go through it together than to struggle alone.
A child’s age, maturity level and life experience will inform what is appropriate to disclose, for example a younger child may respond better to a more euphemistic approach and an older child might benefit from a slightly clearer explanation. You may prefer to be careful about phrases like “put to sleep” as, though they may sound gentler in an adult mind, some children are very literal and may not understand the turn of phrase. Words like “peaceful” and “painless” are good for conjuring up an idea of the event bringing serenity to the cat and being a sad but natural event.
In the long term, a healthy attitude towards the death of a cat and the grieving process will give your child a good understanding about the circle of life. Talking about the death of a cat can be upsetting for yourself as well as your children, so you should also take time to grieve yourself.
Death is a difficult thing to cope with. We become so close to our cats that it losing them is always saddening. The best thing to do for the whole family is focus, not on the fact that they died, but on the fact that they lived.