Grief Lessons I’ve Learned from my Cat

A humorous but helpful way to talk about our relationship with grief

I’m Danica, and my husband and I are founders and owners of Project Grief, an online course that teaches art as a tool for grief recovery. I work from home, and I love nature walks, doing art, and…my cat. We adopted Midnight from a shelter here in Boise, Idaho, only three months ago, and already she’s made a big impact in how we live our lives. We love her, and she provides a lot of fun & laughter in our quiet lives.

Working from home, I’ve gotten a little lonely, which is one of the reasons why we got a cat. I’ll find myself talking to her as I go throughout my day, and she’s a pretty verbal cat, so she often meows in reply. Because I’ve been working on launching our course, Project Grief, it dawned on my one day that my relationship with Midnight actually has some insights into how I relate to grief in general. Let me explain.

Why in the world do I think Grief and my cat are similar?

  1. If grief were a color, it’d be black. Black is composed of all the colors in high saturation, all mixed together. The emotion of grief is composed of millions of tiny other emotions and thoughts, so intense it looks and feels like complete darkness. Thus, Grief is black. And so is Midnight, of course.
  2. The grief process is a roller coaster emotions. It’s unpredictable and has its own ups and downs. You might feel like the low lasts forever, then it suddenly changes, then changes back. Grief is moody, just like my cat.
  3. Grief is self-absorbed. The shock and pain of a loss often turns you inward, forcing you into a season of reflection, memory, and self-care. This is entirely normal and healthy. But sometimes when it goes on too long, it can become an unhealthy obsession with self, to the detriment of current relationships, personal health, and the final “letting go” or “moving on” that needs to happen in order to start living again. Grief is as self-absorbed. Just like your cat.
  4. Grief is always hungry. When it approaches the hour before dinnertime, Midnight starts yowling for food like she hasn’t eaten in a week. We’re trying to train her out of this habit, but still no matter what time of day, if we look like we’re approaching her food bowl, she’ll ask us (not so politely) to fill it. When we first got her, Midnight also yowled for our attention, especially in the mornings or at night when she wanted to play. Grief is also always hungry for attention. It is often all-consuming and it never asks nicely.
  5. Grief sleeps all day and works all night. You’ve likely tried to employ the strategy of distraction in order to cope with grief. You’ll busy yourself at work, volunteer to do things, pick up a new hobby, etc, but when it comes to lying down in bed at night, thoughts about your loved one, the circumstances of the loss, etc, just won’t stop. Cats are notoriously nocturnal as well. It’s amazing how much energy an animal can have after they’ve slept all day.
  6. Grief won’t leave you alone while you pee…. OK just kidding - or not. Anyone else have a cat that is just fascinated by the human act of relieving oneself in a toilet? She’ll burst in at the most awkward moments, as if she didn’t get the memo. Grief doesn’t read memos either. Tell it not to come, close the door, and it’ll show up anyways.

OK cat, teach us. We’re listening.

Lessons my cat taught me & applications to living with grief... Midnight (symbolically representing Grief) says:

  1. “Sometimes I just want acknowledgement.” OK, this might be Midnight’s cutest and most annoying quality. Walk in the door, walk into a room, or try sleeping in later than normal, and if she’s lounging somewhere in said room, you’ll get the cutest “meow-hi!” ever. Grief likes acknowledgement too. UNacknowledged Grief becomes unhealthy, then starts screaming for attention. UNacknowledged Grief will take you down if it’s not attended to (not that Midnight could do that…). Acknowledging grief when it asks you to - even if it’s just for a short pat on the head- helps cultivate a healthy relationship between the two of you. Acknowledged grief is a lot more willing to work with you.
  2. “The longer you ignore me, the crazier I’ll get.” Midnight has made good on her promise. Ignore her meows, and she’ll find another way to get my attention (options: bat a fallen object across the hardwood floor, scratch the couch, attack the carpet for no apparent reason, start yowling.) Guess what? Ignored grief doesn’t go away either. It actually gets louder & comes out in strange ways. Just type “suppressed grief symptoms” into a Google search and you’ll see what I mean.
  3. “I don’t always want your attention. I’m not a dog, thank you very much. ” I’ve tried to pet Midnight when she doesn’t want me to and… yeah it doesn’t go so well. Or I’ll scoop her up to put her on my lap and she stays for .2 milliseconds, then jumps down, because it wasn’t her idea to sit on your lap. Grief isn’t like a dog. It doesn’t obey orders. It doesn’t give you a happy, sloppy kiss when you come home from work. Grief doesn’t care to follow you everywhere you go. It’s more of a subtle acknowledgement, learning to co-exist. Grief will let you know if it needs your attention. That’s good news to those who think if they give it an inch, it’ll take a mile (I know when I was grieving, I was afraid if I let the first tears fall, they’d never stop). If you give grief the attention it wants when it wants it, it’ll likely leave you alone the rest of the time.
  4. “I would very much like to call all the shots. Now bow to me, human.” Nice try, Midnight. Actually I hold the power in this relationship, and for good reason. I’ll create a monster-cat if I give in to Midnight all the time. Good healthy grief has valid needs but unmanaged, spoiled diva-cat grief becomes unhealthy. That’s when grief becomes needy, disruptive, and deceptive (and no, Midnight’s not that bad, she just needs to learn who’s house she’s living in). Midnight isn’t meant to run my life any more than grief is. I’m meant to run my life (and you’re meant to run yours!). In order to do that, I need to take an active role in Midnight’s life, but even more so, I need to take an active role in my own.
  5. When it’s dark at night, I will lie still like a pile of laundry. But I will still fault you for stepping on my tail.” Remember, grief is a black cat - any dark puddle-like shape could be her - so at night I need a light to see her clearly. I think the same goes for our grief. Don’t squander precious hours of sleep laying awake in your bed. Turn the metaphorical light on so you can see grief more clearly. Get up, turn on the lamp and sip a cup of tea, journal, paint, or call a friend. You’ll be glad you did.

Thank you for your time, Midnight. Any take-aways you’d like to give us?

“Why yes, human. Here you go:”

  1. “Please simply acknowledge grief when it starts meowing.”
  2. “Let yourself take a cat nap if you need to. I do it all the time when I feel overwhelmed.”
  3. “As much as I hate to admit this, don’t let grief run you over. Be the human.”
  4. “Turn on the light so you can see it clearly. Don’t trip over it in the dark.”
  5. “This is unrelated but I’d like to remind you it’s dinner time. K thanks.”

Got any more grief lessons you could learn from a cat? Leave a Comment - I’d LOVE to hear them!

Like what you hear? Sometimes it’s helpful to think of the things we’re going through in a different way. That’s the philosophy behind our online grief course as well.

Contrary to this post, there are no cats involved, but we do teach art as a tool for recovery from grief! And no, you don’t have to have any art experience in order to enroll. It’s our job to teach you.

To learn more about Project Grief, visit us here.