I never really understood grief until my cat died

As Belinda Carlisle animatedly jumped up and down on stage, the joyous crowd screamed along so loud it almost drowned her out.

‘They say in heaven love comes first,’ she sang to costume-clad music festival goers. ‘We’ll make heaven a place on Earth.’

That’s when I locked eyes with my husband, Matt, on the dance floor and he gave me a reassuring hand squeeze. Suddenly, tears started welling up in my eyes as I thought about my cat, Pookie.

We had to say goodbye to our beautiful boy just days beforehand — clearly, things were still quite raw. The music festival we’d been at all weekend had proved a much-needed distraction until then, but it seemed a mention of ‘heaven’ in a song had brought me right back to grief.

I’d never felt it so debilitating and all-consuming before. Why wasn’t I able to just switch it off?

If you had told me prior to adopting my cat that I’d be crying on the dance floor over him, I’d have told you to get a grip. But I ended up loving him so deeply that – even before he passed away – I mourned the prospect of not having him in my life.

It’s the first time I have truly felt this response to loss. And it’s still completely debilitating a few weeks on.

We adopted Pookie from the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in 2018 when Matt came across the profile of him on their website.

He was 14 then, which completely put me off. When I pictured a pet, I instinctively thought a kitten would be best because you’d get more time with it. I agreed to go to the shelter and at least meet him – among others – though.

As soon as the volunteer opened the gate to his pen, he curiously poked his head out of the cubby hole. We slowly walked in, and within minutes he was up and coolly sauntering over to us.

Pookie then nudged my arm, inviting me to pat him. As I scratched his little head, he let out a tiny pur. That’s the moment I fell in love and knew we were taking him home with us.

Once we signed all the paperwork, paid his fee and were told about his medical history – an irregular heartbeat and he’d just had all of his teeth removed (except four) due to infection – we hopped in an Uber and brought him back.

‘Introduce him to his new environment slowly,’ the volunteer warned us on our way out. ‘He may take a few hours or even days to come out of hiding.’

Within about 15 minutes, he was excitedly jumping all over us and the furniture, enthusiastically exploring every room.

He slotted into our lives almost immediately. He loved cuddles, so even though we bought a brand new cat bed for him, he’d curl up in a ball at the end of ours– to stay close to us.

He was loud, messy, boisterous and constantly purring – and we couldn’t get enough of him.

Pookie’s health was always at the back of my mind though. In fact, his list of problems grew longer and longer over time.

After jumping down from the bed awkwardly one day a couple of years ago, the vet did an X-ray and found creeping arthritis in his hips. He also developed both kidney and thyroid problems, which caused him to occasionally be sick.

On 11 January this year, I was on a work Zoom call when I noticed Pookie struggling to walk before collapsing. We picked him up, popped him on the bed and gave him lots of cuddles.

That’s when I noticed that he wasn’t purring, which caused tears to stream down my face so hard that they were falling on his fur. When the vet came, I started trying to explain what happened but couldn’t get my words out because the tears started again. God, what was wrong with me?

I know now that it’s a phenomenon called anticipatory grief – when you feel sadness before a death even happens. I was already mourning what my life would be like without him.

Remarkably, after a long sleep, he seemed to bounce back. Over the next few days though, we noticed he was going off his food and urinating more frequently. By 20 January, he wasn’t meowing for his dinner anymore and only unenthusiastically licked it when it came.

He dramatically worsened over the next few days to the point it was obvious he felt discomfort walking around, as his back legs completely gave out. I was crying myself to sleep every night – seeing him in so much pain broke my heart.

The moment we knew we’d have to have a serious conversation about giving him a dignified end to his life was when we were woken up by our sweet boy collapsing inside his litter tray.

Matt and I – through lots more tears – agreed to put him to sleep.

I spent the whole next day by his side – picking him up and taking him to his bowl when he needed a drink of water. Mostly, he just quietly sat in my lap while I sobbed on and off.

I won’t go into too much detail about that evening, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced.

At one point, after prepping him for the procedure, he limped over to lie in my lap for comfort. I needed it just as much as he did. Then he slowly drifted off.

Later that night, Matt and I held each other tight, but it felt devastating not to be cuddling Pookie too. That’s the thing I’m still not used to – an empty space that our special little guy filled.

There was no more shadow under the bathroom door waiting for me to come out from my morning shower, and no more lying on the sofa while watching the Real Housewives of Potomac with him sitting on my chest.

I had to come to terms with a new normal – deafening silence that my cat’s constant purr would usually fill.

In my next therapy session, my voice became shaky as I tried to explain what happened.

We spoke about loss and the fact that this felt so heavy for me. I logically knew he was gone – I watched it happen – but a small part of me still hoped he’d walk around the corner, climb up his stairs to the bed and flop down next to me.

I’d never felt so affected by grief before – and I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that it will probably stick around for a long time to come.

I remember feeling sad after the only grandma I ever knew died when I was nine, but I didn’t really understand death then so I think I was more upset to see my mother cry. This feels different because Pookie was my responsibility and a constant part of my life.

I’m almost thankful it’s taken my whole life — over 30 years — to properly go through this. It’s completely debilitating and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

It’s taught me a valuable lesson in empathy for others though.

When I see other people posting on social media about losing a pet, I’ll know what they’re feeling. I might get emotional thinking about my brave, curious guy, but I’ll also feel happy I got to experience so much love for something else.

Perhaps it’s a cliché, but I’m reminded of the famous line in WandaVision: What is grief if not love persevering?

I finally know what this truly feels like.

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