Mindfulness Tools Help With Grief

Losing beloved cats, whether death is sudden or gradual, is a big deal. Even though I’ve been through at least 15 of these passings, my human mind can’t wrap my head around my companion’s absence. How can a being who means so much be gone? How can that bond be suddenly severed? How can we get through the emotionally exhausting grief?

Logically, we know we will likely outlive our animals. Emotionally, it’s a different story. The grieving process can be exhausting, even debilitating.

Recognizing that each of us moves through grief differently, and at different speeds, can the tools of mindfulness help us move through grief? Whether the objects of our sorrow are cats, dogs, other animals, or humans, mindfulness can clear a path toward acceptance.

What Is Mindfulness?

The term “mindfulness” has been tossed around a lot. To me, mindfulness means paying attention and achieving clarity in everyday. You may have heard the phrase “in the moment.” If you are “in the moment,” you are fully aware of whatever is going on or of the motivations behind your actions and thoughts.

Here’s a simple example. If your cat passes away, and you begin overeating, mindfulness is the moment when you recognize that your behavior has changed. Mindfulness might be saying to yourself, I’ve started overeating since Tiger passed. This is not something I normally do. It doesn’t feel good. Why am I doing this?

Just for a moment, you’ve managed to stop, observe, and feel what’s going on, and possibly question and examine your motives. That’s a neutral place, different from the place you were in when you were mindlessly overeating. This moment of mindfulness allows you to gain new awareness about yourself and your behaviors and take action if needed:

  • I’m overeating
  • Tiger is gone
  • Overeating might feel good in the moment, but doesn’t make the grief go away in the long run.
  • Overeating will give me other results I don’t want.

Notice that you didn’t beat yourself up for overeating. Mindfulness is the ability to observe yourself from a neutral place without creating more internal drama. Mindfulness is getting past the internal drama and noise that we all create and simply observing the truth, in that moment.

Achieving Mindfulness

Why practice mindfulness? Because we can understand ourselves better and possibly move through grief with more understanding. The grief may be no less painful, but we may understand it better. And we may bring less extraneous stress and drama to the process.

Take yourself out of your mind to observe your mind.

Meditation is one effective mindfulness tool to get to “neutral mind.” And it’s a great way to calm down. Meditation does not mean emptying your mind (this is nearly impossible). Meditation is the ability to train the mind to keep returning to a single point of focus. Getting good at returning to a single point of focus helps us get better at not getting sucked into drama in our mind and sticking with clarity and what’s most true.

Simple Techniques

Sit quietly and breathe (inhaling and exhaling through your nose, if possible). Try to notice only your breathing and the feeling of your breathing. If your thoughts start to wander, bring your thoughts back to feeling and watching the breath come in and out of your body. Keep bringing your awareness back to the feeling of your breath. Notice how many times you need to bring yourself back to that awareness. Do this repeatedly for a few moments.

Do the same thing with a candle. Focus on a candle. If your thoughts wander, bring your attention back to the candle. Do this repeatedly.

If you are in a stressful situation (such as receiving a frightening diagnosis for your cat), try to remember, in the moment, to just breathe. The diagnosis is going to be the same, but receiving it in a more neutral fashion might put you through a lot less stress in the moment.

Don’t React; Observe

I’ve been forced to practice mindfulness lately regarding my cat Keiran. He’s in the early stages of kidney disease, and he seems to have a kind of feline dementia. Feeding Keiran can take a lot of time. His short-term memory seems to be almost nonexistent; he’ll take a bite of food and wander dreamily away. I need to keep showing him the food and reminding him to eat.

It can take a lot of time, and I can get impatient. But when I allow myself to take a breath and look at the situation in a neutral way, I realize that part of my impatience and anger are fueled by fear:  fear that Keiran may be in the last half of his life. Using the tools of mindfulness to look at this situation in a neutral way helps me realize that my anger and impatience do no good and do not contribute to Keiran getting the food he’s hungry for (but forgets to eat). I’m making a practice of observing Keiran and not letting anger or impatience kick in.

Take yourself out of your mind, into the body, back to the mind.

I had a mindful insight after the death of my 21-year-old cat Jamie. After Jamie passed, I stopped doing yoga. I’d had a daily practice but I couldn’t bring myself to go through the yoga poses. When I stopped for a moment and gave myself the courage and the quiet to consider this, I realized, and admitted to myself, that I knew going through the poses would unleash grief I didn’t want to feel. I especially feared the Cobra (heart opening) pose, which I knew would open up my chest and heart and force me to feel something.

Just admitting this was a first step. The fact that I allowed myself to get quiet enough to admit this to myself was a moment of mindfulness. I didn’t want to feel the ugly grief. I was tired of feeling. But I also knew from that eventually I would have to go through grief, one way or another. When I was ready, I went into my quiet safe area and did a yoga practice. I grieved. But I did it on my own terms with full awareness.

Mindfulness takes courage, honesty, and practice. Even those who have been meditating for years still practice to tame their minds. But I believe that using mindfulness to go through grief helps us know ourselves better, provide for our cats better, and possibly avoid amplifying or distorting the process, helping us to move more healthily through the process.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Catherine Holm is the award-winning author of cat fantasy fiction and cat-themed memoir. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and six well-loved cats. Learn about her work at www.catherineholm.com.