Stoicism and Grieving A Pet’s Death by Greg Sadler

A little over two months back, our 19-year-old cat Sassy died. She enjoyed a long and interesting life for a cat, and her death was about as good as one can hope for.  When my wife adopted her and her sister Teensy – the only surviving kittens from an apartment fire in New York City – Sassy was given a very short life expectancy. “Love this one while you can,” the vet said. She had many health problems in her early years, losing half her tail, requiring daily antibiotics, and never losing her wheezy snore (no doubt due to smoke damage). But Sassy went on to outlive the rest of our “four legged family” – her sister and our two dogs, Amica and Magnus.

We had a few scares over the years, where it looked like Sassy’s ever-bright spirit had finally outlasted her worn, running-down, and aged body. She would go into a decline, shedding weight for example, and then she would rally, but we could tell each time her body was a bit less resilient, that the inevitable end was closer.  Her last month or so, she became less mobile, less interested in the wide range of foods she had previously loved, groomed herself less attentively, and it seemed like she was winding down.  Monday night of Sassy’s last week, my wife found her lying in her covered litter box, and I carried her out, placed her the bunkbed she had long since claimed, and cleaned her thoroughly with wipes. From that point on, as in other recent illnesses, I slept nights downstairs with Sassy in that bunkbed, with her curled up on her own little cat-bed (on top of the bunkbed) and in my arms.

She got progressively weaker each day, had trouble keeping down the broth, paste, and water she took less and less of, and stopped getting out of her bed to use the litter box. I cleaned her up frequently, and we swapped out her blankets and the cat-bed for washing daily.  She didn’t seem to be in pain though, which is a mercy, and she still enjoyed cuddling, getting petted and scratched, and getting picked up and carried out to the living room in my arms. When I took meetings or wrote on my laptop in the room, she alternated dozing off with poking her head up to watch me from across the room.  As the week went, and it became clear there was a good chance she was dying, I cancelled my remaining appointments, and just stayed with Sassy.  By Thursday, she was too weak to stand on her own, wasn’t interested in any food, and could drink only a little water with me holding her up. She spent much of the day resting over my shoulder or splayed out on my chest, just breathing, getting petted and talked to, and occasionally lifting her head to look into my eyes.

In the late afternoon, she was lying on my chest, and started making a sound like a hiccup and jerking a little. I put her down on her cat-bed now on the living room floor and covered her partly with one of her blankets. We petted her lightly, and we both told her what a good girl she was and that we loved her, for about the two minutes she was dying. I told her that she would always stay with me in my heart. She had her gaze on me the entire time, until her body stilled and relaxed, and her eyes half shut and eventually clouded.

I was Sassy’s person. My wife had rescued and cared for her and the other members of the pack, and Sassy loved her. But the first time we met 12 years ago, we became immediate friends, and over the years our bond strengthened and expanded. I have had and known many cats, dogs, and other animals, but Sassy was the one with whom I developed the deepest connection. I was the human she looked to the most for comfort and security. Until she began sleeping exclusively in the downstairs room in her last months, she slept each night nestled in my arms. I took her on walks around town and we hung out on our apartment’s sun-deck. She expected at least to be offered whatever I was eating. When I would leave the apartment, Sassy would look and call for me, with a cry she didn’t use for anything else.

The Next Several Days

Before I shift explicitly to discussing what ancient Stoic philosophers have to teach us about death, grieving, and animals, I’d like to take just a little more space to continue the story. It might prove helpful to provide some context.

Before, while, and after Sassy died, I experienced some bouts of sadness. They were short when they hit, but they went deep, and sometimes they brought me to tears for a bit.  I’ve grieved the deaths of many people and animals in the course of my life, and at this point, I’d say I understand both my own emotional makeup and responses, and a good bit about human emotions more generally, derived both from experience, and from insights distilled through studies in philosophy, literature, and psychology. I know enough to expect those moments and moods to arise quite naturally and normally as one grieves. I also have some sense about how to approach and understand them as they happen.

The day after she died, I posted a picture of Sassy’s empty bed with her beloved “butterscotch” blanket – a childhood gift from my grandmother, who died in 1977, which was just the right size and texture for our little cat – writing in my social media: “Our little Sassy cat is gone. She died yesterday afternoon, petted and comforted by my wife and I, looking at me as her body and spirit gave out. She was very loved and I was her person. My heart is alternately full of memories of her and empty in grief over her.”

Responses you get when someone close to you dies span a wide range. Many of them fall solidly under the “sorry for your loss” rubric. You can’t really go wrong with that (unless someone wants to be a pedant and ask how you can be sorry if you didn’t do anything wrong).  There were a surprising number of people who wrote about the joy that seeing posts about Sassy had given them over the years (which I wrote about here).  Some expressed their own grief over pets they had lost, or fears about how painful the future loss of their present pets might prove for them.

A few other responses provide a useful lead-in to some explicitly Stoic-informed reflections. Some people assumed I was completely gutted, devastated, or heartbroken by Sassy’s loss.  A few suggested to me I should get over my grief by getting another kitten. One person, well-meaning no doubt, gave specific and unhelpful advice about applying Stoicism.

Would Stoicism Rule Out Grieving A Pet?

It would seem that – from what we might call a certain kind of “old-school” Stoic perspective – my feeling and expressing grief over losing a cat to death, however close we were, would be something bad. It would be a sign that whatever claims I make about practicing and studying Stoicism, I’m certainly failing to apply it properly in this case. (As I note below, I have zero problem admitting I’m not one of those legendary perfected Stoic sages, and that I remain at most a prokopton, a person making gradual progress.)  What would be particularly wrong or mistaken from that “old-school” perspective?  Three things come straight to mind:

  • The emotion of grief is viewed as something inherently bad for the one experiencing it, an affect that arises from false beliefs and judgements.
  • If one does have to suffer grief, it could and should be kept to oneself. Referencing the loss and one’s feelings about it, particularly in the public form of social media, presents a distinctly unedifying example.
  • Allowing oneself to be so attached to a non-human animal, lacking rationality and thus the dignity of a human being, is silly. Grieving for a human being is bad enough, but feeling that for a mere animal?

Given that in the present day, we know far more about animal behavior and capacities than people did in ancient times, I tend to think that the hard line between humans and other animals, drawn on the basis of rationality, doesn’t hold so clearly and unproblematically as the ancient Stoics thought. But that’s a topic for another time, another post.  Suffice it to say that while I don’t claim that cats are “persons” in precisely the ways human beings are, or that they possess that complex and development set of matters we call “rationality” to any great extent, I do think it is possible to develop and enjoy a deep connection analogous to friendship, marked not just by familiarity and affection but also love.

Stoicism, Rationality, and Emotions

The Stoics developed a complex, attentive, and influential theory of the emotions. (As a side-note, if you’re interested in these topics, I highly recommend Margaret Graver’s book Stoicism and Emotion.)  They classified emotions under four main headings, which can be translated as Desire/Appetite (epithumia), Fear (phobos), Pleasure/Delight (hedonē), and Pain/Distress (lupē). All of the various emotions that fall under these categories, from a Stoic perspective, are strictly speaking bad.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that everything we call “emotions” are bad, for the Stoics actually praise a number of affective states as good or as what we ought to feel, affection (philostorgia) for example.  Corresponding to three of the main headings, there are also the “good emotional states” (eupatheiai), like joy, rational desire, and caution, each of which likewise includes several emotions.

Grief over the loss of a loved one is a kind of pain or distress, and in some of the systematic summaries of Stoic views on emotions, it gets named and briefly described as such, for example in book 4 of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, where he tells us “mourning [luctus] is distress arising from the untimely death of a beloved object . . . deep grief [dolor] is torturing distress. . . lamenting is distress accompanied by wailing,” among other things.”  Quite a few of the modalities of pain or distress that are discussed in these overviews of emotion could well apply to the person who is grieving a loss, but we needn’t go too deep into that here.  What’s really important is that, unlike with the other three main types of emotion, for the Stoics there is no good or rational version of pain or distress, and that means that there seemingly won’t be any good or rational counterpart of grief as an emotion.

This is a matter on which I have my doubts. Can’t there be any positive correlate to the category of pain or distress, where one feels it in a proper manner, integrated with rationality? The Stoics to be sure do offer some arguments why this can’t be the case, but I find them unconvincing. Some things Seneca says about grieving seem to open the possibility of grieving in a befitting and rational manner. We can even read some of what Epictetus says in a similar light.  One of the key factors that differentiates bad emotional responses from good ones for the Stoics is their dissonance or integration with our rationality. Again, from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, book 3: “[A]ll negative emotion [perturbatio] is a movement of the soul either lacking [expers] reason, or contemptuous of [aspernans] reason, or disobedient to reason.” Might it not be the case that some cases of grief do reflect our rationality, rather than go against it in one of these three ways?

There is one other consideration worth bringing up in this brief excursus into the deep topic of Stoicism and emotion.  Grieving is in many cases not simply feeling grief. The emotional relations and responses to the loved one lost in their death can include other modalities, and are not reducible merely to grief.  Joy, love, affection, appreciation, gratitude – these name just a few positive emotional responses not just compatible with rationality, but perhaps even embodying it. Remembering the dead in a positive light, it is natural and even rational to feel these sorts of positive emotions alongside of the pain of loss.

That has largely been my experience with losing our little old cat possessed of so much personality.  There is sadness that her life had to end, there are moments of grief, there is even longing for the possibility of interacting again – giving her bits of my smoked salmon or cream cheese as a treat at breakfast time, for example.  But I experience many other emotions as well. The love remains, even when the loved one has died.  Appreciation for the cat she was, and gratitude for the surprisingly deep and complex relationship we were fortunate to enjoy.  Joy in remembering all the things we did together, all the places we went.  Since I took and posted many pictures of Sassy over the years, Facebook brings up “memories” of her most days. When I first reposted one of those “memories,” one of my friends worried that those near-daily reminders of her would keep reviving the grief, but I actually have had a different experience. These “memories” constitute a daily opportunity to once again see images of her. At this point, that feels bittersweet, as we say, but it’s much more sweet than bitter.

Getting Attached To And Grieving For Pets

Epictetus is known for being uncompromisingly rigorous and realistic in his Stoic teaching and advice. Among one of his hardest sayings is Enchiridion 3:

With everything that entertains you, is useful, or of which you are fond [stergomenōn], remember to say to yourself, beginning with the least things “what is its nature?”  If you are fond of a jug, say “I am fond of a jug.”  For when it is broken, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child or wife, say to yourself that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies you will not be disturbed.

To many, deliberately adopting such an attitude seems harsh and cold. As I have pointed out elsewhere, Epictetus is in no way saying we should withdraw from those we feel fond of, or more literally, towards whom we have affection. No more than other Stoics – recall what Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Marcus Aurelius have to say about this – is he advocating that we avoid attachments like love, affection, and friendship. Understanding and living these out in a rational way is, however, what he does clearly think we should do.

This advice can be very helpful when it comes to our relationships with pets, I think.  This is especially true for people whose strongest and most lasting relationships might in fact be with a dog, a cat, a bird, or some other animal dependent upon them, living with and loving them.  Certainly when it comes to cats and dogs, unless one is old or in poor health, one should reasonably expect that the little cute puppy or kitten one takes on and bonds with – even if it does live a long and happy life – will grow old or sick and die at some point within one’s own lifetime.  Sassy was fortunate to live to nineteen years old. We hoped she would be with us longer, but she had already beaten the odds many times. Both of our dogs made it to fourteen years old, but no further.

Reminding yourself daily about the nature of the people or animals you love might seem like imposing an unnecessary reservedness upon the relationship, but it doesn’t have to be applied that way. Epictetus does say “when you kiss,” after all, not “don’t kiss because that means getting attached”!  You might actually take the reminder as a reason to kiss all the more, to say kindly and affectionate things, to prioritize spending time together.

As the end came for Sassy, I found myself certainly sad, and wishing her body wasn’t in decline, but not overwhelmingly so.  In moments like this it is evident that years of studying and practicing Stoic philosophy has paid off in positive effects on my emotional life and reactions. In my case, it isn’t so much that I remind myself of any specific passage from Stoic texts, or deliberately walk myself through some process or practice.  Instead, it’s an overall cumulative effect.  And I find it frees me up so that I can be more attentive, more present to those I care about, in this case our old cat as she died over the course of days.  For me, it’s preferable to put in the Stoic work ahead of time, so I don’t have to make an effort to

Replacing Lost Friends and Pets?

As I mentioned above, a few people made what I imagine they thought a helpful suggestion.  Instead of lingering in grief for the old cat you have just lost, go out and get a kitten to replace her.  I won’t say that this is across the board terrible advice – it might actually be good for some people to do that, I suppose – but it definitely isn’t something I’d want to do, for several reasons.

Before I mention them, though, I will note that Seneca does say something similar about replacing friends in Letter 9.  There he writes:

He is self-sufficient, not that he wants to be without a friend, but in that he is able to – by which I mean that he bears the loss with equanimity. But in truth, he will never be without a friend, for it rests with him how quickly he gets a replacement. Just as Phidias, if he should lose one of his statues, would immediately make another, so this artist at friend-making will substitute another in place of the one who is lost.

Of course, just for context, there he is describing the ideal Stoic wise person, not outlining a path that all of us can easily adopt, or even should force ourselves down.  For those of us who are not sages – and likely never will become one – it is probably a bad idea to simply and quickly substitute a new relationship in place of the older one we have lost. It’s better that we give it some time, work through our feelings, and then rationally decide what would make sense for ourselves.

I’m in no hurry to bring another cat into our household.  I’d rather live with the daily reminders of Sassy and slowly process all the things I’m thinking and feeling.  We may get a kitten or two years from now.  In the meantime, when I do decide I want to be engaged with cats again, I’ll go volunteer at one of the local shelters, where I’ll give affection, attention, and care to cats who then get more than they would otherwise get.

Rational Grief and Remembering The Dead

In another Letter, number 63, Seneca is consoling and advising Lucilius after his friend Flaccus has died.  He writes:

Not grieve at all? That I will not venture to ask of you, though I know it would be better. . . . As for us, we may be forgiven our tears, if there are not too many, and if we do regain control.  Having lost a friend, you should not be dry-eyed, but neither should you drown in weeping. You should cry, but not wail.

This represents a recognition that we will indeed have emotional responses, specifically when we lose those we love, but that these can be maintained within the limits of a robust rationality.  Seneca also helpfully points out a mistaken point of view many fall into:

“What then?” you ask. “Shall I forget my friend?”  It’s not very long that you are promising to remember him if your memory lasts only as long as your grief.

Quite a few people mistakenly construe excessive sadness and grief – particularly in its public display – with the depth of love or affection the bereft has for the one they have lost.  But there is no necessary interconnection, and thinking it through rationally, there is no reason why these would be bound up in that way.  Instead, Seneca points out, we have the option to “make the memory of those  who are gone a pleasant one”.

And, since it’s time to wrap up these reflections before they grow overlong, this leads to a last consideration that Seneca (among others) provides. One of the things that is in our power, from a Stoic perspective, is the use we make of our thoughts, specifically our memories.  We can exercise our minds and recall our memories of those we have lost.  That can in fact be a significant part of the grieving process, and can continue on through the rest of our life.  For some, these memories are bittersweet, but Seneca asserts: “My experience is different. To me, the thought of friends who have died is sweet, even comforting.”

Even for those friends who are still alive, Seneca points out in Letter 55, we have a capacity – should we choose to recognize and employ it – for relating to our friends through our mental image of them.

One may converse with friends in their absence; in fact, you can do so as often as you wish, and for a long as you like. . . .One has to hold on to one’s friend mentally, for the mind is never absent, and sees everyone it wants to every single day.

Something like that is what I meant when I said to Sassy in her last moments that she would live on in my heart. And I do deliberately call her to mind each day, this cat with whom I enjoyed as full a friendship as a human and cat can develop. At the present, that does still feel bittersweet, but the joy far outweighs the sadness, and my love her loss.


Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 200 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

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