Surviving The Holidays Without Your Cat

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This blog is part of a series as I process my grief over the loss of my cat, Zoloft, in the hope of helping others process their grief. I am sharing a new blog post every month for the first year on different topics related to grieving a pet. While my focus is on cats, the advice is applicable to dogs, birds, or any other pet you love.

Some of the most joyous times in my life have come from holidays. I have fond memories from my childhood of wandering my neighborhood for candy on spooky Halloween nights, waking up to find presents from Santa, and staying up late to ring in the new year with friends and family. As I’ve gotten older, these memories have been a source of delight as I’ve looked back on the love and joy I experienced each year.

It’s no surprise that when Zoloft came into my life, I tried to make the holidays as magical as possible for him. We had many spooky Halloweens, merry Christmases, and even happy St. Patrick’s Days. He’d get gifts and special treats for each holiday. When he was diagnosed with cancer less than two weeks before Christmas last year, I immediately went out to grab more toys and things for him to help make what I correctly suspected may be his last Christmas a special one. I think I succeeded.

Needless to say, this year is going to be challenging. I’m writing some of these blogs a bit ahead of time to make sure they get published regularly should life or grief take over so I haven’t even gone through Halloween or Thanksgiving yet, but I am especially not looking forward to the winter holidays. There are already a lot of emotions surrounding them and Zoloft helped enhance those emotions. His absence will be challenging.

If you’ve found your way to my blog, I can only assume you may be finding the prospect of upcoming holidays after your cat died to be challenging. While my focus for this blog is going to be on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, this applies to any special holiday you may be celebrating. It also focuses on the first one since your cat passed, but it’s never too late to start a new tradition to celebrate your cat no matter how long it has been.

Even if something I suggest doesn’t exactly fit with whichever holiday you’re finding tough, you may be able to modify it to celebrate your cat and your love for your cat in a different way. There are so many holidays out there and so many different days that are special to different people that I can’t possibly include them all so I hope my ideas help you regardless of the season or how recently you lost your sweet cat.

If You Find The Holidays Hard Already

First, I want to start out with an acknowledgment of many of you who are out there. While I clearly have found holidays to be a good thing, there was a period when certain holidays weren’t my thing so on some level I get not looking forward to them. For some people, the holidays are actually a painful reminder of past traumas or can exacerbate loneliness. They aren’t always a great time of year.

Chances are, going through a time of year when there’s pressure to be happy and social when you just don’t feel like it will be extra tough for you. I still hope this post gives you some ideas for things to try to celebrate your cat for two reasons: I obviously hope it helps you grieve your cat and helps you on your journey of missing them.

Beyond that, I hope it helps you feel less bad about the holidays in general. That doesn’t mean you have to turn your life into a real-life Hallmark movie or anything like that, but clearly, your cat was very special to you. Maybe, by doing something special to celebrate your cat, it may give you something to look forward to that isn’t tied to a holiday itself. A day that means something to everyone else can be a really special day for you to remember your kitty instead and maybe it can give you a new way of getting through the day.

Keep Traditions Alive In A Different Way

For people who do enjoy holidays, traditions are an important part of holidays for many people. There may be cultural level traditions or traditions that occur within a subgroup such as a family or group of friends. Some people may develop personal traditions that only they do. When getting a pet, you often incorporate those sweet little furballs into your already standing traditions.

A calico cat sitting by some Christmas lights with a tree in the background.
In some cases, they incorporate themselves into our traditions. Photo by Jasmin Schuler.

While your cat may not be here to carry out the traditions in the same way, there’s no reason you can’t keep doing them in a modified form. As an example, I got a custom stocking for Zoloft the first year I got him from a seller on Etsy. This year, I found her shop is still open and ordered a new one for Prozac and Poutine that are different but match the one I have for Z. You bet that all of them are going up.

I won’t be filling Zoloft’s stocking with toys and gifts for him like I normally would, but he’s still part of my life. I plan to continue to hang his stocking every year to remind myself of how much fun we had.

Perhaps you have something else you do yearly that you could incorporate your cat into. It may be getting a memorial ornament and having a special ritual when you hang it up. If you have a holiday gathering, perhaps you set out some extra pictures of your cat. Maybe you make a toast to them or say a few words when you’re thanking your guests for stopping by. If you make a donation for the holidays, maybe you allocate some of your funding or donations to a local cat charity.

The point isn’t the specifics of what you do necessarily as that will be totally individualized to your situation. The point is that things will be different this year even if you don’t want them to be. Make that difference something less bad and really special.

Make New Traditions

Traditions may be similar across the years, but new traditions come up all the time. Every tradition needs a start and you can always start your own new tradition this year. It will grow year after year and become more special as time goes on, but you need to start somewhere.

If you find connecting with others to help, perhaps you could hold some sort of memorial gathering for your cat or for others who have recently lost pets. It can be a place to talk about special holiday memories and connect with others who may be helping. It can be as festive or somber as you feel fits. If you don’t have folks in your life who are also grieving a cat, maybe you can gather people who support you. It can be as simple as having friends over to make cookies and look at photos of your cat.

Over the years, you can continue to gather. It may not always be focused on your cat, but you can continue to meet year after year. Your cat will likely come up when you reflect on how the tradition started because it will be a special tradition that started because of your cat.

Help Other Cats

There are a lot of cats who will be without a home over the holidays and while they absolutely need resources year-round, the holidays can be a time when they can build up those resources. Consider making a donation to a cat charity and continuing that each year. It can be as simple as swinging by a local pet store and grabbing an extra toy to bring to the shelter.

Better yet, maybe you volunteer at a local shelter to spend time with the cats there. It will not only help get your mind off the grief a bit, but you’ll help bring a bit of happiness to their lives.

Add A Little Joy

If surviving the holidays without your cat sounds like it’s just too much, perhaps you focus on adding something joyous to your life. It could be something you don’t typically do like getting a Christmas tree (which you can absolutely keep any new kitties out of a Christmas tree) or putting up some extra lights. Maybe you make cookies when you haven’t in a few years. You can even find a cat shaped cookie cutter to make special cat cookies!

Whatever you do, it doesn’t necessarily have to be directly related to your cat. If it may bring you happiness, give it a try. If you do it with the intention of honoring your cat, it still is a way of celebrating them. Plus, years from now when you’re still doing it, you can tell the story of how you got started with the tradition following the loss of your cat. It’s a great way to keep their memory alive and talk about how special they were.

Do Something For Your Other Pets

This section was added 12/28/23 so the tense is different than the rest of the post.

If you have new cats or other pets, you start a fun tradition for them that incorporates the cat you lost. I was struggling with not getting Zoloft a present this year and thinking back to how I filled his stocking with gifts last year. This year, it was empty.

This sparked a simple new holiday tradition that I plan on doing every year moving forward. I decided it needed to have something in it so I added a Churu for him. On Christmas, one of the dudes’ presents was a ceramic heart treat dish. They each got their own Churu, but I opened the Churu from Zoloft’s stocking and gave it to them to share so they each got a bit of an extra treat from/in honor of their older brother.

Prozac, a flame point Siamese cat, and Poutine, a lynx point Siamese cat, lick a Churu off a white ceramic heart dish being held by Joey.
It was adorable and helped me a lot.

While I prepared it, I let them know that this Churu was in honor of their brother and I shared stories of our Christmases together. It didn’t really matter that they weren’t listening because there was Churu to be eaten. I reflected on Zoloft getting fun toys and of snuggles while watching Christmas movies. I plan to add a Churu to Zoloft’s stocking every year for the dudes so they can get an extra Christmas treat in honor of their brother and to keep him part of the celebration. When I am eventually grieving these two, I’ll do the same for their successors in honor of all three of them.

Reframe Your Thinking

It can be easy to get caught up in what is missing when it’s something as precious as your cat. At times, the memories of them not being there may sting and it can be easy to get caught in the cycle of focusing on that. While certainly not a cure all, sometimes trying to interrupt that cycle with another thought can help.

For example, if you’re thinking about how you won’t be shopping for a present for your cat this year, try thinking about how much they enjoyed a particular present you got them in the past. You can both acknowledge how much the loss and not being able to do so stings while still fondly remembering when you were able to get them a special gift. It may even help to write down some of those memories.

To combine this with a suggestion from above, you could also choose to still buy a toy, treat, or something else you know they would have loved. Rather than keeping it, you could donate it to a shelter or even give it to a friend whose cat may enjoy it. By doing this, you both acknowledge the extreme difficulty of the loss you experienced while also celebrating your cat’s life and continuing your special bond.

Skip What You Don’t Have The Capacity For

I’ve talked a lot about traditions and chances are you have a lot of holiday traditions. It could be something elaborate like throwing a holiday party or something simple like putting up holiday decorations. Maybe you’re invited to a holiday party or normally travel for the holidays. Whatever it is, you may not feel like doing it this year.

Honestly? That’s totally okay. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to or don’t have the capacity for. Grief takes up a lot of mental energy. Even things you enjoy like hanging holiday lights may seem completely draining. You don’t have to do any decorating or do as much decorating as you normally would. You can turn down the invitation to the holiday party and feel zero guilt about it.

Don’t Completely Shut Down

While skipping some things may be the best course of action, also try to remember that completely shutting down isn’t healthy either. You don’t have to choose between doing nothing or doing all the things. Pick the things that bring you the most happiness usually or are the easiest for you to do and do those. Everything else? You can resume it next year.

One suggestion would be to take out anything related to your cat such as holiday photos or ornaments that have their paw print. That way, you aren’t completely shutting them out and continue to celebrate them in a different way. Of course, if this would be too upsetting then maybe you do the opposite. I know I’ll be taking the very special photo of Zoloft with Santa out this year and displaying it prominently, but you may not be ready to do the same with your Zoloft.

Zoloft, a lynx point Siamese cat, is held by Santa Claus.
I’ll miss my sweet elf this year, but his memory is a treasure.

You also want to be careful about not isolating. Social connections can be extremely helpful in navigating grief and isolating is only going to make things worse. Make sure, even if it’s not something related to the holidays themselves, you are staying connected with people. Meet up for dinner with a friend or maybe go to one holiday party for a little while. Keep the humans in your life close as they’ll help prop you up.

Surviving (And Finding Peace During) The Holidays Without Your Cat

Getting through the holidays without your cat is going to be a challenge. Whether this is your first year without them or it has been many, the memories of cozy Christmases past may come with a sting. You may not find yourself feeling as festive as you used to. If the holidays are hard to begin with, you may find this year is a little extra tough.

You don’t have to let Christmas or other holidays be all bad, though. There are ways you can combine traditions of the past along with creating new traditions that both celebrate your cat and create new, warm memories. Your cat can still be a part of your holidays even though they may not physically be there.

This will be my first Christmas without Zoloft and I know I’m going to have a hard time with the holiday season. Heck, I didn’t even take out my Halloween tree this year so we’ll see what I feel like doing as the holidays actually roll around. We had a lot of very special holidays together and I will miss them every year. I also am looking forward to seeing how I can continue to keep Zoloft’s presence part of the magic of the holiday season. It isn’t how I’d prefer to celebrate him, but I know the memories will continue to be a part of the magic of the season for the rest of my days.

Despite the challenges of not having your sweet cat here, I hope you have a happy holiday season. May your cat’s memory be a gift that fills you with warmth.

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Joey Lusvardi

Joey Lusvardi CCBC is an IAABC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and professional cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation and cat training service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. Joey is available for in home sessions locally or virtual sessions wherever you are located!