Interview with Author Sarah Chauncey About Pet Loss

P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna is a project by Sarah Chauncey. It will be the first illustrated gift book for adults grieving a companion cat, but has also taken on the form of a website and a supportive community on Facebook and on Instagram.

Although Sarah doesn’t describe herself as a cat lady, when she lost her cat Hedda of 20 years, she desperately wanted to know that Hedda had felt loved. One day she received a drawing from a friend with a note “from” Hedda that ended, “p.s. I love you more than tuna.” The note caused Sarah to bawl but at the same time her writing instincts kicked in and she thought, “Wow, that would be a great book title.” And so she wrote the first draft of P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna.

Photo provided by Sarah Chauncey
Photo provided by Sarah Chauncey

Over the past 25 years, Sarah has written and edited for nearly every medium. Her professional experience runs the gamut from personal essays and short stories, to entertainment and lifestyle journalism, academic journals, television writing and production, brand storytelling, ghostwriting online content for celebrities, and more. Born in New Jersey, Sarah spent her early career in New York and Toronto; she now lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. 

After Sarah wrote first draft of P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna, she put the manuscript to the side for a while. Six months later, when fostering a feral cat with an Instagram following, she discovered that her desire for reassurance after pet loss is universal. She renewed her work on her manuscript, and believes that TUNA is Hedda’s gift—not only to her, but to all adults grieving a cat.

ALLISON: What is your first memory of a pet?

SARAH: I have a photo of two-year-old me being comforted by our black Lab, Pepper. Although we later added two cats, a turtle, some hamsters and ponies, Pepper is who comes to mind as my “first pet.” (However, I was bitten on the face by my family’s previous dog when I was an infant—but I have no memory of that, nor any ill will towards dogs!)

ALLISON: What is your first experience with grief?

SARAH: My mother died when I was nine; I didn’t know she was dying, so it came as a sudden shock.

ALLISON: Why a book?

SARAH: The book is designed for people to give to friends, family members or coworkers who are grieving a pet. Sympathy cards are lovely, but sometimes you want to give something more meaningful to a friend who is grieving. The book says, “I see you, I see your grief, and I love you.” Which is what companion animals do for us, they witness us without judgement.

ALLISON: Tell me the story of how you got Hedda.

SARAH: A friend of mine had a pregnant cat, and I agreed to adopt one of the kittens. As it turned out, there was only one kitten, an undersized panther girl. I first met her when she was a couple of weeks old. I adopted her shortly after she was weaned, because her feline mom had killed all four kittens in a previous litter, and her human mom and I worried for Hedda’s safety.

ALLISON: Describe her personality.

SARAH: Sweet, nurturing and good-natured, though opinionated. Extremely affectionate—she loved to be held and had to have some part of her body touching me. She was extremely bonded to me and couldn’t have cared less about anyone else. Rather than being a “fur-kid” I actually felt like she was more maternal, more mature than I was at the time.

ALLISON: What were your favorite things to do with her?

SARAH: It’s a stereotype, but man, she LOVED the laser toy. And she was super-smart—she’d run behind walls looking for it. Surprisingly (to me), she continued to enjoy it until she was about 19. My favorite moments were in her older years, when she would snuggle by my side while I was working (from home), rather than trying to climb the keyboard. She would tuck her head in my palm when she slept, which I thought was the most adorable thing ever. I also loved watching her just be—cats are so great at staying in the moment, and she could watch birds for hours.

ALLISON: What were some fun things Hedda liked to do?

SARAH: She loved chasing the laser, chewing plastic, and watching songbirds.

ALLISON: What mischief did Hedda get into?

SARAH: She wasn’t a particularly mischievous cat, though she loved chewing plastic.

ALLISON: How did Hedda change your life?

SARAH: I had a bond with her that I’d never felt with a companion animal before. I would have done anything for her (and I’m not a particularly selfless person, so this was the first time I’d experienced what I call “the ferocity of love.”) She opened my heart, and she saved my life. There was a period of time (2007-2009) when I was spiraling emotionally, and I’d driven away a lot of people. Hedda was there and loved me anyway. For me personally, Hedda was in my life twice as long as my mother had been, so she became kind of a mother-surrogate.

Her death changed my career! I’d spent the previous seven years mostly in silence and solitude, and I’d long since given up the idea of becoming an author (in favor of supporting authors as a developmental editor). So there was some adjustment in terms of stepping back into the world, engaging on social media (in a big way!) and starting to build a platform.

ALLISON: Why do you think people should talk about grief?

SARAH: Grief is a universal human experience, and it’s embedded in love. Everything that is born eventually dies—humans, animals, plants, trees. Our culture resists this enormously, yet if we can get to a place of acceptance, of understanding that grief is part and parcel with love, it frees us up to enjoy the time we do have, deeply. We all have different opinions on many things, but grief is one topic that everybody can relate to because nobody gets out of this lifetime without experiencing loss. If we don’t talk about it, we suffer in silence, and that makes it so much harder (if not impossible) to process the grief and continue in our newly reshaped lives. The knowledge of that death is inevitable makes life more valuable and meaningful.

ALLISON: How do you think people need to talk differently about the loss of a pet?

SARAH: For a long time, the prevailing mainstream view was, “It’s just a cat/dog” and I still see that in some places today. But especially with social media, I think that people are becoming more aware of what a profound loss it is. However, I think there’s more support for those grieving the loss of a dog than a cat (and other animals are valued even less than those two). It’s not the same as losing a human; there are ways in which it’s less disruptive and ways in which it’s more disruptive. It’s different, but not a lesser loss. I don’t believe in comparing griefs, because grief is a subjective experience, and in my opinion, all grief is valid. If we can stop seeing empathy and compassion as zero-sum (limited), that gives us an opening to stop competing about whose grief is worse and just start supporting each other in our shared humanity.

ALLISON: What are ways people can honor a loss?

SARAH: One of the reasons it’s so hard to accept the loss of a pet is because our culture has no rituals around an animal’s death. With humans, depending on your culture, there are wakes, memorial services, funerals, shiva… these help the grieving person(s) feel understood and supported. So creating your own rituals is a big way to honor the relationship and being. I’m a big proponent of creating an end-of-life ritual, and people who have done it say that it’s helped them enormously (as it helped me)

An increasing number of pet crematories now offer wakes and funerals, and I’ve heard from many people who say that those rituals have helped them. Veterinarian Karen Fine recommends writing an obituary, and anecdotally, members of Tuna Tributes (a Facebook group for sharing photos and memories of pets) say that the process of writing a tribute and being witnessed has really helped them, much the way a funeral does with human deaths. Creating a legacy for your cat is also popular (and helpful all around)—one friend began knitting “comfort blankets” for foster kittens; another started a fund to help with pet cancer treatment costs. I wrote Tuna. Volunteering with a rescue or shelter is also a great way both to honor your pet and to heal—rescue volunteers often know all too well the pain of loss. And it’s not just fostering! Whatever your skill set, a rescue can use it, whether that’s web design or writing or event planning, tax preparation, etc.

ALLISON: What resources do you recommend to people who have lost a cat?

Photo provided by Sarah Chauncey
Photo provided by Sarah Chauncey

SARAH: First, if at all possible, don’t wait until after the cat’s (or any animal’s) death to reach out. The best advice anyone gave me with Hedda was, “Take time to let your heart catch up to your decision.” As long as pain is controlled and the cat isn’t in acute distress, take a couple of days and say goodbye. This makes the aftermath so much easier. (I have a post on how to create an end-of-life ritual here.)

It’s hard to answer this without sounding self-promotional, only because there aren’t a whole lot of resources out there. The More than Tuna website has a list of articles (that I’ve written), along with some pet-loss support resources, like veterinary school hotlines. And I invite anyone reading this to join Tuna Tributes to share photos and memories of their cat(s)—we also have dogs, birds, horses and one hedgehog, so it’s not JUST for cats. There are some additional pet loss resources on The Conscious Cat.

ALLISON: Anything else?

SARAH: Tuna came about when an illustrator friend of mine sent me a drawing of Hedda, two days after her death. It was such a kind gesture, and I felt seen. Our relationships with animals tend to be private, which is part of why the loss is so hard. So for another person to say, “I see what this cat meant to you, and I’m so sorry for your loss” — that was huge, and it went a long way towards helping me accept the loss. My hope is that Tuna-the-book will serve that same purpose and evoke the same healing.

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