Grief in the Age of Algorithms

Stop trying to sell me cat food when I just lost my pet

Amanda Kay Oaks
5 min readJul 1, 2019


Targeted online advertising. We’ve all experienced it — you look at a pair of shoes and suddenly, you’re seeing ads for them everywhere. On social media, in the sidebars when you check your email, etc. Some us laugh, some of us employ ad blockers, and others simply ignore the ads as best they can.

Typically, I’m the first category — I find my targeted ads funny, especially when they get it so horribly wrong, as algorithms sometimes do. Occasionally, Facebook ads decide I’m a Spanish speaker, giving me videos and images captioned entirely in Spanish.

But (privacy invasion concerns aside), there can be a more upsetting side to the targeted advertising phenomenon. What happens when the internet horribly misreads the signs?

A few weeks ago, my 12–year-old cat passed away. When I found him lying in the floor sick, I Googled nearby emergency veterinarians, using my GPS to take me there.

After his death, the instances of me mentioning “my cat” on social media had a natural uptick as I shared memories and photos. I began searching Etsy for “cat memorial” items, trying to find something nice to remember him with.

Artemis and I (photo by the author)

Since I’ve owned a cat for 12 years, internet data collected about me already had me pegged as a cat owner, but seeing this new frenzy of data, it erred in the wrong direction. It assumed I should see… more cat related ads.

Suddenly a non-cat-owner for the first time in my life, I was inundated with more cat-related ads than I had for Artemis’ entire life. Ads for cat sitting apps, ads for special litter boxes, ads for organic cat food, and more. Each one a tiny stab in the heart, reminding me — you don’t need these things anymore.

Pet loss is already a strange kind of grief, where pet owners console you that your cat “really was part of your family” and non-pet-owners wonder why you’re so upset about this thing you knew was going to die before you anyway. Artemis was tiny, yet the hole his absence left in my life is massive, and I don’t think I’m the only pet owner who feels this way.

The first time I went to the grocery store and walked past the cat food aisle, tears pricked…



Amanda Kay Oaks

Pittsburgh-based writer & wearer of many metaphorical hats. Making words about books, pop culture, witchery, health, travel, and more! She/her.