Pot Roast was a toothless black-and-white cat who was beloved on TikTok for her assortment of hats and messy eating habits. She had survived several health issues as a kitten, and many found her scraggly appearance endearing.
After her unexpected death last month, fans were heartbroken. Some went as far as taking their grief out on Pot Roast’s owner, who had been harassed over Pot Roast’s health long before the cat became sick.
While many viewers shared their support after Pot Roast’s death, others were unsatisfied by the way the cat's mom handled it. Some insisted she was grieving inappropriately by making jokes. A few wrote in comments that they were horrified when the cat's mom said she planned to have her pet turned into taxidermy.
The death of a pet is an immense personal loss. But when the pet was adored by millions online, its owners find themselves responsible for their fans’ grief, too.
The emotional investment from fans, even if well intentioned, can further complicate the grieving process for the pet owners, Pot Roast's Mom, who only wanted to use her username out of concern for her privacy, told NBC News.
“Countless” fans, she said, confused Pot Roast’s feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, diagnosis with the feline coronavirus FIP and emailed her with unhelpful suggestions for care. Many were cruel and either told her that Pot Roast’s death was preventable or to euthanize her before she was ready. The one response that was genuinely upsetting, she said, asked her why she “chose” not to treat Pot Roast for FIV.
“I put something on my Instagram story that was like, ‘You don’t know what’s going on. It’s so far progressed that there’s no turning back now,’” she said.
Grieving the loss of a one-sided relationship
The attachment that fans may feel toward a public figure — especially personable creators who are very active online — is often described as a parasocial relationship.
The term appears to date back to a 1956 article, written by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, that examined the one-sided interaction between a consumer and a figure on the television or radio.
The fan might feel as if they know the celebrity like a personal friend, but the object of their affection likely doesn’t know the fan exists, much less return the emotional investment.
The phrase has become especially relevant as social media gives both consumers and creators unprecedented access to each other’s online presences. The more a creator shares online, the closer their fans might feel to them.
“I know that I do not owe anybody on TikTok anything. I know I do not have to document this whole thing,” Pot Roast’s Mom said. “But I want to, because people formed such a parasocial relationship with her [Pot Roast]. To me, it’s parasocial, but to them, it was real.”
Parasocial relationships aren’t inherently problematic, according to some experts.
Cynthia Vinney, who has a doctorate in psychology and studies media engagement, wrote that these one-sided relationships are actually natural.
“Media did not exist through a majority of human evolution, and so when consumers are presented with a person or person-like individual via video or audio media, their brains respond as if they were engaging in a real-life social situation,” Vinney wrote for ThoughtCo. “This response does not mean that the individuals believe the interaction is real. Despite media consumers’ knowledge that the interaction is an illusion, however, their perception will cause them to react to the situation as if it were real.”
Famous pets occupy a unique niche in parasocial interactions. Fans may feel a closeness with the pet’s owner and care for the creator’s pet as they would care for their own.
Ryan Benson, a digital creator and graphic designer, compared watching Pot Roast’s Mom’s videos to interacting with “a friend on FaceTime.”
“I always looked forward to their videos gracing my For You page,” Benson said.
“Even though there was so much content coming across my screen at random, I knew that I’d get a video of Dip being rubbed with coconut oil or Pot Roast looking especially grungy and be comforted by that,” Benson said, referencing the guinea pig Dip, another TikTok-famous pet.
That relationship dynamic can become muddled in the threshold between expressing genuine care for someone else’s pet and feeling entitled to question the owner’s ability to care for them.
Pot Roast’s Mom said she faced that entitlement from viewers long before Pot Roast was diagnosed with FIV. Pot Roast had regular vet visits and routine testing because of her health issues as a kitten, but the virus didn’t show up on screenings until it progressed beyond treatment.
“People have been telling me how to take care of Pot Roast since the beginning, you know?” Pot Roast’s Mom said. “I think when she got sick, people really took that as an opportunity to be like, ‘Oh, I was right, she’s going to die.’”
Some creators choose to grieve privately. Others open up to viewers.
Last month, creator Brandon Tylers also said goodbye to his beloved hairless guinea pig, Dip.
On TikTok, Dip was known for her biweekly coconut oil baths. Tylers would narrate as Dip while rubbing her down, giving her a raucous dialogue with the viewer and his other guinea pig, Bean.
Tylers posted a video on Feb. 20 addressing viewers’ questions about Dip, who hadn’t appeared in a video since mid-January. He acted out a scene from “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2,” in which the main character reacts to the death of her sister, and captioned it, “Im so sorry. #rip.”
Tylers declined to comment because he wasn’t ready to discuss Dip’s death yet.
“Sorry I haven’t told you all,” Tylers wrote in a pinned comment on the video. “Its been almost a month. I do be missing her voice rn.”
He followed up with several videos of Dip running around and snacking on lettuce. In a final video performed in Dip’s signature gravel, Tylers narrated that Dip has an “unlimited supply of lettuce” in heaven and that she receives coconut oil rubs from “God himself.”
“Honestly, thank you to everyone who’s loved and supported me here on TikTok. I love you all and miss you all,” Tylers said as Dip. “Someone tell Bean that I love her and I do miss her too, even though I did steal her food. And one time I did beat her up.”
Tylers chose not to immediately disclose Dip’s death and had nearly a month to process his loss before sharing it with viewers.
Though fans were upset at the news of Dip’s death, Tyler’s privacy may have shielded him from the criticism and unsolicited advice that other pet creators have received when their pets die.
To fans, the news of Pot Roast's death was not only abrupt, but especially gutting because it came days after she died.
Unlike Tylers, Pot Roast’s Mom kept fans in the loop throughout the cat’s diagnosis, her emergency vet visits and, ultimately, her death. In a video posted in early February, Pot Roast’s Mom told viewers she was “blindsided” by Pot Roast’s FIV diagnosis.
Throughout the month, Pot Roast’s Mom grieved by making macabre jokes about the cat’s last days. In one video, she imagined a feud between Pot Roast and Carrot, her late cat suspected of infecting Pot Roast with FIV. In another, she posted a Pot Roast-themed Valentine’s Day card captioned, “I’d die for you.”
She said she received an outpouring of love from Pot Roast’s fans after she first posted about the cat’s terminal diagnosis; some even pitched in to help pay for Pot Roast’s treatment. Most viewers responded with support, but Pot Roast’s Mom said she also received unsolicited medical advice and criticism over the way she grieved.
In a video posted Feb. 16, Pot Roast’s Mom wrote, “My little bird flew away at 11:47 a.m. this morning. When I saw Pot Roast this morning I could feel that she was done fighting and even though I wasn’t done fighting for her I let her go. She went to sleep in my arms.”
Grief is a shared experience
Despite the negative comments — and the well-intentioned but unhelpful suggestions — Pot Roast’s Mom said she wouldn’t have handled her online presence any differently. Being able to publicly acknowledge her grief made processing Pot Roast’s death less lonely.
“It just felt nice to be heard. When my other cat died, I was like, I don’t want to be the only one who feels this and wish that more people missed her,” she said. “I got to share [Pot Roast] with so many people. And knowing that she’s missed by so many people and that so many people love her has been a comfort.”
For some viewers, witnessing such unapologetic grief has helped them confront their grief over their own pet loss.
In a fan direct message that Pot Roast’s Mom shared with NBC News, the fan thanked the creator for being so open about her grief and said watching her videos helped them overcome the anxiety they’ve had over losing their cat after the death of their dog.
Benson, the digital creator and graphic designer, also experienced a sudden and unexpected pet death and said watching TikTok grieve Pot Roast made his own grief feel valid.
“As painful as I know it was, her [Pot Roast’s Mom] sharing her story with Pot Roast and updating the world as she was losing her was so impactful to me,” he said. “It helped me realize that these deep emotions are normal. Just because they’re pets doesn’t mean that their loss is supposed to feel small or insignificant.”
While the relationship between viewers and pet creators like Pot Roast’s Mom is one-sided, it doesn’t devalue the shared experience of loss. Benson said watching the videos of Pot Roast’s last days was a comforting reminder that others have the same feelings he did when his pet died and that he felt “so deeply connected” to Pot Roast’s Mom, even though they’ve never met.
Pot Roast’s Mom isn’t ready to adopt another pet so soon, but she said she’s thinking of fostering kittens. If she does share another cat with TikTok, she plans on maintaining stricter boundaries between herself and her viewers. She said she’s posted reminders that her followers don’t actually know her and they’re not real-life friends, but “it’s like they don’t hear” her.
“But in terms of the way I showed Pot Roast on TikTok, I don’t really have any regrets,” she continued. “I’m just really grateful we have been shown so much love. ... She had a great life. I had a great life with her. And I’m glad I shared her with TikTok, every part of it.”