Saying Goodbye to Hedda, Part Two: Making the Euthanasia Decision

euthanasia-decision

Guest post by Sarah Chauncey

This is the second post in a three-part series. Sarah Chauncey is the author of an upcoming book for adults grieving the loss of their cat. We featured part one, Facing the Possibility of Euthanasia, last week. We will feature part three, Creating an End of Life Ritual, next week.

Over the years, I’d been told to “prepare myself” more times than I could count. On two occasions in the previous four years, different vets had given Hedda “weeks to months.” Secretly, I’d started believing that maybe she was immortal.

Then I wondered: Am I in denial? If people I respect, including the vet and (whether or not they said it) a couple of my friends felt it was time, did that mean I was somehow ignoring clear signals that Hedda was already giving me? Or were they projecting onto me? Was I projecting onto them, or onto Hedda, or not at all? I was certain I wasn’t holding onto her for selfish reasons. I’d been through devastating grief and loss before, and as awful as I knew it would be, I also knew I’d survive. Was I rushing to get it over with, because I couldn’t stand the uncertainty? That would be selfish.

I decided that if the tests showed she was hyperthyroid, I wouldn’t treat it. I would adjust her meds to make her as comfortable as possible, but I was done trying to prolong her life.

Saturday night, she burrowed under the covers with me and curled up against my stomach. She’d done this nightly for years, but I couldn’t remember the last time. Maybe four years ago? I didn’t—couldn’t—move, for fear of disturbing her. My shoulder and arms went numb, but I stayed still. This felt like it might be a sign.

By Sunday, I was in a fugue state. I went to the grocery store and stared at items without registering what they were. I left the stove on too long. I forgot my keys.

I was relieved at my (in)decision, though: She wasn’t in acute distress; I didn’t have to make a decision right away. I knew the end was coming, but the pressure was off.

Every so often, a wave of grief would rise up. I’d go into the bathroom and sob into my towels. There was a glimmer of awareness as I watched my emotions arise, release and subside again. I remembered that sadness was natural, that this was life, and it didn’t mean anything was wrong. It just hurt. A lot.

***

On Monday morning, the vet called.

It wasn’t hyperthyroidism. Hedda’s diabetes, which we had vanquished with twice-daily injections of Lantus eight years earlier, had returned with a vengeance. She also had pancreatitis, likely tied to the diabetes, and there was almost no calcium in her blood.

The vet began talking about doing tests, but I couldn’t hear anything she said. My heart was sinking through the floor at the idea of subjecting her to four skin pricks—two blood sugar tests plus insulin injections—a day on top of weekly subcutaneous fluids. She hated needles. I wanted Hedda to live as long as she wanted to be alive, but I didn’t want to put her through this.

Diabetes is different than hyperthyroid. Not treating diabetes isn’t an option. Diabetic cats (like humans) can have seizures or go into comas triggered by low blood sugar. I remembered my nightmare.

“—But these aren’t my beliefs,” I heard the vet say.

“You believe…I should say goodbye,” I said, more a statement than a question.

“Yes.”

My mind was an empty hamster wheel, spinning. “I can’t decide right now. Can I have a few hours?”

“Of course.”

I still felt, on some level, as though I were acquiescing. I needed to find a way to make a decision I could live with for the rest of my life, one way or the other. And that meant taking time. Time I didn’t have.

I dug through my cupboard and found a packet of honey I kept “just in case” during Hedda’s first go-round with diabetes. Thank god honey doesn’t go bad. I placed it on my bedside table. Just in case.

hedda-saying-goodbye

***

I Googled “how to support a dying animal” and found an animal hospice in California. They had a support line. I called. I cried. The conversation was not all that helpful—though it gave me an opportunity to hear how off-the-wall I must’ve sounded to other people. It was odd, and a bit refreshing, to feel like I was being judged for considering euthanasia, rather than for not considering it. I needed that other extreme to help me find where, in the middle, my heart stood.

Three times, I called the vet and tried to make The Appointment. Three times, I broke down sobbing. The tech then said something that transformed the entire experience for me: “Take time to let your emotions catch up to your decision. If you don’t, it will take a long, long, long time afterwards. Much better to work through your feelings before, if you can.”

In August, Hedda had had maybe one bad day a month. Then, by October, it was one bad day every two weeks, to every week, to days that were a blend of struggle and peace. In those last few days, after Friday’s trip to the vet, there were stretches of alertness and engagement, but there were also moments where she pressed her forehead down, or gave a soft cry when I touched her.

I still wanted a sign, at the same time I was wondering whether the nightmare was a sign, the illness was a sign, the vet’s comment was a sign, or her cuddling with me was a goodbye. And if she wanted to stick around, I needed a sign of that, too.

On Monday night, she stumbled and fell down the bedside ramp. The next morning, I called the vet and made the appointment.

Coming next Wednesday: Saying Goodbye to Hedda, Part Three: Creating an End-of-Life Ritual

Sarah Chauncey is the author of P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna, an upcoming gift book for adults grieving their cat. She runs @morethantuna on Instagram and Facebook, “a celebration of nine lives,” and she started #tunatributes, a support community for people grieving their cat. She lives on Vancouver Island.

20 Comments on Saying Goodbye to Hedda, Part Two: Making the Euthanasia Decision

  1. Tricia Miller
    May 15, 2018 at 5:30 pm (1 month ago)

    When it was time to say goodbye to Bella, I made the latest appointment at the vet because I wanted as much time as I could have with her. I now realize that I was being selfish and just didn’t want her to go. She was in a coma when I drove to the clinic and died on the way. I remember looking down at her and knowing she was gone. It had been a cloudy day but right then the sun came out and I knew it was a sign from her letting me know she was OK. I still miss my little girl. She taught me the love of cats.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 16, 2018 at 5:42 am (1 month ago)

      I’m so sorry about Bella, Tricia. I love that she sent you a sign that all was well.

      Reply
  2. shelley
    March 14, 2018 at 11:15 pm (3 months ago)

    I feel so much of her heartache and agony and reading this heartfelt story brings back my memory of Simon, my heart and soul. The year with cancer and trips to the vet for chemo and ozone therapy and toward the end wandering if this or that was the sign, each day worrying that I would not notice till it was to late, but the sign he gave was very clear and the next morning the vet came to the house and in the morning sunshine, I let him go. But I remembered what someone once told me, that now there was room to rescue another and show them all the love I have just as I did with Simon. I miss him still.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 15, 2018 at 6:05 am (3 months ago)

      Thank you for sharing your experience with Simon, Shelley. It helps when they give us a clear sign.

      Reply
  3. Pam
    March 14, 2018 at 3:18 pm (3 months ago)

    Although it has been 6 years it still makes me cry as I write this. My beloved Snowy developed inoperable throat cancer. As the weeks went by and he seemed to still be doing alright, he was still interested in things and interacting with me, there came a day when he could no longer swallow anything anymore not even baby food although I knew he was very very hungry. It broke my heart to see him want to eat and not be able to and he had lost so much weight by then. So the morning came when although I wanted so very badly to try and figure out another system to get nourishment in him I realized that I had to make the decision to allow him to go out on a high note and before he started really going downhill. I made the appointment. It was a beautiful day that day and we went out in the garden and I let him take his time to wander around and enjoy being outside in the sunshine to his hearts content that morning. Finally the hour came to go and on the drive to the vet I had him in his carrier in the front seat by me and he just looked at me with those gorgeous green eyes and I very nearly turned around. He left peacefully in my arms that afternoon although I did not want him to go and to this day I so hope that I did the right thing by him. Not for me but for him. I did my best that last day to let him enjoy himself before he had to go but I know I will always second guess my decision about the timing. I guess for me it came down to how would I want to leave and enjoying a fine sunny day in the garden does not seem to bad a way to spend a morning before going. I miss him still and always will. Meet you at the Rainbow Bridge my dear friend.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 15, 2018 at 6:05 am (3 months ago)

      Thank you for sharing your experience with Snowy, Pam. I’m not sure it’s possible to not second guess yourself when it comes to making this decision. I love how beautiful you made his last day.

      Reply
  4. Allison
    March 14, 2018 at 11:56 am (3 months ago)

    Sarah’s experience mirrors that of my own with my first cat, except Lucy died of heart and kidney conditions. Five years later, I still miss her.

    Reply
  5. Maria
    March 14, 2018 at 11:41 am (3 months ago)

    I read Part One last week, and cried. My last cat, and I, were treated very badly at the veterinary clinic, I am still, after almost a year, not sure I did the right decision to put her to sleep. I had no help or understanding afterwards, and I was a mess a long time after, and still feel very sad about it. After reading this post, I decided I need grief counseling. I can definitely take with me the words that taking time letting one’s emotions catch up with the decision – that applies on many things. I would like to sign up for a copy of this upcoming book, in advance if possible.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 14, 2018 at 1:11 pm (3 months ago)

      I’m so glad you decided to get some counseling, Maria. What you went through was so horrible, it’s no wonder you’re still feeling so sad about it. I still feel sad every time I think about what happened with Kasja, and my heart still hurts for you.

      Reply
      • deb
        March 14, 2018 at 9:09 pm (3 months ago)

        My 17 yr old Vera has hyperthyroid n on medication n only has about 25% kidney function. So, the vet n I r keeping eye on her n she gave her some I.V. fluids to help with some dehydration. She is finally eating a little more. However, i dwell the day comes to making that decision. Right now she is in no pain n still able to walk on her n eat n drink too. The story above just hits u right in the heart for Vera is my baby girl from day one when I found her at the river.

        Reply
    • Sarah
      March 15, 2018 at 8:20 pm (3 months ago)

      Maria, although I don’t know the specifics of your situation, I read your comment last week, and it broke my heart. I’m so sorry you had to go through that–it sounded traumatic on many levels. I’m glad you decided on counseling. Also, I have carried those words (about taking time) with me ever since. It does apply to many things.

      Reply
      • Maria
        March 16, 2018 at 3:05 am (3 months ago)

        Thank you so much Sara; your words as well as Ingrid’s, means a lot to me – I understand I am not alone in grieving the loss of my fur baby, for a long time afterwards, and wondering whether my decision was right or not.

        Reply
  6. Gabi
    March 14, 2018 at 11:28 am (3 months ago)

    Oh, boy! I cannot write, I am still crying. I lost my cat Lilly in July of last year, I couldn’t decide to let her go. She died, after 4years struggle with hyperthyroidism and UTI. She was 19.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 14, 2018 at 1:12 pm (3 months ago)

      I’m so sorry, Gabi.

      Reply
    • deb
      March 18, 2018 at 5:59 pm (3 months ago)

      So sorry Gabs. I am dreading our turn with Vera. They r our furbabies just like r own children. I am trying to get mine to get some for she has lost lots of weight. 6.5 lbs. She also takes Hyperthyroid med. I wander does it make them feel little queasy n not hungry at times? I hope u r able to find peace n your baby is in kitty heaven.

      Reply
  7. Janine
    March 14, 2018 at 8:20 am (3 months ago)

    I like your advice here. “Take time to let your emotions catch up to your decision. If you don’t, it will take a long, long, long time afterwards. Much better to work through your feelings before, if you can.” We’re trying to make the right decision for Pono right now. he’s been having some good days and bad days. But when the bad days come to be too much, we don’t want him to suffer. I think Kiki and Pele can tell something is going on with him. They seem to be giving him more attention than usual.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 14, 2018 at 1:13 pm (3 months ago)

      I think sometimes, the other cats in the household know even before we do, especially when they’re closely bonded. I know this is so hard, Janine.

      Reply
  8. Lyn
    March 14, 2018 at 4:08 am (3 months ago)

    Thank you for this. I cannot believe how I was when my cat Sylvie died suddenly, presumably of a clot. i was a mess. The same when it came time to put Sam to sleep.

    As a medical doctor, I see so many people who just love their pets as I love mine. The grief is very real and overwhelming when they die or we have to make that decision.

    Even though I work in Palliative care and have looked after many people, it did not prepare me for the terrible loss and overwhelming grief I felt with the death of my cats.

    I am really looking forward to this book and also to people understanding that they’re not just cats or dogs or pets-they are so much more than that and in many cases, as much as a beloved presence than human contacts.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 14, 2018 at 1:15 pm (3 months ago)

      This is something I hear often, Lyn, that even people who have experience dealing with human death and dying are not prepared for how much it hurts when a pet dies.

      Reply
  9. Patricia
    March 14, 2018 at 3:21 am (3 months ago)

    I will get this book. I had cats a long time and lost cats. They don’t live as long we would like. We do meet new cats we love again. It is the grieving process we all have to go through, that we need help to get through.

    Reply

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