Guest post by Casey Hersch
This is the sixth in a series of posts by Casey Hersch. Casey discusses the many lessons she learned about caring for Yochabel during her illness, including her quest to stop Yochabel’s cancer from growing/spreading, barriers present with senior cats, variations in diet including supplements and herbs, and how to focus on the individual cat’s needs. Yochabel was not only Casey’s feline companion. She left Casey with ways to cope with her own illness, and with a greater sense of acceptance and gratitude.
Coping with the Unknown
I never imagined Yochabel’s life would end as a result of a bladder tumor that crowded her out of her own body. Life is full of unknowns—the parts I cannot control— despite my best efforts to make things go my way. Yochabel’s condition was one of these unknowns.
I gave her everything I had, and I hoped her integrative treatments could stop the tumor from growing. But during every moment with her, I felt a dark cloud of gloom surrounding us, because I knew there was a chance the tumor might be stronger than we were. This gloom became heavier each day as I watched Yochabel subtly adjust her body position in the litter box, with first a squat, then lying down on her side, so she could urinate more comfortably. My heart broke. I coped by using my super powers—hope, love, and faith—to keep me afloat. Since I didn’t have x-ray vision to see inside her bladder, I had no way of knowing what the tumor was doing. The veterinarians said in a worst case scenario, the tumor could grow to block her ability to urinate. Nonetheless, this was all speculation, and the progression of her condition (good or bad) remained unknown.
Sure, we could repeat ultrasounds every few weeks – and believe me, I considered it. At times, I felt like I couldn’t breathe if I didn’t know for sure what was going on inside her body. I grasped at anything that would take away my responsibility to make the right end of life decisions for her. But when I reached a place of calm, I knew I would only be consenting to more tests to temporarily soothe my emotional turmoil. Tests wouldn’t provide me with any new information. I had the only information I needed right in front of me: I was observing Yochabel every moment. I knew she still had joy in her life as she still ate like a “foodie.” The sounds of her loving purrs were the only reassurance I needed. Not to mention, ultrasounds are expensive, plus, disrupting Yochabel’s peaceful hospice routine at home so I could calm my worried mind would have made her miserable.
For someone like me who needs to know “why” and “how” for just about everything, in this situation I broke all my rules. I decided I would cope best by not knowing everything about the tumor. I had an exhaustive treatment protocol in place. There was not much more I could do.
The Chaos Inside My Head
Already my mind felt like it was immersed in a bee hive as thoughts rapidly buzzed around, occasionally stinging me with their “what ifs” and worst case scenarios. Knowing definitively that the tumor was growing would only squash my hope and distract my focus away from my special time with Yochabel.
It was a vicious cycle as I found ways to make sense of the reality of Yochabel’s impending death. I calmed the buzzing through mental health therapy, long conversations with friends, and hugs from my husband, but the calm was short-lived. The buzzing and the stings returned. Each cycle became a bit more painful as guilt, self-doubt, and terror that I would make the wrong decisions overwhelmed me.
I started doubting my observations of Yochabel and how well I knew her. I surrendered my own intuition and listened to a common belief about cats: they are exceptional at hiding pain. This made me second guess myself: was she hiding her pain and eating her food with the same “foodie” passion, just to make me happy? I doubted what I saw when I looked into her eyes. I saw a cat who was happy to be here and wasn’t ready to go. But I wondered if I was only seeing what I wanted to see, and whether I was in denial because I didn’t want her to die.
My anxiety expressed itself through nightmares. In these dreams, the tumor was growing as fast as the weeds in our backyard, and I was unable to find Yochabel buried among the overgrowth. I would wake-up sweating and crying, running into her room to check and make sure she was still breathing.
Getting back into the driver’s seat
During my clinical training as a social worker I learned about how the brain works, using the analogy of driving a car. Rational thinking takes place in the front part of the brain, or in the driver’s seat. Emotional thinking takes place in the back part of the brain, or the backseat of the car. I felt like I was locked in the trunk. If I was going to survive, I needed to find the key and drive my own car. Self-doubt flooded my senses with anxiety and made my emotional turmoil escalate. Emotional turmoil clouded my ability to make a decision that was best for both Yochabel and I.
People tried to reassure me by saying, “You will know when it is time for Yochabel to die. She will let you know. Right now it is about quality of life, not quantity of life.” I yearned for this reassurance. I wanted to feel understood. Yet, every time I heard these words, I felt like I was stranded in the middle of the desert, alone, lost, and uncertain if I would ever find my way home. I had no direction.
Taking deep breaths put me back in the driver’s seat, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to consistently rely upon my relationship with Yochabel. Our bond was grown with love, attention, and intuition. It was my relationship with Yochabel that would bring me back to myself and give me access to everything that was in her best interest. This was my key that would drive me home.
I knew it was likely I would have to make a decision to euthanize or else Yochabel could face immeasurable suffering. For the first time in my life, I wanted to stay locked in the trunk. I didn’t want to face this life and death decision. Sometimes I prayed that she would die in her sleep. I wanted her to have a peaceful, quiet, painless death. I felt guilty having these thoughts. Looking back, I realize that these thoughts demonstrated my love and humanity. It was normal for me to not want her to suffer, and it was normal for me to want a way out of the emotional turmoil of watching my sweet girl struggle.
I didn’t want to say goodbye to her, but each time I looked at her and felt the love we shared, I wanted to stay in the driver’s seat. If she had to die, I wasn’t going to let her do it alone. As long as I hid in the trunk, I was not there for Yochabel when she needed me the most.
Bringing the best part of myself to our final days
I spent most of my time with Yochabel these final days. I talked to her and told her my feelings. I asked her to guide me and to show me signs that I was making the right decision for her. I shared with her how much strength I drew from our team, and I could do anything she needed if we did it together. In these moments, intently observing her, listening to my inner voice, and letting her soft fur and gentle loving spirit make time stand still, I found confidence. I focused on my beliefs and spiritual foundation, which brought me more peace.
I wasn’t in charge of whether Yochabel lived or died. I was only in charge of giving her the best life I could and honoring the promise I made her from the first day we met: I would love her, and I would let her go when it was time. There was only ONE Yochabel, and I knew her best. There wasn’t a right or wrong decision but there was a BEST decision that only Yochabel and I would know and make together when it was upon us. She chose me for a reason, and my friends were right: I would know when it was time to let her go. She would tell me. I just had to get out of my own way and let go of the fear so I could see and hear when that time had arrived. When I accepted this, the path became clear.
Stay Tuned for Part Seven
Yochabel’s Wisdom: Our Last Day
Casey Hersch, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker, author, and founder of http://www.lightyoursparkle.life. She specializes in chronic illness and ways to empower others to be an expert on their own bodies. Pet companionship, and in her case, her cat friends, have been at the heart of her own healing. She is passionate about integrative treatment models for humans and pets.