Last Updated on: January 20, 2020 by Ingrid King
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.
My mind was an empty hamster wheel, spinning. “I can’t decide right now. Can I have a few hours?”
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.
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.
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.