Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: November 17, 2022 by Crystal Uys
Written by Sarah Chauncey
Sarah Chauncey is the author of a book for adults grieving the loss of their cat. This post comes in 3 parts. Click to jump to the different parts, or read the story in its entirety.
- Part One: Facing the Possibility of Euthanasia
- Part Two: Making the Euthanasia Decision
- Part Three: Creating an End-of-Life Ritual
Part One: Facing the Possibility of Euthanasia
In the wee hours of a winter Friday morning in 2016, I had a nightmare: My 20-year-old black cat, Hedda, was having a seizure. Diarrhea was flying everywhere. Her green eyes stared at me, terrified, as her body convulsed. I was powerless to help her.
I was awakened by the usual 6am swat to the mouth that indicated Hedda wanted her medicine and breakfast. I rubbed a dose of transdermal painkillers on the inside of her ears, got up to put out fresh food and water, then went back to bed.
A few hours later, I saw—and smelled—droplets of brown liquid on the old flannel pillowcase that covered her heating pad. Hedda’s sides seemed to be occasionally heaving, and I realized she was straining to empty her bowels.
My mind began spinning. The thoughts came so fast and from every direction that I couldn’t pay attention to even one. I called a friend in Toronto, who had known and loved Hedda almost as long as I had. I blathered on and on to him, alternating between panic and total denial. My friend, perhaps intuitively understanding what was to come, was both reassuring and practical: Call the vet.
We couldn’t get in until mid-afternoon. The vet tech who answered the phone said it sounded like constipation—Hedda was elderly, had mid-stage kidney disease, and she was on a synthetic opioid. She probably needed an enema. Poor Hedda, I thought. Poor vet. Giving a cat a pill is bad enough. But at least that was straightforward. It would be rough, but she’d feel better and we’d come home.
As the hours went on, Hedda became lethargic and, for the first time, disengaged. The bedroom reeked as she soiled the puppy pads I’d placed on the bed, even with small droplets. She managed to pass a couple of small lumps of stool, which I took photos of and excitedly emailed to the vet. Maybe she wouldn’t need an enema, just…like, kitty Ex-Lax or something?
The vet stood across the examining table from me. She spoke firmly, almost angrily, as Hedda explored the new environment. “This isn’t constipation; it’s diarrhea,” the vet said. I asked what might be causing it; her guess was hyperthyroidism. Hedda had lost more than two pounds in the previous six months.
“What do we do?” I asked, and my voice cracked. She laid out the options of treating the symptoms without doing any tests, or doing blood and urine tests to find the underlying cause. Then she paused.
“Have you thought about euthanasia?”
In the past, I wouldn’t have allowed anyone to utter that word in the same room as Hedda. It was a cold, wet slap across my heart.
I had always felt strongly that ‘quality of life’ should be defined on Hedda’s terms—not arbitrary indicators of whether she could still act like a younger cat, but whether she still wanted to be alive. Even if her pleasures were simple: Eating, watching birds out the window, snuggling with me…simply being. I didn’t believe her life was mine to take, unless I was certain that she felt death would be preferable.
The vet looked at me in a way that I interpreted as half-grim, half compassionate. I burst into tears.
Her tone softened a bit. “People worry about doing it too soon. I want to tell you, it’s not too soon.”
I am grateful to her for being so direct. I knew we were coming from different belief systems, possibly different definitions of “quality of life,” but even in my mental fog, she forced open a door I’d been keeping locked. We both were coming from a place of compassion.
“Let’s do tests, treat the symptoms, and see how it goes over the weekend,” I said.
“She may not make it through the weekend,” the vet replied in a soft voice. “She might go downhill.”
I blinked. Nodded. My brain wasn’t computing any of this. I knew that if anything happened, I didn’t have the funds to take her to the emergency vet. Was that what my nightmare had been about? But I couldn’t just kill her right now.
For a few minutes, I was alone with Hedda in the examining room. I stroked her and with a shaky voice said, “Hey sweetie. We’ll be home soon.” I lifted her onto the examining table so that I could hold her closer, and I repeated the line I’d often told her. “Everybody loves Hedda. James loves Hedda and Dianna loves Hedda and Susan loves Hedda…” and I continued until I’d worn out everybody who had ever met her. “Everybody loves Hedda. Hedda is Love.” I placed her back on the floor.
We think we know what decisions we’d make in a given moment, but that assumes we can predict what our mindset will be, that our brains will be functioning at the same level as when life is flowing smoothly. That’s rarely the case.
My insides were a jumble—like, a drawing a toddler might make if he only had a black crayon. On some level, I knew the end was near. Yet I felt that, in this moment, I was being pressured to euthanize, and I knew that if I did make that decision, it had to come from my heart, not other people’s minds. And my heart was very much not on board.
Like many guardians, I expected that Hedda would communicate to me when she was ready to die. But I hadn’t been getting those signs. She still engaged with me, although her eye contact had been less frequent. She went up and down her ramp beside the bed a dozen or more times a day, and although I’d noticed that she was skinnier, she was eating as voraciously as ever.
Over the weekend, Hedda’s diarrhea subsided. We settled back into our comfortable routine, though this time, I had some decisions to make.
Part Two: Making the Euthanasia Decision
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.
Part Three: Creating an End-of-Life Ritual
Euthanasia is one of the most excruciating decisions a cat guardian will ever have to make. Part of what makes it so difficult is that our culture has no rituals to mark this transition, nor to grieve the end of a relationship that holds a unique place in our hearts and lives.
In my experience, creating a ritual to say goodbye before euthanasia made a significant difference in my ability to process grief.
When I knew my 20 years with my cat Hedda were coming to an end—after I’d forgiven the vet for daring to utter the word “euthanasia” and after I’d broken through my own denial—I decided that I wanted to say goodbye formally. I cleared my schedule so I could be with her for the final 24 hours.
Creating a Ritual to Say Goodbye
Each person, each cat, and each relationship is unique. Just as with The Decision, nobody can tell you what is right for your or your cat. This is what I did; if something resonates with you, incorporate it. If something else comes to mind, try that.
1. Express gratitude. I talked to Hedda. I thanked her for staying so long and for being such a wonderful companion. I thanked her for saving my life through several bouts of severe depression. I told her what an amazing job she’d done in this lifetime, and how much I’d miss her. I told her how sorry I was that I couldn’t fix her body, but that that was the nature of bodies. They eventually fall apart. But who she really was would never die. She stared straight into my eyes with such clarity that I thought she must have understood. Not the words, of course, but the intention. The language of the heart.
2. Separate energy. Although I’d been telling Hedda it was all right for her to go, I sensed that my energy was holding her back. After 20 years together, our energies were pretty entwined. I did a formal visualization and called my energy back to me, and I released her energy back to her. If you’ve never done this, picture defragmenting a hard drive; you’re making sure each byte of energy is where it’s meant to be.
3. Find a mantra. What is a line that encapsulates your relationship with your cat? For me, it was one I adapted from Buddhist teacher Adyashanti: “What’s looking through your eyes is also looking through mine.” Whenever I whispered it, Hedda looked straight into my eyes—something she hadn’t done in a while. It’s hard to articulate just how powerful this was—I began feeling (not just believing) that Hedda and I were expressions of the same consciousness, and that what was about to die was “only” her body.
4. Allow tears. Crying doesn’t mean that anything is wrong. I had dreaded this event for years; I had cried oceans just imagining it. Yet once it was imminent, there was no story in my mind about how it shouldn’t be happening. Something about the urgency of the situation brought me into the present moment in a way I’d never felt before. There were tears, of course—sometimes so many that I thought they might never stop. But as long as I allowed what I was feeling, the feeling eventually passed.
5. Play music. Find a song that’s meaningful to you. I played “Lullaby” by Cris Williamson on repeat. I’d sung it to Hedda as a kitten, when she loved to be rocked like a human baby. Although I’ve loved the song since its release in the late 1980s, it’s recently become a bit of an anthem for transitions. She seemed soothed by the music, though the song still makes me cry.
6. Offer treats. If your cat is still eating, this is the time to ply her with her favorite food or treats. For Hedda, this was tuna (which she hadn’t been allowed for years due to kidney disease) and malt-flavor hairball gel (yes, really).
The Last Hour of Hedda’s Physical Life
I had read articles by several animal communicators who said animals want to know what’s going to happen during euthanasia. I explained who was coming, where they were going to stand, what would happen, and (based on my understanding) what she would probably experience. I also explained why—that I didn’t want her to suffer
At 3:00, I lit a tea candle and smudged the room with sage.
She kept one paw on my arm, and she looked into my eyes frequently. She also wanted chin scratches. A lot.
At 4:00, the vet arrived. (I had borrowed money so that her last experience would be familiar—on her heating pad, on my bed, in my arms.)
During the procedure, I lay next to her on the bed, my forehead pressed against hers, one hand on her face and the other on her belly, and I whispered over and over again through tears, “May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be loved.” Which might seem an odd thing to say as I was paying to have a vet end her physical life, but what I meant was: “May you (in all incarnations, on all dimensions) always be safe, happy and loved.”
I held her as she took her last breath, my tears soaking her fur, and I felt a subtle vibration that I’d swear was her spirit leaving her body (at least, I’d like to think it was).
What’s amazing to me—still—is how peaceful and even beautiful her passing was. It didn’t stop the tears, it didn’t make me miss her any less, and I was in a fugue state for a month afterwards. But I believe that creating a ritual—taking the time to say goodbye before euthanasia—made all the difference in my ability to come to terms with her death.
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.
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