We Chat With Caitlin Doughty of "Ask a Mortician" About the Death of Her Beloved Cat
Cautionary note: This story features pictures of Caitlin's departed cat.
I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that Caitlin Doughty makes death a part of life.
Caitlin Doughty, of Ask a Mortician web-video fame, and the "death acceptance" site The Order of the Good Death, has the uncanny ability to be both completely disarming and candid about death, while at the same time utterly soothing in tone and manner. There is no "dark mystery" or "living beware" to the way Caitlin talks. It's a conversation you could imagine having over beers or a cup of coffee -- normal, composed, even funny. As a working mortician (for humans) in Los Angeles, such is the way Caitlin would prefer people to view death. I guess these are traits one must cultivate when dealing with the dead and their living counterparts.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Caitlin about not only her beliefs and advocacy for death acceptance, but also on a more personal note how those beliefs applied to the death of her cat, The Meow.
Fans of Caitlin's may remember The Meow, Caitlin's gorgeous Siamese kitty-counterpart from many of her videos.
"If Grumpy Cat is an A-List cat celebrity, then The Meow is a Z-List cat celebrity," Caitlin jokes. A-List or Z-List, The Meow and her death became an important part of Caitlin's mission as a death acceptance advocate.
"I was able to practice what I preach with her," she explains about the impact the Meow's death had on her. "In a way that was kind of her final gift to me -- in addition to all the companionship that she gave me -- to allow me to do the advocacy that I do and present her death in a way that can make people understand what I'm trying to say."
Caitlin had The Meow for seven years, adopting her when she was five years old from her aunt, a professional cat breeder on Kaua'i, Hawai'i.
"So she was so loving, and so happy. She was kind of the perfect cat. She would be waiting by the door when I got home."
Sadly, The Meow was diagnosed with feline mammary cancer towards the end of her seven years with Caitlin.
"[Feline mammary cancer] is very common among Siamese 'ladies of a certain age' who haven't been fixed. I found a tiny little lump on one of her mammary glands, so I took her to the vet and she determined that that's what it was. I had options like chemotherapy or a bilateral mastectomy, so I asked what the statistics were for helping the cat -- was she going to live significantly longer if I did these things?"
"[The vet] called the cat oncologist, and the answer was that she might live a couple months longer. But she'd be doing chemotherapy or have this terrible operation. The Meow wouldn't understand the concept of 'hurt to get better,' so I was like, I'm not going to do that."
Caitlin decided to forego treatment and make The Meow as happy as possible for her remaining time, and she was relatively fine for another six or seven months, until one day, Caitlin came home to a grim discovery.
"Tumors on her mammary glands had started getting larger and larger, and finally there was one really big, golf ball-sized one. I came home one day and it had ruptured. It was bleeding everywhere and she couldn't stop messing with it."
Caitlin says, "Physically, she never felt bad, she was never aggressively sick, she was still eating, she was still going to the bathroom, but now she just had this huge oozing tumor that had exploded, basically."
After consulting with her vet, she knew it was The Meow's time. "Cancerous cells never heal, so it wasn't like the rupture was going to close up or anything." Caitlin made the difficult decision to schedule a home euthanasia for the following evening.
"It costs more to have someone come to your house and euthanize your pet at home. [But it] was super worth it. It totally changed the experience. It ended up being really powerful to have her so comfortable and right there in our arms in the home she lived in," she says. "She was happy she was in her home. Obviously she had an oozing tumor -- that couldn't have been fun -- but she had been eating, she was able to get up on things, her quality of life never significantly diminished at all."
As to how The Meow's actual home euthanasia occurred, Caitlin pointed to the lovely blog post, "The Life and Death of a Most Belov'd Meow" on her The Order of the Good Death site:
When Dr. Smith arrived (I’m going to go ahead and give him a shout-out because damn that guy is doing the good lawd’s work) the Meow was curled right up in my lap. The doctor administered three shots: One that relaxed her, one that put her to sleep, and the final one that caused her heart to stop beating. The only time she had any sense that something was amiss (other than, “awesome, new dude to pet me!”) was the prick of the very first shot, but even then she recovered quickly and continued right on purring like a champ.
We sat with her and had a good cry as Dr. Smith talked us through everything he was doing and what was happening with Meow’s body. He said most people apologize profusely for crying. Apologize for crying as their pet is being euthanized! Our dear sweet death-denial society strikes once again.
Despite the tears and grieving for the "belov'd" Meow, I couldn't help but notice how the whole process seemed very positive. Caitlin brightens. "Yeah, it was incredibly positive. We kept the body at home. So I got to do after-death care for her."
As a "corpse handler" novice, I ask her if rigor mortis set in quickly or if The Meow's body was still moveable after she died.
"The body was very, very loose, actually, completely limp. Rigor mortis set in a little bit later than I thought. Probably about five to six hours after [her death]. We had a little wake for her and she slowly got colder and colder as the night went on."
Caitlin quickly adds, "It's a little bit of an experience because they are so limp and so dead but she was still warm. I think that's a harsh reality that is important -- knowing that this animal is not there anymore. I think it makes you more comfortable cremating or burying an animal."
What was The Meow's wake like?
"We had a little shrine set up for her -- we had a pillow and flower petals and candles and all these things, because people were coming over later to celebrate the death of Meow," she says, laughing gently at the emotional memory.
"I knew that once 'kitty mortis' set in, it would be very difficult to move her, so I arranged her on the pillow, and made sure her mouth was closed and her eyes were closed. And then we just kind of hung out, people came over, we ate food. I petted her a lot, I held her in my arms for a while."
At this point, I couldn't tell if Caitlin was getting a little teary, but I definitely had some, uh, cat hair in my eyes. I marveled at the ease at which she cared for The Meow's body.
"Part of that is really comfort with death and the physicality of death. I think that pets are a good starter project for caring for humans at home," she says. (A major part of Caitlin's mission as a death-acceptance advocate is home death care.) "A pet is furry -- and you could tell that The Meow was certainly dead -- but it still felt very comfortable to hold her and to pet her. So I did a lot of that."
After the wake, The Meow was put on ice -- "just as a precaution, but she would have been fine for a day without it," says Caitlin. A day later, she was buried.
"We buried her on a property that's very dear to my heart in Topanga Canyon, in Los Angeles. We had to bury her very deep, because if you bury an animal who's been euthanized the chemicals in the animal are not good for other animals. You either cremate them or you bury them very deep so other animals can't get at them."
Inspired by Caitlin's journey with The Meow, I ask her if someone like me might be able to practice the kind of after-death care that she did with The Meow.
"You absolutely can do it. I've never heard of somebody being with their animal as they died who regretted it. Part of life is facing the brutality of death. Being there with the people or animals that you love, even when it's painful for you to see, is a really important, transformative, and healing experience."
"You can't do anything wrong," she says. "The animal is dead, they're going to be dead 24 hours from now, you can't mess it up. Just be with them, and then deliver them to whatever their final end is -- cremation, burial, pet cemetery -- whatever it is."
I ask Caitlin how her followers and fans responded to The Meow and her death.
"Because she was a cat people really loved, because she was in all the videos -- she really was a Z List cat celebrity -- she made people feel better about their own mortality, because she was so goofy. So to have to face her death, I think people really appreciated that she had such an involved send-off. Such ritual, showing respect to her and respect to the process."
As a fan of Caitlin's, I concur that she was a perfect example. The Meow's death was beautiful, not frightening. It was utterly caring and respectful, indicative of the way Caitlin believes all death should be treated.
"When I see people taking care of their dead," Caitlin adds, "whether it's an animal or a human, I think it's the most beautiful, humane thing that somebody can do."
Hopefully, through Caitlin's example and tutelage, we can all learn to offer such care to our loved ones.
And to The Meow, rest in peace. Thank you for offering this one last lesson to us.
Want to know more about Caitlin Doughty and death acceptance? Visit The Order of the Good Death, and look out for Caitlin's book, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory" available this September, 2014.
Read more about death and grieving:
- What My Cats Have Taught Me About Death and Grieving
- 6 Things My Cats Have Taught Me About Life and Death
- Let's Talk: How Do Your Cats React to a Death in the Household?
- Does the Grief over Losing a Beloved Cat Ever Really Go Away?
- 5 Ways to Help Your Kids Cope with the Death of a Family Pet
- Our Cat Came Back to Visit Us After She Died
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