Does the Grief over Losing a Beloved Cat Ever Really Go Away?
On a recent sunny and beautiful afternoon, I looked up from my writing to glance outside at the public garden I can see from my window. But instead of looking toward the left and out the window, my eyes moved to the right and I caught a glimpse of the altar I’d made to celebrate two wonderful cats whose lives ended much too soon.
Suddenly I felt like a hole had been torn out of my heart. The weight of my grief overwhelmed me. I was so stunned by the whirlwind of emotions that I couldn’t even cry. I just put my head in my hands and sat there with the feeling as the memories played in my mind.
April 4, 2012: The first trip to the emergency clinic with Dahlia as she gasped for breath, crying in fear and pain. The vet shows me her X-rays: her lungs have almost collapsed under the weight of the fluid that had built up in her chest. “Oh, God,” I breathe. I know this is not good at all. She stays overnight at the emergency clinic.
April 5: I sit in an exam room at a specialist vet clinic waiting for Dahlia’s ultrasound exam results. Dr. Noble comes back in some time later with Dahlia in her arms and a serious look on her face. I look at the printouts from the ultrasound: three tumors, almost certainly malignant. A biopsy would determine the type of tumors and the prognosis, if I want to do that.
“Oh, Dahlia,” I say as I lean into her carrier, my tears dripping on her fur, “you’re a very sick little kitty.”
I dry my eyes and schedule a biopsy. I leave with prednisolone and an antibiotic, to decrease the swelling and get her to eat.
April 6: Dahlia has her biopsy and another aspiration of fluid around her lungs. She’ll only eat tiny bits. She’s probably lost a pound in the last week. But otherwise she’s doing well and I can take her home today.
April 8: Dahlia has another respiratory crisis, and we take another trip to the emergency clinic. The vet talks to me with an expression that says she’s trying to control her anger. “I’m not going to keep her alive just for the sake of keeping her alive; I’m not that selfish,” I tell her. “I just want to know what I’m dealing with, to see what my treatment options are.”
April 9: I get a call from the vet. “We had a hard time getting pieces of the tumor out,” she says. “The pathologist couldn’t determine the type of cells from the sample we got.” I schedule another biopsy.
April 11: Another biopsy, another ultrasound, another fluid aspiration. Dahlia’s lost still more weight. Her bones are almost visible under her fur.
April 12: The biopsy results are in. Atypical large-cell lymphoma. The tumors have gotten larger despite the steroids we’ve been giving her. The prognosis is very poor.
I know what I have to do. With a lump in my throat, I schedule the euthanasia appointment for the next day.
That night, I don’t try to make her eat. I don’t give her any pills. This is her last night with me, and I want it to be peaceful. I start cleaning the remnants of food and goo off her face with a damp washcloth.
About five minutes later, Dahlia begins panting and crying. She runs away from me and sits hunched miserably on the floor. It can’t wait until tomorrow. I call the emergency clinic, put her in her carrier and grab the purple fleece blanket that’s always been her favorite. As she cries beside me, I say, “It’s okay, sweetie; the pain will be over soon” over and over again. My eyes blur with tears. The rain pours on my windshield.
The technician brings me into an exam room. The steel table been covered with a blanket. The whimsical cats all over it seem painfully ironic. I put the fleece blanket in my lap, take Dahlia out of her carrier and place her on it. I try to take a couple of photos with my phone. My hands are shaking so much from the emotion that the photo is blurry, but the terror in Dahlia’s eyes is clear.
A moment later, a tech takes Dahlia, still wrapped in her fleece blanket, into the back to place a catheter. When she brings Dahlia back she says, “Take as much time as you need.” I lean over her and pet her head, whispering in her ear.
“Thank you, Dahlia, for sharing your life with me,” I tell her. “You’ve been an incredible blessing and teacher. I love you so much …”
The moment is broken by another cry of pain. I know it’s time.
I tell the receptionist we’re ready.
The vet fills two syringes. She injects the sedative through the catheter. Dahlia’s head droops. I stroke her as gently as I can.
Then it’s time for the euthanasia solution. The vet injects it and in less than a second, I feel Dahlia’s soul depart. Her body becomes completely flaccid. The life is gone from her eyes.
She was only six years old. It's so damn unfair!
“I’m so sorry,” the vet says.
I really want a hug, but I can’t bring myself to ask for one.
“Take as much time as you need,” she tells me as she leaves the exam room.
When the tears stop flowing, I update my Facebook page: “It is done. Dahlia is free. Gaté, gaté, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi svaha.”*
I call my mother as soon as I get back home. “How are you doing?” she asks.
I just cry.
It’s hard to write this. I keep glancing at Dahlia’s collar and the box containing her ashes. Every song I listen to seems to renew my grief -- and my guilt. Did I do the right thing by waiting a week before I had her euthanized, or should I have done it right away and spared her any more suffering? Why didn’t I see how sick she was before she reached this point?
Logically, I know I did the best I could. It was only a week from the first crisis to the day she was released from her suffering. But still, it hurts. And still, I sometimes question myself.
* "Gaté, gaté," etc. is is a Sanskrit phrase from the Buddhist Heart Sutra that means roughly "go, go, go beyond, go thoroughly beyond, and establish yourself in enlightenment."
About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, professional cat sitter, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.