Your sweet cat is nearing the end of her life, and you’re beside yourself with grief. What do you do? How long do you have with her? What can you do to prolong her life? Should you prolong her life?
Saying hello to a cat inevitably means we’ll have to say goodbye, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
Wendy Van de Poll, a certified grief coach, author of six books on pet loss, and founder of the Center for Pet Loss Grief, talked to me about how to cope with the knowledge that you have a lot fewer tomorrows than yesterdays with your beloved kitty.
In her book, My Cat Is Dying: What Do I Do?, Wendy discusses grief and helps readers understand what they’re going through.
“I find the hardest part is when you first get that bit of information from your vet [that your cat is dying],” she says. “There’s a numbness that happens first, but the hardest part after that goes away is ‘mind chaos’ — the mind goes around and around, and there’s a lot of anxiety.”
The best thing you can do, according to Wendy, is to try and get a grip on that mind chaos, to learn to hold hands with that grief.
Those “pre-death grief” emotions can be particularly difficult. I know this from my experiences with my cats, Dahlia and Siouxsie, who died under very different circumstances. In both cases, though, I knew they were going to die and I had time to experience those feelings before the cats passed.
Wendy suggests that people learn and understand what normal grief is. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described five stages of grief, and it can be helpful to know what those are.
“If we’re feeling numb, or we feel like we have bouts of anger, we may feel like we’re going crazy, but that’s what normal grief is,” she says.
She encourages people to make checklists in order to remember important things like feeding your cat or administering her medicine, or even simple things like sitting on the couch and petting your cat.
“Sometimes you’re going to forget, if you’re going through mind chaos, so I encourage people to write down what needs to be done every single day, so you don’t have to worry about forgetting something important,” she says. “But on those lists, also write down the lovely things you want to do.”
Another important thing is finding support. You don’t have to go through this alone. By finding a support group or supportive people in your life, you can help to make your grief more manageable.
As important as it is to give your cat her medicine, it’s just as important that you give her loving support as she goes through her dying process. Wendy sees it as “part of the work of working through that grief.”
“I talk in my books about different tools people can use to support their cats in the dying process,” she says, “but one of the easiest things for people to do right away is to make a list of all the things their cat loves to do — playing with toys, for example, or going for a walk or eating her favorite food — and then make another list of what their cat is able to do.”
Enjoy being with your cat and doing what she’s able to do. You might even start thinking of new ways to spend time with your cat so you’re creating new memories.
It’s important to have a team of health care professionals so they can help you tailor a treatment plan for your cat, Wendy says. That way, when your cat does die, you’ll know you did everything you possibly could. But, she cautions, don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. Enjoy a massage, a hot bath, a mani-pedi, or whatever you do that makes you feel treated and relaxed.
“It’s being mindful, setting up a plan and allowing yourself to be present so you can be the best cat parent you can be,” she says.
Most of the time, we’re going to have to choose to end our cat’s life for them. That decision is one of the hardest, bravest and most loving choices you can make. But there’s always that question of “Is it the right time?”
“That’s one of the biggest and the most anxiety-producing decisions. It’s one that no one really wants to make because no one wants to make it at the wrong time, but it’s a crucial one,” Wendy says.
She recommends determining how you’ll deal with that decision before you have to make it, because last-minute decisions can be very chaotic: “Be clear on how you’re going to make that decision, when you’re going to make that decision. Get in touch with your own personal feelings about death.”
Then, talk to your support team. That naturally includes your vet and any other health practitioners you’ve included in your cat’s care, because they’ll be able to tell you what’s going on from a medical point of view. But your support team also includes your friends, people in your church or spiritual organization, and members of any groups you’re attending. Don’t be afraid to tell them how you want to be supported, Wendy says. Whether you need a hug, a kind word, or someone to take you to the vet for that final visit, you’re well within your rights to ask for that.
“When is the right time? I rely on what my own animals tell me,” says Wendy. “Trusting that — as a rule we don’t trust our intuition and sometimes we don’t trust the messages our animals give us. When we work and care for them and go through this journey with them, the gifts they give us are remarkable and it’s a very rich experience.”
Next week, in part two of my interview, we’ll talk about guilt, grief and celebrating your cat’s life. Meanwhile, if you want to read more of Wendy’s advice, pick up a copy of My Cat Is Dying: What Do I Do? It’s available for purchase through her website or on Amazon.com.