Four Life Lessons I Learned from the Passing of My Cat, Karma


My sweet 16-year-old Karma passed on one week ago. We had to help her over the Rainbow Bridge. I initially thought I would write a love letter to her, much as I did for Kali. But I thought that maybe if I wrote this blog entry a different way, it might be of some help to Catster readers. And so, I’m going to talk about the lessons from my life with Karma. I hope there is something here that speaks to you, or might help you in the future.

Karma came to us as a young adult, wandering into our yard as winter approached. She was almost feral and we couldn’t get close to her at first. Watching her from a distance, I could tell that she was frightened by the wind and the coming cold, and that she didn’t appear to be a confident outdoor cat. Over a period of time (but working quickly before the temperature bottom really dropped out), we lured her closer and closer to the house with food, and eventually tempted her inside. I let her hide for a few hours, and then I dared reach my hand out to her (as she hid in our very small utility closet). She pressed her chin into my hand and began to purr.

This was the beginning of 16 wonderful years. Karma had a sweet, somewhat shy personality. She got along very well with the other cats, and especially loved seeking attention and grooming from any male who would give it to her. Karma had loads of natural beauty, and many male cats in my household spent hours devotedly grooming her and giving her attention. Kali was a great buddy of hers as well, and Karma and Kali would spend hours by the fire snuggling together; Kali usually grooming Karma. Karma loved to talk, and would trill, or almost-trill, in a soft, insistent voice.

Here are some thoughts about Karma’s gifts:

1. There’s beauty, and then there’s beauty

It was easy to get hung up on Karma’s physical beauty. She had amazing markings that blended tabby and Siamese. She had a cute little black tail that seemed too small (I think she was a runt and got poor nutrition in her early months). She had the most amazing striped legs and huge icy blue eyes. But her inner spirit and sweetness exceeded her outer beauty. She would show me this over and over, during her final weeks.

2. Celebrate life

It’s so easy to get hung up on the traumatic process of death and letting go. Hospice work, if you have the opportunity and the choice to do it, is tender and also emotionally exhausting. If you are going to have to help your cat pass on, the decision lingers. When? Is it too early? Too late? What does my cat want? Am I inserting my feelings?

Yes — all this demands attention. But I am trying, as well, to remember the beauty and gift of Karma’s years with us, in addition to the emotionally loaded last three weeks of her life. I remember her trills and the way she’d talk to me. I remember her self-assured way of simply claiming lap space — quiet and yet very entitled. I remember the way that she instantly flirted with Milo when she first came into the household. They were inseparable for years. I remember Chester’s tender care of Karma during her last weeks.

3. Take action when needed

In Karma’s case, things moved quickly. Three weeks ago, I felt a barely discernible lump on one side of Karma’s chin. I hoped this was a bad tooth and took her into the vet, where the diagnosis was likely cancer. We did not biopsy. I briefly considered more radical means (chemo or radiation), but knew that I didn’t have the resources, and also knew that I didn’t want to be spending Karma’s last days (weeks? months?) driving long distances around the state with her for treatments that would be tough on her. I wanted her to have quality time at home.

I did a holistic consult with my holistic cat veterinarian and started some supplements that would hopefully give her the best remaining time possible and keep her comfortable. She also had pain meds from my regular vet, if needed.

The tumor grew unbelievably fast. Almost three weeks from diagnosis, I had to make the decision. But I resisted. I was afraid … afraid of the emotional repercussions, afraid of Karma dying in a vet’s office, afraid that I would do it “too soon,” afraid that she would not be ready to leave.

Circumstances forced me to make a decision. When we took her in to help her pass, she was still drinking, but had stopped eating the day before. She was starting to hide. A huge snowstorm was coming. She was sometimes completely with it, and also sometimes “gone” (what I call “out of body”). The good and the bad seemed about 50/50. The local vet could not make a house call.

We did what we had to do. She passed peacefully. She, in that scenario, taught me courage, and to put her needs above my desires.

4. Be ready for the gifts, which may come in unexpected packages

In those last three weeks that I was so fortunate to have with Karma, she gave me many gifts.

Every trill was a gift, as she communicated with us.

Each time she climbed into my lap or my husband’s lap, it was a great gift. It was the essence of her quiet, sweet way of wanting her love.

She gave me a head butt one morning, gently butting my face. I had never seen her do this throughout her life.

From diagnosis to passing, I slept out in the living room so I could be with Karma. (She had never particularly loved our bed, and I would have worried about her falling off the bed or trying to jump and hurt herself.) I put futon cushions on the floor and slept with Karma. One morning at about 4, in the place between sleep and awake, I felt her pressing her face gently next to mine. Again, I’d never seen her do this. My husband captured this on camera.

After Karma passed, I (hesitantly) shared my status on Facebook. (I am a bit private with my grief.) Many friends responded with love. JaneA, of Catster, gave Karma this beautiful mantra, the same mantra she has likely used for her own cats:

Gat├®, gat├®, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi soha!

The phrase is the last line of the Buddhist Heart Sutra, and the rough translation JaneA uses is, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, oh, what beautiful enlightenment!”

Namaste, sweet Karma. You taught, and teach, me so much. I’ll see you on the other side — or on this side.

More about saying goodbye:

About Catherine Holm: Told that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books, and the author of a short story collection about people and place. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots from the city.

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