Have You Ever Helped a Friend Through the Death of Her Cat?


When Joy and I were rehearsing her one-woman show, Birthday would sit in my lap and “give notes” while I directed.

As two twentysomething theater artists with big hopes for Joy’s script about being a mobster’s girlfriend in Paris (a true story!), the only rehearsal space we could afford was Joy’s studio apartment. But we didn’t care. The space was “free,” the wine was plentiful, and the cat was cuddly. Now and then Birthday, a serious little tuxedo cat, would stand up, yawn, hop “onstage,” and start delicately mewing for dinner. A gentleman cat through and through, Birthday never outright told us we were boring him, but his request was a genteel way of saying, “Don’t you think we’ve all had enough for the night?”

Our little play went on to bigger venues and bigger audiences than just Birthday and me, but even now, years removed from that play and that first important step toward success for Joy and me, there is no doubt in our minds that part of the alchemy of that little apartment was Birthday’s watchful, grounding gaze.

I’m naturally a frenetic, anxious person. If I don’t consciously focus, I’ll bounce off the walls in a creative space. But with Birthday snuggled in my lap, I had an assistant in my mania. “Chill out my friend,” he seemed to purr. “Why throw all that energy around when you can just sit quietly with me?” So I sat, and I worked, and good things came of it.

Through the years Birthday has showed us the way. Joy has commented on multiple occasions, sometimes through anger, sometimes through tears, that Birthday always has an idea when it’s best to just sit, be still, and exist in a moment — preferably vigorously rubbing his dainty black face.

So a couple weeks ago, when my iPad lit up with several long messages from Joy with the words “birthday,” “hurt,” “vet,” and “sick” flashing across the screen, my heart stopped.

Without going into too much detail, Joy awoke one morning to Birthday crying out in pain. Rushing him to the vet, it turned out he had a saddle thrombus. Essentially, Birthday has an enlarged heart that had developed a clot. The clot had traveled down his aorta and had lodged in the artery that splits to his hind legs. Birthday’s back legs appeared to be partially paralyzed.

The vet was able to help Birthday that day, and he regained the use of hind legs and was relieved of pain. However, another clot will probably form and will likely prove fatal. Cats with a saddle thrombus usually have to be euthanized because the pain from an untreatable clot is too great.

Birthday is now on various medications to prolong his life and keep him comfortable for what could be a few weeks or months — we’re not sure. And while Joy says he is back to his normal “shouldn’t we sit a while and scratch my face?” self, she knows their time together is finite.

All of this news came as a punch to the gut for me. My best friend’s cat, my “god cat,” is facing the end of his life. All the education I’ve acquired in the pet industry on health and nutrition, all the experience I had helping friends and family through terminally sick pets, did not prepare me for this feeling of helplessness.

Joy and Birthday are in Los Angeles and I am in Japan. I can’t run over to her apartment and hold her, and hold Birthday, and absorb every last moment we have as a trio. In a time when words feel secondary, they are all I have.

So I’m using my words — or lack thereof. In my overly verbose life, I’m learning it doesn’t take words to be there for someone, even across an ocean. It took me a bit to figure out, but it is times like this that I need to look no further than Birthday himself for guidance. Here are some lessons I’ve taken from him to help get through this trying time:

1. Just listen

Birthday is the king of this. One of the quietest cats I’ve ever met in both voice and manner. Nothing brings Joy greater pleasure and peace than just having Birthday sit on her chest, nose to nose.

In those moments when Joy was realizing the enormity of what was happening with Birthday, I realized it was solely my job to listen, absorb, and appreciate the dozens of thoughts she was trying to work out in her brain. I know I’m maybe the only person who can come close to understanding the relationship between her and Birthday, so even when her words dissolve into a tear-soaked repetition of “I’m just so lucky to have him, I’m so lucky, I’m so lucky …” the best thing I can do for her is to open my heart and my ears to her.

2. Keep it simple

Birthday is a cat of simple needs. He wants his food, he wants to sit on you, he wants his face scratched. It’s so simple. Us humans have a way of complicating matters.

After the initial shock of Birthday’s prognosis, the simplicity of the situation became apparent. Just love him. Make him happy while you still can. Just be with him.

My first reaction was to dig through the furthest reaches of my cat care knowledge and find a million different ways to treat him. “Try this supplement, this therapy, this specialist.” I wanted to FIX things. But there is very little we can do to fix Birthday at this point.

I noticed very quickly that while Joy was listening to what her psycho friend was saying, her heart wasn’t in it. She added some supplements to his food, she makes sure he takes his medicine, and she is doing everything she possible can to keep him healthy and happy longer, but really she just wants to love her cat. Part of loving her cat is just talking about him with her best friend about how great he is.

So we reminisce, we talk in our “Birthday voices” about all the things in life he prefers. We laugh about all the spooky habits he had in her old apartment, like sitting in the closet and staring at the wall for hours. We marvel at how he was the smartest cat in the world when she tried to toilet-train him — and how he was the smartest cat in the world at EVADING toilet-training.

With Birthday perched on her lap, Joy just needs a kindred spirit. Another person who’s heart is willing to expand, to encompass and remember all the wonderful things about her kitty.

3. It’s OK to talk about the end

This time, Joy is the one who taught me something. One day, after I carefully tested the waters on how Birthday was doing, I found myself wading into a conversation about what the end of his life might be like.

“There is an expiration date on my time with him,” she said. “But … I’m sort of grateful for it.”

“How so?” I asked her, sticking to my rule of speaking less and listening more.

Joy answered slowly, a thickness creeping into her voice. “It’s all so precious now. I have this cat who wants nothing more than to be with me all the time, and sit on me, and let me scratch every inch of his little head. I’m so, so lucky; I have to be aware of it and enjoy every second with him, because I don’t know when it will end. I could have lots of time, or no time at all. It will end, but I’ll have the best moments with him up until his last breath.”

Then she asked me for information on end-of-life care for Birthday — home euthanasia, post-death care options, etc. I write about death a lot, but never in my career have I been so honored to offer up such knowledge.

We love you, Birthday. Thank you for keeping us grounded in the moment. We are so lucky, we are so lucky, we are so lucky …

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