Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to slow down a lot of my professional ambitions to take care of one of my cats. As difficult as it’s been, it’s also been an incredibly transformative experience. Over the next few posts, I’ll share some of my insights from the process.
Two weeks ago, I brought my little girl home from the vet. Two days ago, I held her while she passed peacefully at home with the aid of an injection. Even though I did everything I could in those 12 days to provide her with the love, care, and protection, it still hurts so much. Up to this point, my primary experiences with loss have been the breakups of friendships or partnerships and the death of family members living thousands of miles away from me. This was a completely different level of pain and grief. Watching a beloved, in-home companion suffering and then dying was very traumatic for me. Nonetheless, I am trying to focus on her life and memory, as well as the many valuable things I learned from her.
When I originally arranged to have Coco put to sleep at the vet’s clinic two weeks ago, she had been starting to nosedive after a two-day hospitalization. She had been aggressively refusing food and medication and her vitals were starting to tank. Even though my vet had identified heart, kidney, and thyroid problems, she couldn’t explain why Coco was going downhill so quickly. At that point, the only options were far more invasive procedures such as giving her an ultrasound or administering a feeding tube. As the phone calls from the vet grew worse and worse that day, I was hit with an intense feeling that I’d never had before. I felt like I had to protect her from further suffering. Even though I was completely unprepared for her death, I arranged to have her euthanized that evening as soon as possible.
As I described in my last post, she clearly wasn’t ready to die, but was ready to go home. So I took her home. As I also said, taking on this huge responsibility made me immediately feel like an adult. I also knew that I was setting myself for a lot of stress, suffering, and heartbreak by taking her home. I made a vow that I would not take her back to the vet ever again, and I kept the promise (the vet staff who did the at-home procedure were kind enough to take her remains). Without the option of medical intervention, I had very little knowledge of or control over how long her life would be, or how painful her death. In spite of this huge uncertainty and risk, I was resolute in my decision because of my love for Coco. Protecting her from the trauma of the vet was more important to me than protecting myself from stress and suffering.
Once I got her home, I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to keep her stable. I’d been sent home with four medications and explanations of which ones she hated the most. In spite of my hesitations, I gave her the non-hated, essential pills. I gave her the first two doses without much fuss, but by the third time, she demonstrated the same aggressive resistance that the vet had described. So no more medication it was. Without vet visits and medication as options, all I was left with was with giving her tuna (the only thing she was willing to eat and able to keep down), catnip, and lots of affection.
Something amazing started to happen – instead of continuing to decline, she started getting better. While it only was a week before she stared to decline again, she had a beautiful coda to her life. She never regained any weight or strength, but she was able to enjoy some of her favorite things – on-demand feeding, staring out my picture window, and cuddling. I became convinced that holding her was more therapeutic for her than any medication.
It was an incredibly powerful experience to watch the stress of the vet nearly kill Coco and the safety and comfort of being home help briefly rehabilitate her – especially since I just finished a dozen years of schooling in which stress was not only the norm, it was valorized. But this, along with the recent, premature death of a family member where stress was a primary factor, forced me to see how dangerous and toxic stress truly is. By protecting her from stress, I started to think about how to protect myself from unnecessary stress. I also started thinking about how as a teacher, my role is not to induce stress in students, but to give them the tools to manage unavoidable stressors. This lesson, along with the little bit of extra time I got to spend with my little girl, was worth all the pain and suffering of this experience.