Okay, so it’s time to get this show on the road again. Thank you folks for bearing with me.
It goes without saying that it’s been a tough week for me, but I’ll say a bit about it anyway. Even though Leo, like Mocha, gave me a heads up almost six months ago that he was preparing to go, I’ve found myself working through a lot of guilt. I think sometimes grief finds a home in guilt. Guilt is something we can do actively, it can actually be a distraction from simply experiencing the pain of grief. Sweetie’s talked me through guilt a couple of times this week.
I made a few decisions through Leo’s death process that are great fodder for the guilt of a loving pet parent. I decided not to pack Leo into a kennel and take him in the car for four hours to the vet when he first presented himself as sick on Thursday. This was a decision I made balancing his immediate needs and his current experience (feeling sick but not acutely suffering) with the possible benefits and consequences of taking him to the vet. I decided that it was better to wait for the vet to come to town – less than a week – rather than subject my cat to the stress of a car ride. Car rides for Leo are the only times in his life when I’ve seen him truly distressed, and I didn’t want to add that experience to what was possibly his final days.
What has been especially tough for me was that Leo asked me to take him to the vet, showing me the vet we used to have in Toronto. Back in the city, I lived a five minute walk away from the vet. Leo seemed to think we were still only a five minute walk away. I explained that it was a long car ride, and that the vet was coming to town in five days. He showed me himself getting smaller.
When I first read Penelope Smith’s “When Animals Speak” I was shocked to read her own experience about sitting with her beloved dog Pasha, a beautiful afghan hound, as he experienced his death process over a period of three days. The animal lover in me was outraged – how dare she allow her dog to die slowly, over days? Why didn’t she take him in to be euthanized? Why didn’t she talk about taking him to a vet at all?
With Leo, I found myself in the same position, making decisions as Leo’s “Mom” on his behalf, doing the best I could with the information I had. I made the choice not to bring him to the vet in town immediately, based on his level of physical pain versus the suffering the trip could cause him (which would have been acute.) Looking back on our last days together, I’m glad I didn’t add distress to his death process, and in the end, he spent his last days with me, in calm and familiar surroundings.
I watched Leo go through some of the same things Mocha experienced. The same disorientation, and at the moment of death, the exact same smell. To me, it smelled acid, a bit like burning hair.
I’m learning that death, like birth, takes time and involves pain. In general, dying is something we intrinsically know how to do – like being born. I’m learning that physical pain is a different thing than emotional distress or generalized suffering. Leo’s pain was never acute, he was never displaying any of the physical signs of an animal suffering. All the time I had to make the choice to take him to town or, thank heaven I didn’t have to do this, put him down myself, each moment I regarded my options I made the choice to go with what was least distressing for my cat, which was to continue to lay in his bed, pressed up against me.
In retrospect, I wonder if this is why I got sick myself, the week before he died; so I could be at home with him as much as possible for his last week with me. Mocha died after I’d just taken a week of vacation, and spent most of it with her. It’s funny and beautiful, sometimes, how these things work out.
Sweetie had noticed the change in Leo’s energy in the days before Leo died, which is the same change she sometimes sees in people before they pass on. The first time she saw this change was in a relative of hers who was sick, and so it was no surprise when he died soon after she saw him… but when she saw a friend at a bar with the same contracted aura, this healthy young woman, she convinced herself she must be mistaken. This woman died a few days later in an accident.
There’s something we do when we prepare to leave our bodies, and it’s a process that takes time. I think it’s something that can be happening in the days or months leading up to an “accidental” death. Sometimes I wonder if our wonderful medical advances interfere with our own death process, keeping us alive and attached to our bodies long after we were prepared to go. I’ve also seen the terrible tragedy of the “convenience euthanasia” – ending the life of a perfectly healthy and loving family pet in just a few moments because the parents are getting divorced, or the dog snapped at a child.
I guess my intent in writing about this is just to say these are the things I’ve been thinking about. I’m not trying to say we should or shouldn’t do one thing or another – everyone has to make their own decisions with their best judgement. We can moralize about death, but that’s kind of pointless, isn’t it? There are many ways to die, but at some point, every one of us comes to this moment when our bodies release us and we return to etherial form.
Some cultures place a lot of emphasis on avoiding or denying death. We worship youth and beauty, we obsess about what foods are “good” or “bad”, we take out life insurance policies, we fight death in hospitals. Sometimes we get to a point where we have to sign legal “Do Not Recussitate” orders, or even “pull the plug”.
Other cultures spend a lifetime preparing for death, even praying to be released from the cycle of death and rebirth. Some people prepare for their moment of death for years by rehearsing a death prayer, or a death song. I think that’s beautiful.
Some people believe our death experience can affect whether we “make it” to Heaven, or become eternally suffering, earth-bound spirits. Too many people worry about their loved ones in this way.
If you are worried about a loved one who died in a sudden, traumatic or violent way, if you’re worried that this person may still be suffering in death, that they may not have “made it” to heaven, the best thing you can do for your friend or family member is to pray for them. Send them love, ask your angels, relatives and loved ones in heaven to go and get this person and help them to Heaven. The best thing you can do is send them love, tell them they deserve to move on. Many of my clients have been worried about loved ones who died in a traumatic way, and so often these people had help getting to the other side. This is something else I’m learning – no one dies alone. No one is lost. There is a reason we sometimes refer to death as an Angel. I believe that for everyone, everywhere, there are spirits, guides and angels waiting to take us home when our time comes.
Last night, Leo came back to visit me. I felt him as he was 10 years ago, a tad overweight at 18 lbs, a big, soft, warm lump of affection. He used to hop on to the bed and announce himself with a little trill, like “Ta da!”, and he’d walk over to me, settle himself in my left armpit and press his paws over my heart, as if to hold me town and actively snuggle me. Last night I felt his purrs through my chest just as through he was sitting with me again. I missed him so much, and I was comforted too, that he was visiting. I fell asleep feeling him there, and woke up a few hours later with my little dog curled into my left armpit, his head on my heart.