Our family pet of 12 years recently died of cancer. Lacey the cat developed a tumor on her side which grew very slowly for about four months. When she started acting strangely (eating less, sleeping more, restlessness), we took her to the vet and she had two injections, one an antibiotic, the other a steroid. The vet told us it would just be temporary relief; that it was definitely cancer; and there was no point in putting her through an operation, because the cancer would just grow back. She did very well for two or three weeks, and then the tumor grew larger, and more aggressively. We did everything we could to make her more comfortable; she wasn’t in a lot of pain, but it was difficult for her to do steps because a finger-sized portion of the tumor had grown from her side into her joint. We carried her up stairs, moved her food and water to the kitchen, and each of our family members made a point to spend more time petting and talking to her.
In the midst of all of this, I was getting testing, going to doctors, and processing through the diagnosis of a benign brain tumor. I would have dreams about going to the vet for shots. I joked to my husband that Lacey and I were “tumor twins.” I reminisced about how we had adopted Lacey from a no-kill shelter; she had been the best pet we had ever welcomed into the family. Her sweet disposition was evident to everyone who met her; and on those nights when I was too anxious to sleep, or the headaches got bad, she somehow knew that, and would come to comfort me.
On April 23rd, I sent my son to the basement to find her. I hadn’t seen her for five or six hours, and knew she had gone down to the basement at some point to use the litter box. While carrying her upstairs, the tumor ruptured. A hole about four inches deep opened up in her side, and she was clearly uncomfortable. Even the color of her eyes changed, went from clear and piercing yellow to a cloudy and muted yellowish-green. We knew it was time to have her put to sleep, but there wasn’t anyone at either of the local vet clinics and she wasn’t in horrible pain, so we decided to wait until the next day. She sleep fine that night, but didn’t move from her spot on her blanket on the couch.
We had each of the kids say goodbye to her that school morning, and took photos with each of them next to Lacey; my oldest daughter had a stomach ache, so I let her stay home and keep Lacey company while I got ready to take her to the vet’s office. We walked down the hill (we are temporarily a one-car family) with Lacey in a 31 bag, and checked in to the office. My daughter cried from the moment we walked in there, her eyes just leaking tears, so I tried to comfort her by reminding her of all the funny stories of Lacey and her playful/spooky ways. She really was going to miss Lacey, because our cat had been around for as long as she could remember. In her old age, Lacey would often wander the house in the evening, often ending up on my daughter’s bed while she read books. There was a kindness in her that is common in old, wise cats; she was gentle with the kids, even when they were toddlers and would chase her around, or pull her tail before I could get across the room. My children have each spent time reading books out loud to Lacey, and she always stayed for the ending.
After asking the vet if it was okay to stay, my daughter and I came back into the room after they gave Lacey her Propofol injection, watched her relax; we nervously laughed when her tongue popped out of her mouth and wouldn’t go back in. The vet and her tech then returned and gave her the final injection that would stop her heart.
We petted Lacey as she slipped away. My daughter and I were very sad; she and I are kindred spirits, we have always had a love for animals and their place in our life’s journey (she was my kid who refused to eat meat for a few years, starting from when she was a toddler; it was probably a texture thing, but I liked to joke it was because she knew where meat came from!). The vet asked if we wanted her cremated, but we had already found a spot in the backyard for her. We bundled her back into the blanket, placed her into our fancy bag, and walked back home. We decided to wait until later in the day to bury her, and to have a short ceremony. My daughter decided to write a poem for the event. After safely depositing Lacey’s remains in the shed, we walked to a cute little Italian place for lunch, and spent some time together, talking about anything and everything. It was a lovely segue to the rest of the day!
We had our funeral for Lacey that afternoon (we had had other ones in the past, because of how short a life that hamsters have!), we had a nice, subdued dinner, and that was that. The end of a pet era.
This experience (the first time I had ever had to have an animal put to sleep) made me reflect on some things: the role of tradition in the transitional moments of our life (birth, puberty, marriage, death); what it means to grieve “well”; how to fit the reality of death into our spiritual concepts and beliefs, and what life means because of death. I believe that most Americans do not grieve “well.” Many people avoid funeral homes and funerals, instead sending their regrets via card or flowers. Many families do not bring their children to churches and funeral homes for the ritual of sending a loved one off to their eternal rest. Many people do not speak of death at all; maybe it’s superstition, maybe it’s upbringing, maybe it’s fear or avoidance.
I believe that death is as much a part of life as LIFE is. That the reason we should cherish each day that we are allowed to have, is because tomorrow may never come. That each time we leave a person, it may be the last time we see them, so we should try (TRY) not to leave them in anger, or with angry words or thoughts. I myself have broken this rule many times…but there are things I have experienced that have reminded me of the fragility of life. The death of the mother of a good friend, in her sleep: not getting to say goodbye. The death of the child of a good friend in an accident: not knowing it would be the last time she would see her vibrant child, not getting to say goodbye. My father having a stroke, all of us frantic that he wouldn’t make it back to the States in one piece, or as he used to be; and the fear that created in some of his children, things left unsaid. The death of my grandma Nunni in a hospital, on Mother’s Day many years ago (I think I was 12?); not getting to say goodbye. The death of my husband’s aunt in Wisconsin, a lovely woman who had always welcomed my large, boisterous family into her home; the last phone call to her, but not being able to hug her properly before she passed away.
At the University of Wisconsin, I graduated with my B.S. but also a certification in Gerontology. I learned during that long, hot summer of endless classes many useful things: how to recognize (or create) family traditions around death and dying. How to come alongside others as they grieve loved ones. What NOT to say to a family member after the death of a loved one.
I took a course at university that focused on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief, and how NOT to short-cut them. D.A.B.D.A. : Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. I learned to recognize the stages. I learned that grief is not linear, but a circle that loops back on itself, and that stressors can knock you back into a previous step that you thought you had mastered. I learned again what I already knew, which is that death is a much a part of life, as living is. That everything lives, eventually dies; that accepting that, feeling the pain when it is happening and not burying it with busyness, substances, or food can substitute healthy grieving. That grieving well is an art, not a science. That coming alongside another person AS they grieve, can be as much a transformative experience for you, as it is for the person who has lost a loved one.
That to children, animals are people.
That telling them HOW to believe about animals and their deaths is probably not a good idea, or how and when to grieve.
That the deaths of beloved pets and family friends is practice for the inevitable death of close, loved ones whom your children will have to grieve.
That talking to your children about death AHEAD of time (using teachable moments, such as coming upon wildlife that are dead, and explaining the natural end of ALL life) will open up the door to communication about life, death, God, eternity, and our role in ecological balance and stewardship of the earth.
That death is neither unnatural nor to be feared, but to be understood and accepted.
This will be a gift to your children, one that they will pass on to their own children. Wrestling with the concept of life and death, talking about it openly, can become a family ritual for you. If you are ready.