Friday, February 13, 2009

Some Thoughts about Death and Grief

As my regular readers already know, Arthur the cat was diagnosed with incurable cancer last Thursday. By this Monday, it was clear that the medications intended to keep him out of pain were not working. After watching him decline steadily each day after his grim diagnosis, I knew that euthanizing him was unambiguously the right thing to do. When J and I took Arthur to the vet on Monday afternoon, I felt that we all three were ready for Arthur's suffering to end. I also felt that the knowledge that we were doing what was best would somehow make it easy to carry out our decision.

Well, it was not easy. I stayed with Arthur while the vet administered the drugs, first Valium to calm him a bit and then an overdose of anesthesia to permanently end his pain. I gave him one last kiss on the head, thanked him for 11 fine years, and wished him well on his journey while the vet did her thing, and by the time she finished the second injection he was gone. She checked with the stethoscope to make sure, but I knew he was gone. It is hard to explain how or why, but I was aware of the exact moment of his death. I just knew.

Although I have had a couple of experiences with pets and humans who clearly were in the process of dying, this was the first time that I was present at the moment when a soul actually crossed over. It was such a strange sensation to be in the presence of a creature who was alive one second and dead the next. After the vet hugged me and left the room, I finally allowed myself to cry freely as I kept uncontrollably stroking Arthur's body, which looked so much smaller without his animating spirit there any more. I wondered if his soul was still hanging around and watching from above, and maybe understanding the full depth of my love for him.

My grief for Arthur began the instant I knew he was gone, and it has not yet stopped. Although it seems silly in retrospect, I was somehow thinking that I would get to skip the grieving process because I knew that Arthur's death was for the best, but it does not work that way, does it? I found myself totally unable to intellectualize my way out of feeling depressed. One of the best things I did for myself this week -- on Tuesday morning when I woke up and realized that I was a hopeless wreck, all for the love of a dead cat -- was to stop trying to feel any differently and just be with the grief for a while. I know that these feelings will pass, as do all people, things, thoughts, and emotions, but while they want to be here I will not try to suppress them or make them go away.

I know I've said this more than once before, but I think that we humans really do ourselves a great disservice when we fear and seek to avoid death and when we try to escape from or otherwise deny the more difficult and painful human emotions that can be associated with it. It is an inescapable truth that everything that lives will one day die. In my experience at least, it also is an inescapable truth that suppressed emotions don't really go away, but rather in their unresolved states keep finding new and creative ways to torment us. In what must be the greatest of all paradoxes, it is in seeking to avoid death and pain that we bring ourselves greater pain and prevent ourselves from living fully while we are here.

It seems to me that acknowledging death and difficult emotions as an integral part of our human experience is a more honest and ultimately more peaceful approach to them, so I am going to grieve for Arthur the cat until I'm all grieved out. Right now I still miss my kitty, sometimes so much that I cry, but I know that it is OK (actually better than OK) to feel this way. Thank you, Arthur -- you taught me a lot, both in life and in death.


Karthik said...

Dear Adrianne,

I have had a similar experience with my dog. It was a very painful moment because I shared a lot of my good times with it. It was very tough as I had to call it when it was playing nearby and it came to me with so much trust without knowing what I was about to do (I was helping it ofcourse). May not be logical but a part of me felt empty from then on and it took me a long time to recover.

Strangely, nature and our pets (no disrespect to the fellow humans) always are full of love and have no selfishness or demands of any kind and are always tuned to us. They make our lives richer and fuller and makes us cherish all the other moments of Life.

Thank you for sharing your moment with us.

Leslie Avon Miller said...

Adrianne: This is very wise. Grief and emotions are ours to experience as the occasion arises in our lives. To “be with it” is the surest way to come round again to the full scope of our existence. My sincere condolences.

SJW said...

You've expressed your thoughts and feelings beautifully as always.
Facing the reality of death and the fact that nothing, absolutely nothing, is permanent, is the most "free-ing" thing I've ever done.(I'm still working on it!)
My dog of 11 years died this time last year within days of a tumour being diagnosed.
In 2006 I was with my mother when she died and that experience was, in hindsight, (bit too traumatised at the time) a unique privilege.

e said...


I euthanised my cat of fifteen years last March when she could no longer eat due to cancer.

Like you, I was with her the moment her life stopped, and I and the other cats in my house grieved for months afterward.

You are right to let yourself grieve this loss, both for you and any other pets.

In my case, I was eventually able to contribute to a fund that feeds, spays and finds homes for stray and orphaned cats, and find the person who rescued my cat, Samantha, and thank her for putting Samantha in my life.

I wish you gentleness and support during this time, and I hope that you will find a way that is right for you to honor Arthur's memory when you are ready.

He was a beautiful boy and you have expressed your feelings eloquently.

Reya Mellicker said...

My Adrianne I am so sorry you're going through this. So sorry that emotions are not rational or predictable or avoidable.

Thinking of you with so much love.

Barry said...

"...but it does not work that way, does it?"

No Adrianne, it doesn't, because the loss is still a loss and there are few emotions as painful.

I am very sorry for your loss. My brother and his wife had to euthanize their dog the day after Christmas. Jasper was also eleven. He was also in severe pain and their decision was a great kindness, as was yours.

But that doesn't make it any easier.

Linda Pendleton said...

Adrianne, I am so sorry for your loss of Arthur. I'm sure he is thanking you for letting him go. And the only way to heal, is to deal with those feeling of loss as you are. Thanks for sharing your love for your kitty with us.

Angela said...

When I read your words, tears came to my eyes when I thought of my dog, Zeus, and of my horses...and my cat who lived till 19 1/2 and died purring. They all passed on before me, and I so miss them. But especially the horses, they come back for visits in my dreams. Still attached to me, showing me they are happy, as if to comfort me. It will take time and never really heal, but the other choice would be never to love. You are doing the right thing, Adrianne. I wish you a happy dream.

Cyndy said...

Arthur will always be with you in a way. We lost our 18 year old cat Ted about a year and a half ago and most of the grief is finally gone. But we still miss him. He still pops into our heads at the most random times. I'm glad that you have decided to take your time grieving for Arthur because it sounds like he deserves it - and so do you.