So I want to tell you a little story about what happened to me the other day. I have had a sick kitty (liver cancer) and have been dreading when “the time” came. I also really had no idea how to assess when it was “time”. How does one know such a thing? Yes, we can list all the symptoms and do our best to assess the quality of life, but no matter what, it is a heart wrenching decision to make.
I found out about a pet hospice organization (who knew?) And I called them. My first experience was with the person answering the phone with a kind and empathic voice and tone. Does this seem trivial? I assure you, that in times like this, it is the furthest thing from being trivial. I was in the depth of the painful struggle of knowing that my beloved feline companion of 17 years was dying. And I felt alone and frightened and overwhelmed. A bit of background to this story – I had another kitty (both of them were 17 years old) and my experience with my other kitty(Rocky) and the end of his time was horrible. It began with taking him to an emergency 24 hour clinic in the late hours of the night, where they were overwhelmed with patients and had a 3 hour wait (and where I had to wait in my car all night long due to COVID) only to be told that it would be the humane thing to do to euthanize my kitty. I felt pressured, and wish that I had brought him home to take a bit more time. I regret that I did not do this.
I was determined to do it differently this time. So… my next experience with the pet hospice – I had a zoom interview with one of their veterinary techs who spoke with me for over an hour, was compassionate, kind, and gave me some concrete signs and symptoms to look for daily to assess my kitty’s (Rusty) quality of life. And she reassured me that they would be there, that I could call or email anytime I needed. (Another piece to the puzzle is that my regular vet of several years had left with no notice to anyone, so I didn’t even have a vet that I had been able to meet face to face to help me navigate this difficult process.)
And then one day (this past Monday) Rusty was different. He didn’t eat, had stopped eating after breakfast the day before. He was more lethargic. When I tried to put a piece of food in his mouth to see if that would interest him, he vomited. I panicked. I called the vet (at the regular clinic) terrified that Rusty would suffer and I didn’t want that. They said that they could get me in, but it would be a wait. That was ok, but I felt like they were working to schedule a “procedure”. I calmed down from my panic and called pet hospice.
And so began a totally different experience. There was a warm and compassionate voice on the other end of the call. They checked to see what their schedule was, and found that they could get me in at 1pm that same day. And so I scheduled the dreaded appointment to end Rusty’s life. To have him leave me forever. I had a few hours before the appointment, and I sat with Rusty laying his head on my leg and just resting by me. Connecting. Touching. Loving. I stroked him, talked with him, cried, thanked him for spending his life with me. I wasn’t sure if I wanted the deed done in my house – did I want that to be the last memory with him? But I did not want to take him to a sterile clinic, afraid, with people around he didn’t know, to be poked and prodded….
The hospice vet showed up exactly on time. I was so afraid and torn and sad and quite frankly a mess. He came to my door, said a warm hello, came in (after taking his shoes off at the front door, which I told him wasn’t really necessary) and walked back to the bedroom where Rusty was and where he had been more comfortable for days. And there began the kindest, most gentle and compassionate time with a vet with my kitty that I have ever experienced. He met Rusty, got a sense of how he was, and spent time simply talking with me and listening to me…..and sharing the feelings of the pain of what was happening. He validated that Rusty was indeed very ill, that his breathing was very labored and getting more uncomfortable for him, and that if it was one of us experiencing the level of breathing that he had, we would be on a ventilator. He thought that Rusty probably would die within 24 hours, and get increasingly uncomfortable as the process progressed. He empathized with me, talked about his own pets, how he and his wife had started this hospice organization because they felt that there was more than just the two options of either complete recovery or a quick move to euthanize (which this vet felt is often pushed in veterinary schools). He told me we could take the time that I needed….asked if I wanted to have him step out to his car and for me to get him when I was ready for the next step. I wanted him to stay with me.
He said that he wanted to give Rusty a sedative to help him relax as his breathing difficulty was making him uncomfortable. I agreed. Rusty, for the first time in a few days, was able to lay his head down completely…relaxing, although still with labored breathing. And I spent more time crying and talking with Rusty, petting him, loving him, crying more. After a while, I knew it was time and that we needed to do the deed. I let the vet know. He gently put a blanket over Rusty’s hind end and gave an injection (no IV necessary) and stepped back and sat down on the floor, just being with me. l kept petting Rusty, watching his breathing…..until there was one final last breath….and then no more. No more. And I cried. The vet again told me to take whatever time I need, to let him know if I wanted to be alone with Rusty….that there was no rush. No rush.
For me, once someone dies, I can feel that they are no longer there. I was so grateful to have had the time that morning with him to just cuddle and try and comfort him as much as I could. So I said that I didn’t need to sit with Rusty ….that he could begin the next step, which was to take him out to his car. He so very gently wrapped my sweet Rusty in the soft blue blanket that he had brought in, I petted Rusty one last time, and we walked out to the vet’s car. He was so respectful, laid Rusty’s body on the passenger seat, and asked if I needed him to stay with me for a while (I live alone and had not wanted to call anyone to come be with me). I loved that he offered to stay with me for a while if I needed that. But I needed to be alone and begin the next part of this painful grieving process.
He had also told me earlier that the company that would handle the cremation was a lovely family company that would be respectful during the whole procedure, and would scatter his ashes in the Sierras. (This is where Rocky’s ashes were scattered, so I had told Rusty to go find Rocky and for both of them to wait for me when it was my time.) Rusty’s health began to decline after Rocky died. I believe that his deep grief and loss contributed to how quickly this illness came on. I had taken both kitties to the vet just the week before Rocky became ill, and was told that they looked great.
I am in deep grief. And I am deeply grateful for how this was done, how gentle, how I was able to keep Rusty at home, how we took time, how I felt that someone was present for me and for Rusty during his last moments….truly present. How kindness and compassion and empathy are the most super powers of them all. They make all the difference. Not only in death, but in life. This life is a difficult journey at times. We don’t need to add any more pain to it. May we all learn to be kinder to each other along the way.