Here’s the thing about life. It’s not fair. It never claimed to be and it never will be. Suffering isn’t distributed fairly either. It never is. When you experience a loss or hardship, there is no Cosmic Force that checks your name so you aren’t handed any more. My husband Tim died at 48 from gallbladder cancer just five months after his diagnosis. Clearly, that rocked our world. But this article is about some of the other losses my children and I experienced around that time as well.
During the five months Tim was sick, our cat Oreo, received a cancer diagnosis as well. After a great month on steroids, he died. Digging Oreo’s grave was one of the last physical jobs that Tim was able to do. There was not a soul in the house that didn’t understand the irony of what was happening.
About a month before Tim’s death, Colin (our 26-year-old) surprised us with Louie. I was overwhelmed with everything going on, but Louie climbed into my lap and started purring immediately. I knew he was just what we needed to brighten our lives.
The next summer, we discovered Louie had kidney disease. It’s one of those things that would shorten his life but we had no idea when. Could be years. Or not.
What should I do? Do I tell my eight-year-old Frankie or wait? I decided to follow the same path we had chosen when his dad was sick and told him the truth in age appropriate terms. He laid on the floor of my bedroom and sobbed his young heart out. I cried with him. Then he tried to process it. “Why am I crying more for Louie and Oreo than I did when Dad died?” I talked about how we bond with our animals in ways we can’t with humans. Their love for us is unconditional. I know he loved his father deeply and it wasn’t a matter of how important Tim was to him. Sometimes other losses just trigger us and we let it all out when maybe we couldn’t in the moment when the other loss was happening. At eight, my son was becoming an expert in some of life’s toughest truths.
About a year later, Colin came to me and said Louie wasn’t doing well. I knew what this could mean. I felt sick driving to the vet’s. Was he dying?
Our vet decided to give him an IV push and medicated food. I went home on pins and needles. I asked Colin if he would be able to handle giving Louie IVs every day but he wasn’t sure he could handle that. Me either.
I felt lost. Was it time to put Louie down? Our vet called and I felt some peace. She knows our family well and said key phrases that I understood all too well. Louie had weeks left, so we were talking about palliative care. I know that term. The fluids could help him tremendously. The plan was that I would go in the morning and purchase IV bags. I would be instructed regarding needles and such. I dreaded it, but I knew I would have to pull it together. Louie was dying and needed me to help him home.
That night I got up and discovered that Louie had vomited. He looked awful so I called the vet. Was this new symptom a game changer? She said she thought maybe I wasn’t ready to let Louie go. I told her I could face that, but I didn’t want to live with the guilt of putting him down early because I was too traumatized to provide IVs. That just wasn’t an option. Once that clarification was made, the decision was clear. It was time for Louie and no guilt should be felt.
Colin went with me, just as he had with Oreo. I held Louie in my arms and our doc blessed him on his journey home after telling him what a special cat he was and how loved he was by his family. I felt him relax in my arms and I knew he was gone. Colin and I bawled like babies.
We brought him home in a box. He looked beautiful. Frankie sobbed like us, but let me hold him as he grieved. Then the boys went to the backyard and dug a grave. The work seemed to calm them and give them closure.
I handled the death better than I did the hours of not knowing. I can do full-on sad. I am familiar with that, and while I obviously don’t enjoy it, I know what to do with it. Making life and death decisions, weeding through medical information… it felt like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I hated every minute of it.
Colin and I talked. What’s the alternative? Never get a pet again? We decided without a doubt that it’s still worth it. The love, companionship and connection is worth knowing that someday you will have to part.
Frankie started bugging me about getting a new cat. I knew we’d hear a story at some point about a cat that desperately needed us and we would be ready. The neighbor called a few months later and said they had a cat that needed a home. Bingo.
We brought her home and it was clear she had a rough go living on the streets. Frankie wanted to name her Football, but I just couldn’t bring myself to agree. I compromised on Jill, named in honor of the Buffalo Jills. Frankie adored her.
A couple of months later, Jill started drooling. I looked it up. The most likely reason is a tooth that needs extraction. Maybe that was why she wasn’t eating much. I think my jaw truly hit the floor as I listened to our vet explain that Jill had a cancerous tumor that had literally eaten her jaw away. The only compassionate option was to put her down.
ARE YOU F*****G KIDDING ME? I thought she needed to have a tooth out! I couldn’t believe it. I dreaded going home. How on earth was I going to tell Frankie?
I gave him the news. He sank down, buried his head, and just sobbed. Then I watched my little man. Now 11, he is already a pacer, just like his father was. He paced around the room, cried, and then asked questions. But she doesn’t look like she’s in pain! How can this be true? He wanted to come to the appointment in the morning. He said he had one regret in his life and that was not being there for Louie when he died. He wasn’t going to make that mistake again. More pacing, more crying. Then I brought Jill in the room and in his usual grown-up way, he told me he wanted some privacy with her. He locked the door and spent another 30 minutes with her before he reappeared.
The next morning we took her to the vet. The vet showed her usual, lovely bedside manner and gave the special blessing as she sent Jill on her journey. Frankie wanted to hold her while it happened. Jill purred right up until the second she died. The boys and I cried throughout the process, then came home and buried cat number three in the backyard.
Then the usual rituals. Carrying the empty cat carrier back in the house. Putting away the food and litter box. Washing the bedding because of the terrible smell due to her infections. I had to pay with the credit card. I didn’t budget for two animal deaths in the same year.
Things like this happen to people all the time. But I can’t help but feel overwhelmed for my brave 11-year-old. Friends keep telling me he will be a strong, compassionate man. But what if he just stops attaching? He has already experienced the death of three pets. He lost his grandmother. He lost his father at age eight, for God’s sake. We are a damn strong family. But I think we deserve some time to be pissed off at the bad luck we seem to have.
Yet there is the other end of the life cycle. There are those gains that happen and change your life around. The sweet and the bitter. Our daughter Emily was pregnant with our second grandchild when her father died. Life and death. Death and life. Bitter and sweet. I cried when our precious Aubry was born, but this time with joy. Thank God for the blessings. (Excerpt from Life After Death, on This Side of Heaven)
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darcy Thiel, MA is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in NY State. She earned her Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology from Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. Ms. Thiel is a couple and family therapist in West Seneca, New York and has been an adjunct faculty at Medaille College in Buffalo. She is also an accomplished speaker and presenter on various topics throughout the Western NY area. She is the proud author of Bitter and Sweet, A Family’s Journey with Cancer, the prequel to Life After Death, on This Side of Heaven. To learn more about Ms. Thiel, visit her website at www.darcythiel.com or marriageandfamilycounseling.net.