Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tough Stuff Tuesdays: Pet Loss

I am tired. I just told the kitten to go to bed. Well, we got her two years ago when a good friend and fellow animal lover/bleeding heart found a little orange kitten on a cold fall day. Having no room left in her own inn, she did what any fellow animal lover/bleeding heart would do and implored me to adopt the little kitten. Of course, I couldn't say no *insert crazy cat lady joke here*. I gave her to my then four year old as a surprise gift. My friend successfully found a home for the stray, I got to play nice, cool Mom, and Kelsey, as my son named her, got a home. Win win win.

Anyway, she is quite the character. She still thinks she is a kitten and has recently taken to trying to figure out how to get the second hand on the clock and jumping up on the tops of the cabinets, and fighting with our eleven year old cat, Scarlett. Cats are spunky and full of life. Until they're not. Last week we had to make the decision to euthanize our cat, Gaby to relieve her from the indignties of end stage kidney failure, unfortunately a common killer of older cats. If there are any cat lovers out there, you know that they can be, shall we say, independent. When they need some food or a cuddle they are all in your face but when they are napping in the sun how dare you disturb them! Gaby was hands down the most tolerant, gentle cat I have ever encountered, which is sayig something considering I worked with hundreds of cats in a shelter setting. Gaby started out as a foster cat. When I brought her home from the shelter seven years ago I brought her home to die. She was abandoned in a home along with another cat when their owners moved and left the cats behind. The other cat was adopted but Gaby didn't adapt to shelter life, as many older cats sadly do not. Her eyes were chronically infected from hiding in her litter box, she refused to eat and drink, and her blood pressure was unreadable. It was believed that she had heart worm. I brought her home and she immediately jumped up on the couch between my husband and I. That night she wolfed down a bowl of food and slept in our bed. The heartworm test came back negative. When my foster time was up, I brought her back to the shelter and settled her into the largest available cage where she promptly curled up in the litter box and gave me a look of pure betrayal. Cats have perfected looking betrayed. Anyway, I brought her home with me and the rest was history. Bleeding heart, remember. Gaby was a great cat. The kids carried her around. When Elliott was a baby he would crawl up to her and pat her rather hard, and she would just sit there. She wouldn't even kill bugs, and even in the end when she struggled to walk she would rub up against us and purr. She still had such a will to live which is why the decision to euthanize her was exceptionally painful. It was difficult to see her struggling with the indignties of her disease - struggling to walk, unable to jump onto the couch, and unable to make it to the litter box. Dr. Kari of Peaceful Endings came out and gave her a sedative and her final shot while I held her.

Pet loss is tough, and it is something many people will not undersand. Those of us who own and love pets know how important they are - how they accept us for who we are, offer us comfort, and give us a sense of stability and samness - and we know the enormous hole they leave in their absence. You may even be surprised by the depths of your grief when you lose a pet. You may tell yourself you are being silly, but your grief is real and it wasn't just a cat/dog/etc. Elizabeth Kubler Ross pegged five stages of grief and you will not go through the stages in any particular order and some you may not experience at all. Still, the stages of grief give us some sort of "map" if you will, and remind us that our feelings are normal and they will become more bearable over time. While coping with the loss of a pet you may experience some or all of the following:

Denial You don't want to believe that your pet is sick especially if they are asymptomatic. Cats can be especially stoic even when they are suffering. One day you are able to accept the fact that your pet is sick or old and will only get worse and you can enjoy and appreciate the time you have left. The next day you think maybe just maybe they will get better. Maybe the vet was wrong. Maybe you have more quality time. Once your pet is gone you may have moments when you forget and you reach to fill the food bowl before you remember. In the case of euthanasia, I have always had a moment of self doubt and panic when the vet arrives.

Anger/Guilt Being human, we want a reason for things, especially difficult things. This may take the form of a generalized irritability, anger, or even rage, sometimes directed at sources that have nothing to do with our loss. As is often the case with me, the anger can also be turned inward. We may feel guilty for not noticing our pet's symptoms and seeking vet care earlier. If your pet's death was a result of an accident you may be at the mercy of "what ifs" and "if onlys". Finally, you may feel guilty or unsure after deciding to have your pet euthanized even when your pet was suffering and had no hope of improving. I can tell you not to feel guilty, but guilt is often  an irrational emotion and telling you to stop feeling guilty won't likely bring you much peace, so I will instead remind you that one of the most endearing qualities in animals is their ability to love unconditionally and innocently. Animals live in the moment. They don't analyze decisions or hold grudges. They also don't fear death like people do because they are completely innocent. Your pet does not forgive you because your pet doesn't think anything you did or did not do needs forgiving.

Barganing This one is fairly self explanatory and often goes hand in hand with denial. Maybe if you spend more money/get more tests/see another vet. Depending on your belief system you may bargain with God.

Depression Personally, I believe the term depression is often misused, as in "I am so depressed that such and such team lost". I am not comparing the death of a pet to a disappointing sporting outcome, nor am I saying that you won't experience a depressive episode from which you may need help emerging. I am merely pointing out that the intense sadness experienced by those in berevement does not necessarily coincide with clinical depression. While never pleasant, it is normal and even healthy to experience intense sadness when grieving a loss. I cannot put a time limit on this sadness for you. When we don't allow ourselves our feelings we inhibit the healing process. You may be experiencing a clinical depression if you lose all interest in what you once enjoyed, you eat or sleep too much or not enough, or you have thoughts of suicide for two weeks or more.

Acceptance Ultimately, you will be able to enjoy happy memories of your pet. It is important to note that you may have periods of acceptance followed by renewed grief. This is normal and you will reach acceptance again. Grief is like the waves of an ocean. Sometimes it is strong enough to knock you down and sometimes it is white noise in the background of our lives.

Grieving the loss of a pet is even more complicated when you have to tell your children about the pet's death. At five and two, my kids don't understand death (do any of us, really?). My five year old is particularly sensitive and an animal lover like his mom. Gaby frequently slept in his bed. He knew that she was sick and would often make her cards and reassure her. I felt he was too young to understand the concept of euthanasia but obviously old enough to know what was happenening, so he went to my mom's house for the day. He came back happy and excited to tell me what he did at Grandma's house. To say that having to tell him Gaby died and seeing the smile fall off of his face was difficult would be an understatement. What you tell your children depends in part on your belief system and in part on their ages. I feel that keeping the explanations simple but being open to questions is best. I simply said that Gaby went up to Heaven and she is not sick anymore. Aiden misses Gaby. He made a card for her with a drawing of himself crying. As hard as these experiences are, we cannot shield kids from loss and death, and learning to grieve the death of a pet allows them to learn coping skills. I reminded him that it is okay to be sad or mad and to cry, but also to remember how happy Gaby made us. I underestimated how much my two year old would realize. He cried when the vet left and he still asks, "Where Gaby?" and "Gaby okay, Mama?" Granted, he has no concept of death but I tell him the same thing that I told Aiden and Aiden tries to explain to his brother that the angels came down and took Gaby up to Heaven so she wouldn't have to be sick anymore.

Loss takes many forms and it is never easy. At the risk of sounding cliche, death is, inevitably, a part of life. Pet loss can also remind us of the people we have lost from our lives. When my cat Hope died during my pregnancy with Aiden I was reminded of my father's death, as he was the one who found the little stray black kitten on the side of the garage at my childhood home. Pets are our memory keepers, our companions, and our playmates. Such a loss cannot be minimized, especially when our pets grow up with our children and become beloved to them.  Losing Gaby now has been hard. This week also marks the due date of my baby Quinn, so it is a season of loss. However, just as the seasons outside change (unless you lucky like Jan and live in San Diego) the seasons of our lives are always changing. Seasons of loss are followed by seasons of life and new beginnings. I hope this new season in my life coincides with spring as I am ready to carry my memories and excited to explore the new beginnings around the corner.

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