Over the past week, I’ve Googled people’s experiences in knowing when it was time to say goodbye to their companion animals, and how to do so in a way that best supported the animal. This is the fourth in a series of four essays/posts I’m writing in the hopes they will help others facing the same decision.
For several days after the vet gently stopped Hedda’s heart, I couldn’t get past the feeling that Hedda didn’t want to die, or at least, she wanted it to happen in her own time, naturally. I feel like I made an imperfect decision. I’ve heard people say that, in this situation, we choose the path that will give us the least cause for regret. No regret is usually not an option.
I believe we are expressions of consciousness, and that the purpose of life is for us to experience other expressions of consciousness—humans, animals and the natural world. I believe quality of life is about whether an individual (including animals) still wants to be alive. There was nothing in Hedda’s demeanor that led me to believe she wanted to die. And that haunts me.
Yes, she was skeletal and ill. There were moments when she seemed in pain, though not the majority of the time. That doesn’t
mean she didn’t simultaneously find pleasure in life. I think the fact that she ate an entire can of tuna, that she was still eating when the vet arrived to end her physical life, is evidence of that.
Nobody would likely look at a photo of Hedda, compared to her prime, and say it was too soon. But all I cared about was whether she felt it was too soon.
I feel like I betrayed her trust.
Putting her down—killing her, deliberately ending her life—because I didn’t know what to do, seems lame (to put it mildly). I ran out of options.
I wanted—and still want—a sign, forgiveness, or permission in retrospect. But really, I’m the one who has to forgive myself.
Guilt and Inquiry
Then I came back to what I’ve been practicing for several years. Guilt is simply a thought—the thought that I should have done something differently. (It’s also the ego’s way of pretending to be useful.) So let me unpack that thought.
The following is (mostly) based on The Work by Byron Katie, though this is a very loose, spur-of-the-moment adaptation that doesn’t include all the steps.
Is it true that I should have done something differently? I don’t know. Let’s say “yes,” just for the purposes of this exercise. Let’s say I believe I absolutely should not have deliberately facilitated Hedda’s death.
Can I know that that thought is true? No, of course not. We can never be certain of any thought, not even “the sky is blue” (that’s just a collective opinion, from our limited perspective as temporary residents of this planet)
Can I see a way the opposite statement might be equally or more true (i.e., that I absolutely should have had her put to sleep)? Well, yes, but then there’s a story behind that, which is that if that’s true, then maybe she had been suffering for a while, so I’m still not off the hook.
What if this was absolutely the perfect timing, and you didn’t do anything wrong. Could you see that as a true statement? Yes.
If I didn’t use up energy thinking this thought, what would I have to feel?* Pain, loss, grief, emptiness. Much easier to distract myself with thoughts.
If I didn’t believe that thought (that I shouldn’t have had her put to sleep), what would I feel? Relaxed, calm, expansive. The mystery of life, the peace I felt in the moment of her passing.
I will never know. One friend questioned whether cats can even conceive of death beyond their survival instincts. I believe they can. I think that, while they live mostly in the present, they understand the future enough to hunt, or to wait at a mousehole, or to wake us up for food.
I read recently that to adopt a puppy or kitten is to make an agreement for heartbreak down the road. How true that is. But it’s also an agreement for an awful lot of fun—and the opportunity to witness a different expression of consciousness.