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 second in a series of four essays I’m writing in the hopes they will help others facing the same decision. This is not a typical Living the Mess post.
Please note: This post contains a description of what happens during the euthanasia procedure. For me (at a certain point), it was important to understand what to expect. After all the confusion and grief of the preceding days, I found the actual transition peaceful and unexpectedly sacred. I share the details in the hope that others may find similar experiences of peace with their animals’ passing.
To read about the events and days leading up to this decision, please click here.
Over the weekend, I had decided that, if and when I did choose euthanasia for Hedda, I really, really, really wanted her to be at home, surrounded by her toys, on her heating pad, with familiar sights, smells, textures and sounds. I wanted her last moments to be comfortable and peaceful, not the stress of the vet’s office, with its bright lights and other cats and loud noises and strange smells. My vet—and most vets in our town—offer house calls for euthanasia, for an extra fee (in this case, $100 above the regular fee). I literally didn’t have it—I had exactly enough left to take her to the vet’s office—and that was breaking my heart even more. I felt like that would be letting Hedda down, ending her life in a traumatic way, and that was unbearable.
Then a friend offered to lend me the money for both the in-home euthanasia and a private cremation, so I could have her ashes returned to me. I was speechless with gratitude. Literally speechless. I felt enormous thankfulness and relief in equal measure. I could do right by Hedda. The ashes, I knew, were symbolic, but it was a type of symbolism that suddenly felt important, like I’d regret it immensely if I didn’t have her ashes.
My friend’s generosity meant that I could focus on giving Hedda as much love and care as possible, rather than worrying about how I might quickly generate the money. I had some ideas, but I wasn’t in the headspace to come up with promotional and marketing ideas, much less to generate creative content. (You might have noticed two things: 1) I have some really awesome, kind friends, and 2) I went into debt nearly $1,000 during this week. I don’t regret it, except that I prefer being solvent; owing money brings up old feelings of shame. Had I had the cash on hand, though, even if it had been my last cash, I would’ve used it in the same way.)
Making the Appointment
On Tuesday morning, I called the vet’s office. I had hoped to make an appointment for Thursday, so I could have just another day with her, but the vet was booked solid on both Thursday and Friday. The appointment was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at 4:00pm. We had just over 24 hours left.
It felt surreal that we were planning her death. It felt like I was betraying her. And I wasn’t sure how to do this countdown. Waiting for someone to die, for someone’s body to let go—I’ve been there a few times. But counting down? Emotionally, I felt like I was on a different planet. I occupied the same physical space as other people, but my mind was a million light years away.
I went out only briefly on Tuesday, to pick up tuna. It was Hedda’s favorite food—back when we lived in a big shared house in Toronto, she could hear a can being opened from two floors away—but because of her kidney disease, she hadn’t been allowed to eat it for three years. Now, though, I was happy to give her all the tuna.
At one point on Tuesday afternoon, she placed her forehead between her forelegs in the clearest sign of pain she’d ever shown. Despite monthly injections of Cartrophen, daily glucosamine/chondroitin supplements (Dasuquin) and twice-daily opiate painkillers, she was still in pain, at least intermittently. My heart broke. Part of me wanted to end her suffering right away, but of course, I couldn’t, and for perhaps the millionth time, I wished I could ease the suffering without ending her life. Ten minutes later, she got up, trotted down her ramp, and went and ate more food. She visited her litter box, which I’d long ago outfitted with two steps: a dollar-store plastic step and a yoga brick as a lower step. In those moments, she seemed her old self again. Yet I noticed that her head seemed to move with each heartbeat, giving her the look of a bobblehead, or a drummer nodding along to the rhythm of a song. I realized her body had become so emaciated that something as small as a heartbeat could physically sway her.
Animal Communicators and Rituals
I had read many animal communicator blogs over the preceding 72 hours, searching for an article that would tell me how to support her. I don’t know whether animal communicators actually communicate with departed animals. On the one hand, I believe that what we see and experience in this world is maybe 10% of what really exists. I believe the human mind is a fascinating, but limited, machine for comprehension. What is so often written off as coincidence and synchronicity, isn’t. But that doesn’t mean we understand what those things are, in the really-big-picture context. I’ve experienced ‘knowing’ information in a way I can’t explain, so who am I to say that some people don’t communicate with animals and spirits? Yet I question a lot of my own thoughts and assumptions, so I’m hesitant to accept what others write as undisputed fact. And there’s always the possibility that we’re living in parallel realities: That what is “real” for others may not be real for me, and vice versa. Of the articles I read, some seemed to me to be human projections, stories or fantasies, but others’ descriptions seemed extraordinarily detailed in a way that would be difficult for humans to invent (like this description of a mare’s experience of euthanasia).
I was looking for agreement among two or more of them, saying the same thing about what animals want in their body’s transition from life to death. I found two things that met this criteria:
- If euthanasia is involved, they want to know what’s going to happen (the step-by-step details of the process and what they’ll likely experience)
- They want their humans to create some kind of ritual to honor their transition, both at the time and after.
Many also said that animal souls chose their time and method of death prior to incarnation, even if it didn’t seem that way at the end (I’ve heard the same is true of human souls, but of course, most of us can’t sense it, either). This gave me a feeling of peace.
Others said that animals wanted to be given the choice of whether to die naturally or with assistance. This tortured me, because I sensed strongly that Hedda did not want assistance, yet I wasn’t able to honor that (without compromising my values by subjecting her to considerable suffering).
Still others wrote that animals had the ability to lift their souls out of their bodies when pain became too much, or that the soul left the body the instant prior to impact (kind of like the way it worked in the old series “Dead Like Me,” when ‘reapers’ collected souls just prior to fatal events). I wasn’t willing to bank on that.
Gratitude and Love
I talked to Hedda. I thanked her for staying so long and for being such a wonderful companion. I thanked her for saving my life through several bouts of severe depression. I told her what an amazing job she’d done in this lifetime, and how much I’d miss her. I told her how sorry I was that I couldn’t fix her body, but that that was the nature of bodies. They eventually fall apart. But who she really was would never die. She stared straight into my eyes with such clarity that I thought she must have understood. Not the words, of course, but the intention. The language of the heart.
Tuesday night, she couldn’t stand up. That wasn’t a red flag in and of itself—she’d had difficulty standing on the bed (soft, pliable surface) off and on for about a month. I often offered my hand as a support she could brace herself against. But she’d never been able to not get up for, like, half an hour. I lay my hand against her sides and could feel her muscles contracting, yet somehow, they just weren’t making the connection that would have allowed her to stand.
Cats are exemplars of acceptance. She wasn’t resisting the fact that she couldn’t get up. She simply rested until her body felt strong enough to try again. At the same time that my heart was breaking, I was also in awe. She never stopped teaching me.
Eventually, she pulled herself to the edge of the bed by her front paws and kind of flopped onto the ‘landing’ at the top of the ramp. She slid down the ramp—she didn’t tumble this time—and then she tried to walk on the floor. Until now, once she’d reached a solid surface, she had always been fine. Stable and steady, if slow. This time, her hindquarters were unresponsive. She continued to drag herself around towards the litter box. I picked her up and carried her to the litter box, but then I realized that she wouldn’t be able to stand up inside. So I placed her on the ‘puppy pad trail’, and she panicked. She tried to run, but she could only pull herself along frantically, which was really hard to watch. She seemed to be afraid of even me, though I now realize it was her species’ instinct to flee from potential predators who might attack the vulnerable. She was very, very vulnerable. So I lay down on the floor next to her, as if to show her I wasn’t a predator. She seemed to snap back into her body at that point, and she recognized me and calmed down. Still, she couldn’t walk. Eventually, after another 20 minutes or so, she regained control of her back legs, but by then, I knew without a doubt that I’d made the right decision. If this wasn’t a sign, nothing was. Over the summer, I’d bartered with a vet for laser treatments on her arthritis. The treatments yielded pretty amazing results, but even they couldn’t fix this.
Supporting a Dying Animal
I barely slept on Tuesday night, although Hedda slept soundly. Wednesday morning, a friend came by with more tuna for her and some snacks for me—including dark chocolate mints (thank you, Rebecca). She also brought a white potted flower, which I later learned is sometimes seen as a sign from the animal’s soul. Her kindness meant that I could spend all day with Hedda. I said many of the things I’d said on Tuesday. I thanked her and apologized that I couldn’t fix her body (and therefore couldn’t let her stay as long as she wanted). We spent a lot of time—hours—just looking at each other.
My friend Sarah texted me: “Today is the hardest day of your life.” It was certainly up in the top three to date.
At times, there was no room for thoughts. My heart was broken open, and I was as Present as I’ve ever been. I felt nothing but love and some sadness. I didn’t feel high drama. I didn’t feel this shouldn’t be happening—it would be hard for me to complain about having 20 full years with Hedda. Nothing existed but this moment. And this one. And the next.
Of course, I could have used the time to do things, to look for work, or to write a newsletter, or to worry. But the love in my heart told me to stay put. It wasn’t even a conscious decision. That doesn’t make for the most compelling reading. It’s quiet, not eventful. There was little conflict, the tension that propels stories (including the story of the previous few days). There was just…love. Two beings witnessing each other.
I reminisced about things like the time she swiped a blue feather duster and pranced around with it in her mouth, as though she’d caught a prize bird. I acknowledged the times I hadn’t been a great cat mom, when I was on dozens of medications and borderline psychotic, or too obsessed with the man du jour to give her enough attention. Yet when she’d become ill in the past, even during those times, I’d begged her to stay with me, and she had. She always forgave me.
Throughout the day, she kept one paw on my arm. She also wanted chin scratches. A lot.
I looked at the birthmark above her left eye and asked her, if she did come back in another body, to return with the same birthmark, so I’d know it was her. I’ve heard mixed reports about whether animals reincarnate within a single human lifetime, but Hedda had come to me in a dream once, years ago, and said—in the croaky voice of a being trying to speak English through a feline larynx—”We try to come back within two years.”
On Tuesday, I’d had a flash of insight that my energy was hindering Hedda, that it was somehow tethering her to this plane. I needed to clear it from her field so she could make a clean transition. I procrastinated, but on Wednesday, I did an energy ritual of calling back all my energy to me, and returning her energy to her.
Throughout the day, I kept repeating: “That which is looking through your eyes is also looking through mine.” Although she hadn’t made as much eye contact with me over the previous couple of months, she looked straight into my eyes most of the day, and especially when I repeated that line. (Of course, she could tell I was upset, and she may have been concerned). I told her it was okay to let go, that soon she wouldn’t be in pain. I promised her I would be okay, that I would miss her, but I would be bolstered by all the wonderful times we had. And I told her that she would be with me forever.
Many Buddhists believe that animals have their own karma, and suffering is a way of working through that karma so that the animal might have a better rebirth. From that perspective, euthanasia prevents the animal from completing their karmic cycle. I have never taken Buddhist vows, and so I retain the right to cherry-pick which aspects of Buddhism appeal and don’t appeal to me. This is one of the rare pieces of Buddhist dogma I cannot align myself with. Buddhists also say that if an animal is euthanized to prevent suffering, the human should bear the karmic responsibility—that is, if it turns out to have been the wrong thing to do, I pledge my soul to bear the responsibility of murder. That, I could and would do. I said out loud that if there were any negative karmic repercussions from my decision, that I bore them wholly. (I also really, really hope there aren’t.)
Occasionally, I was plagued by thoughts like, “What if there is no soul? What if this is just…it? The end?” I’ve had enough mystical experiences to believe—to almost know—that souls are real, but of course, we don’t know anything for sure. I guess my mind wanted to torture me. Instead of observing and acknowledging that, I pushed it out of my mind, countered with all my experiences that told me souls are real.
I definitely would not have told her about the euthanasia process were it not for all the animal communicators saying “they want to know.” So I explained that the vet and tech (I used their names) were going to come at 4:00, and where they were going to stand, and specifically what they were going to do, and then (based on my understanding to that point) what she would experience. I’ve always heard that animals communicate in images, so I tried to have images of each stage in my mind, but I kept crying.
At times, I tried to meditate—for my own well-being. Going on five nights with virtually no sleep, I felt spinny and ungrounded, and that was uncomfortable (though not, perhaps, unexpected). But when I closed my eyes, my mind became like the static on an AM car radio. I heard voices—not specific words, but pairs of DJs mumbling or laughing, and then static, and then clips of jingles, and other people mumbling. My heart was wide open, and I seemed to be picking up completely random information. Or it was musical ear syndrome. Either way, it was disconcerting, and I couldn’t make it stop. Observing my thoughts was impossible.
I played a song on speakerphone, “Lullaby” by Cris Williamson. I’d sung it to Hedda as a kitten, when she loved to be swayed in a ‘baby’ stance (or held upside-down. If she’d been human, no doubt she would’ve loved bungee jumping). I played it on endless repeat and cried and cried and cried. She seemed soothed by the music.
I smudged the room, both with burning sage and with a sage/cedar spray that my friends Sarah and Mary Ann had given me last Christmas. If she wanted a ritual, I was going to give her a ritual.
The Last Hour of Hedda’s Physical Life
At 3:00, I lit a tea candle.
It wasn’t the type of crying that is borne of stories about how wrong a situation is; it was simply a release of sadness. For years, Hedda had taught me Presence—not only through her own, but also, whenever I’d wake up with adrenalin in my body, anxious thoughts in my mind, I would reach over and focus all my energy on the texture of her fur. In this way, I was able to stop my mind from whirling, and stop the painful thoughts. Though I believed her spirit would live on, I was going to miss her physical presence, her purr, her nagging meows, even the 6am swats across the mouth.
At 4:00, the vet and a different tech (who I’d met previously) arrived. Hedda was in the office, gorging on tuna and chicken. I waited until she was finished, then lifted her onto the bed. It was important to me that this happen in her most comfortable, familiar place: her heating pad. She didn’t seem particularly perturbed; she didn’t even seem to notice the vet or the tech. (Or maybe she was still ignoring the vet.)
After finding an outlet for the vet to plug in her clippers, I signed the consent form with a trembling hand and lay down next to Hedda. I pressed my forehead against hers, placed one hand on her neck and the other on her little belly.
The vet said she would give her a sedative shot first. She shaved a little fur off Hedda’s hind leg, and I held her (Hedda, not the vet) as she administered the shot. Once Hedda was fully sedated, the vet would give her the final injection. My heart was breaking. I closed my eyes and whispered, “May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be free.” I pictured her spirit luminous and untethered from her body.
The vet waited for me to give the nod before she administered the injection. Tears poured down my face. I whispered, “Everybody loves Hedda. Hedda is Love.” Within a few seconds, I felt her belly rise and fall in a much more noticeable way than normal. I would like to think that was her spirit leaving her body. Maybe it was, or maybe it was just her final breath.
I still had my eyes closed when I felt something vibrate. It was as though she had received an electrical shock, and it lasted maybe 1.5 or 2 seconds. I wondered what it was, but I didn’t want to open my eyes. Aside from that, there were no limb twitches, no bodily fluids, no gas, no belching or vomiting—all things I’d read can happen after the body dies. I am grateful for that.
After another 30 seconds or a minute, or maybe five minutes—time had stopped—I opened my eyes. I was in a fugue state, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I looked up at the vet, and she nodded. She said Hedda had died very quickly, that she’d had no resistance. She’d been gone before the moment of vibration.
There was my little furbaby on the heating pad, as always, yet…not there. As I’d read in others’ accounts, her eyes remained half-open. When humans die, it’s so, so clear that what made someone “David,” for example, is simply gone. The body is a shell. It’s not that clear with animals (and I wish it had been). Her fur was still soft and shiny; her legs were in a familiar position; her eyes, although fixed, didn’t look as vacant as I expected. She could have been resting. I curled up in a fetal position and snuggled with her for a couple more minutes, as tears streamed down my face.
I sat up, and the tech came over and gave me the single tightest hug anyone has ever given me. On the other side of the bed, the vet said she hoped I could find peace.
“Oh, I will. I have…I…” I couldn’t find the words. I just needed to cry.
With my permission, the vet gently put Hedda’s body on a towel and wrapped it, to take back to the kitty morgue and crematorium. It felt very respectful; it was sweet and poignant.
I didn’t want to let go. I wanted to feel her silky fur one more time. Okay, twice. So I gave her body another kiss on the forehead, and the vet and tech left. Later, I found out they took paw prints, which they enclosed in a condolence card to me.
Making Peace with an Animal’s Death
The whole thing was peaceful and—dare I say it—beautiful. Although there was a heavy aching in my chest afterwards, I mostly felt a deep, deep peace. That peace hasn’t left. I’ve had crying jags, and I miss her terribly (I keep thinking I hear the click-click of her nails hitting the floor as she comes to check on me in the office), but I’m not wracked with grief the way I expected to be. The previous week had contained several episodes of sobbing when I was sure I would break completely, that I would never be able to function again. And then it would pass, and I’d be simply…sad.
I genuinely believe I’ve been able to process this experience because I was able to take the time to be with her beforehand, because I was able to thank her, and acknowledge the areas where I failed, and I was able to ask her forgiveness for “putting her to sleep” rather than letting her die naturally… because I created a ritual with music and smudging and a tealight and tuna… my heart was much more prepared. And if it helped her transition, all the better.
I used to be annoyed by those “Best Last Day” videos, because with only one exception, the dogs all seemed mobile, alert, playful, engaged—all the things we currently consider indicators of quality of life. You’d think by now I’d know not to judge another until I’ve been in their shoes, or on their end of the leash. I get it now, and I think it’s important for human and animal to have closure whenever possible.
The best advice came from the vet tech: “Take time to catch yourself up emotionally to your decision. If you don’t, it will take you a very, very long time to recover afterwards.”
I know this essay will be disturbing for many people, especially those who are not in the midst of saying goodbye to their animal friends. My sincerest hope is that it will bring peace to those who are in the midst of this difficult journey.
Like a ship in the harbor
Like a mother and child
Like a light in the darkness
I’ll hold you a while
We’ll rock on the water
I’ll cradle you deep
And hold you while angels
Sing you to sleep
—“Lullaby (Like a Ship)” © Cris Williamson