I have just returned from a 12-day trip to South America where I got to see all kinds of wildlife in every phase of life: (1) newborn sea lions, tiny tortoises, and fluffy boobies, (2) adolescents of every species recklessly charging around as if they were invincible, (3) parents – mama sea lions suckling their newborns and booby couples caring for their nestlings, and finally (4) true geriatrics – huge tortoises that were over a hundred years old. When you have the opportunity to observe animals in the wild it’s always exciting because you get to see how they really are and how they really live. But you are sometimes also reminded of how fragile and dangerous their lives can be. On this trip, on two separate occasions, I saw an abandoned baby sea lion desperately searching for its mother, crying out plaintively, and I knew the baby was too young to make it on its own for very long. We were told that adult sea lions are not known to adopt orphaned babies such as you might see among other animals. If a mother and her baby get separated, it rarely ends well. Watching those helpless baby sea lions was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen and the memory of it will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. It now makes me appreciate being home with my 3 cats and 2 dogs where I can hold them close and know that they are protected. I am especially thankful to be back because I had been particularly worried about my cat, Hattie, who was diagnosed with mammary cancer in late October. She’s been getting chemo treatments every month and has been doing well but her cancer is terminal.
Welcome, fellow travelers on the grief journey, and a special welcome to anyone who is new to The Grieving Room. We meet every Monday evening. Whether your loss is recent or many years ago, whether you have lost a person or a pet, or even if the person you are "mourning" is still alive ("pre-grief" can be a very lonely and confusing time) you can come to this diary and process your grief in whatever way works for you. You don't have to respond directly to anything written in the diary: share whatever you need to share. We can't solve each other's problems, but we can be a sounding board and a place of connection.Week Two
I am concerned about Ethel because she hasn’t been eating normally (meaning that she hasn’t been hoovering up her own food and then waiting for the other two cats to step away from their dish so that she can help herself to whatever they leave behind). After watching her the whole weekend and noticing that she is barely picking at her food, I take her to her vet. The vet examines her and does some blood work but can’t pin the problem on anything definitive. She tells me that Ethel has a slight temperature and her white blood cells are a little elevated but there is nothing conclusive in any of the tests. Her vet suggests that I take her to a large vet hospital nearby where they have more advanced diagnostic equipment. She tells me that they can do other tests and have a better chance of finding what is going on. I make an appointment at the vet hospital but, because they are closed on the weekend, it will take 5 days to get her in. In the meantime, Ethel gets a prescription for antibiotics and an appetite stimulant.
The day after her trip to her regular vet, she is now refusing to even look at her food. I call the vet hospital early on Saturday morning and I tell them that Ethel has an appointment for Tuesday but that I don’t think she can wait that long. They tell me to bring her in right away. I rush her over and she ends up spending the day there while they perform various tests. I am told to go home and that they will call me as soon as they have more information to give me. I go straight home and wait by the phone for what feels like an eternity. Finally, late in the afternoon I get a call asking me to go back to the vet hospital. I try not to worry but I can’t help but think that if it was good news they would have told me over the phone. When I get there, I am taken into an examination room and the vet comes in looking very somber. She sits down and tells me that they ran a series of tests and that ultimately they performed an ultrasound which showed evidence of advanced disease. She tells me that she can’t tell if it’s cancer or just some sort of inflammation involving her stomach and intestines but that it really doesn’t matter because, no matter what it is, they know they wouldn’t be able to fix it. I begin grasping at straws and ask her if there’s any sort of surgery that can be done or something. I can tell she is trying to be as patient and gentle as she can be when she says, “We could do surgery but she probably wouldn’t survive it.” It takes me a few minutes to understand and accept that she is telling me that there really is nothing they can do. I still can’t believe it’s happening. I mean, this is Ethel we’re talking about. She’s the silly, loveable cat I wrote about in my first Daily Kos diary. Hers was the first lolcat picture I ever captioned. Up until a few days ago, she was just fine. She was eating and playing and acting like nothing was wrong. How can she be so sick all of a sudden? The vet tells me that this is something that Ethel has been living with for at least a few months but that it probably has not caused her significant pain until now. I then ask if I can see her. One of the vet assistants brings her in and as I hold her I ask the vet when she thinks the euthanasia should be administered. She tells me that, although they have given Ethel something for the pain, she is likely still experiencing some discomfort and that we should do it soon. That’s when I start to cry. She then asks me if there is someone I need to call to talk to about it. It occurs to me that, no, I don’t have someone to consult with and I suddenly feel completely alone. I then tell her that I don’t need to discuss it with anyone and that I just want to do what’s best for Ethel.
For the past couple of months I've been preparing myself mentally for when I'd eventually say goodbye to Hattie. But I never expected to lose Ethel first.
I am able to get through my days at work okay but as soon as I get in my car to drive home every night I start to cry and I can’t stop until I get home. I work with a lot of people and there are people going in and out of my office all day long - so, I obviously can’t cry at work. I can’t cry at home because it upsets my dog. Louise is extremely sensitive about tears. If she sees me crying she will start to whimper and that just makes me cry even more. The only safe place to cry is in the car.
I’ve started to notice that I am avoiding my friends and the slightest kind word or gesture makes me teary. While going through a big stack of mail that came while I was gone on vacation, I find a card from my mailman that he sent to thank me for the box of chocolates I gave him at Christmas. It is so thoughtful and sweet that it makes me cry. A couple days later, I receive a letter from the director of the vet hospital where Ethel died. He tells me that the pet-sitting service that I use has made a donation to the vet hospital in Ethel’s name. It makes me sob uncontrollably. A couple of days after that, I get a call from the vet at the vet hospital to let me know I can go by to pick up Ethel's ashes. She also tells me that the results from the necropsy came in and that Ethel had pancreatic cancer. She tries to reassure me that there wasn't anything I could have done differently - she says that Ethel probably did not feel significant pain until she stopped eating. I still can’t bring myself to read the sympathy card that Ethel’s regular vet has sent.
One of my Daily Kos friends starts sending me messages every day to check up on me. I am so touched by her concern but feel uncomfortable being the recipient of such thoughtful attention. After a couple of days, it finally dawns on me why I feel that way. My grief over Ethel’s death has been compounded by anger at myself for not having known sooner that something was wrong. It doesn't matter to me that she never showed any symptoms before - I can't help but think that, as the person in charge of her welfare, I should have known anyway. I think the reason I've been avoiding my friends is that I don't feel as though I deserve their friendship or their kind thoughts. I've been isolating myself as some sort of penance or something without even consciously knowing that was what I was doing.
I am proud of myself for being able to go to the shelter this week and working with several black cats and not crying once. (A couple of the cats I played with look exactly like Ethel too.) Even though I feel like I'm doing a better job of handling my emotions now, I've noticed that Hattie and Cora are now acting like they have begun to miss Ethel too. They've been lying in all of Ethel's old spots and Cora keeps wanting to go down into the basement where she and Ethel used to play together and it makes me so sad because she looks like she's actually searching for Ethel whenever she goes down there.
At the end of the week, I take Hattie to what is supposed to be her next chemo treatment. A couple of hours after I drop her off I get a call from the oncologist who tells me that they took some x-rays and did routine blood work and it looks like the chemo therapy they’ve been doing up until now has now stopped working. She tells me that we can discuss other treatment options when I go to pick Hattie up. When I get there, the oncologist shows me the results of the tests they ran and tells me that there are other chemo therapies we can try but that she thinks Hattie’s lymph nodes may already be affected and that more chemo probably would not be the best thing for her. She pauses for a while to let me take it all in and then tells me about a couple of drugs that will make Hattie as comfortable as possible through hospice care at home. The oncology tech gives me a demonstration of all the things I will have to do. I learn how to measure and mix some of the medication and she gives me some pointers on pilling and some of the signs I will need to keep an eye out for. One of the drugs that Hattie will be taking twice a day is an opiate and the other is a scary pill that I am not supposed to handle with my bare hands. At this point, Hattie will need to come in for tests every two weeks to make sure she is still doing well.
I take Hattie home knowing she doesn’t have much time left. I think about how I came to adopt her and I am resolved to make sure that her last few weeks/days/hours are good ones. I got Hattie at the same shelter where I adopted all my other pets. It’s the local shelter where I do volunteer work every weekend. When Hattie came to the shelter, she was brought in because her previous owner thought she was pregnant and they didn’t want the responsibility of dealing with a mama cat and her kittens. She looked very pregnant – her belly was so distended it practically dragged on the floor. The rest of her was skin and bones. It was obvious she had not been treated well in the previous home. She had two broken teeth and you could see the exposed nerve endings at the gum line. As soon as she arrived at the shelter, the shelter veterinarian checked her out to make sure she was healthy enough to be adopted. In the course of his examination, he realized she wasn’t pregnant after all – she had a life-threatening case of pyometra. Her uterus was so infected she had to have emergency surgery that same day. She was then moved into foster care for a couple of weeks because she had a high temperature that wouldn’t go back down. I saw her the first day she came back to the shelter and I asked the shelter manager to tell me about her. At the time, I was looking for a companion for Ethel. As soon as the manager told me about Hattie’s disturbing and depressing history, I knew I had to adopt her and I was determined to make sure the rest of her life would be the best it could possibly be.
I’m very aware that any day now I may have to rush Hattie back to the vet hospital and I have been keeping a very close watch on her for any signs of pain or any other indication her condition is worsening. Maybe it’s because I’m being so hyper-vigilant, but I can’t help but notice how determined she is to do all the things she has always enjoyed doing even though her health is noticeably declining. She slowly patrols the house making sure to push the dogs out of the good sunny spots in the living room, she drinks water from the dogs’ water bowl just to show them she can, and she follows me around in the kitchen as I dish out everyone’s food even though she isn’t showing as much interest in her own food these days. I can’t help but feel that this week has been a good one and I’m glad she is spending it at home and not the vet hospital.
She spends eight comfortable days at home before I observe changes in her breathing. I call the oncologist and I arrange to take her in during my lunch hour. The vet checks her out and tells me that her lungs aren't getting enough oxygen and that's why she's making those strange sounds. So, I decide it's time to let her go. I'm really glad I had this past week with her - it was a good week for her and it helped prepare me for today. I'm feeling very sad but I know it was time. This time didn't feel so sudden and it wasn't as difficult because I feel as though I've been saying goodbye to Hattie for a long time now. I'm heartbroken but I think she did know that I loved her and she was ready to go.
I am not a stranger to death. Both of my parents are now gone and I’ve even lost two siblings, one to breast cancer and the other to suicide. Because I tend to adopt older, less likely to be adopted pets, I’ve also lost 4 dogs and 4 cats in the past 12 years. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been through it or how acutely aware you are of the fact that dogs and cats age much faster than we do – it always hurts and the pain always feels like something from which you will never be able to recover. And no matter what you do it’s not something you can really prepare for or prevent. A few years ago when I was starting what has turned into an ongoing, never-ending redecorating project in my house, I read a book on feng shui and learned that the color green is supposed to optimize good health. I had just lost my first cat to cancer and I decided I should paint every room in my house a different shade of pale green to ensure that my animals would have the very best chance at a healthy life. Because my cats are strictly indoor cats, I’ve always tried to make sure they have everything they could possibly need to lead a full and happy life within the walls of my house. It wasn’t until I finished painting every room that it occurred to me that cats are probably as colorblind as dogs are.
I know I will eventually adopt another cat. Volunteering at an animal shelter means there is no dearth of needy cats to choose from. Such is the state of the homeless pet population in this country. Right now, my only remaining cat, Cora, is showing signs of feeling lonely and depressed without Ethel and Hattie around. As painful as the grief and despair have been these past few weeks, I know I will be going through it all again at some point down the road.
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This is Ethel. She died on January 19 at the age of 13.
This is Hattie. She died on February 11. She was also 13.