“Quiet and dignified”: Choosing a good death for our beloved cat

To say that Ophelia Grace was my cat isn’t quite right. She was our family cat, in every sense of the expression. When my sister and I were younger, she was our playful partner in mischief and exploration. When my sister and I moved away, she made sure that my parents, still living in Alberta, never felt that their nest was empty. Ophelia brought out immeasurable tenderness in my stoic father and incredible joy in my mother, who sometimes has a hard time with her girls both miles away in Ontario.

But it was my mom who I was the most worried about. My mom has a huge, caring heart, and I think there was a part of me worrying that my mom would try to hold on longer than she should. Then again, my mother is also amazingly empathetic, and when it came time to choose the manner and timing of Ophelia’s death, my mom chose perfectly.

For context: we rescued Ophelia when she was a very young kitten. She couldn’t have been more than a year. That was when I was 13 years old. I’m now 32, putting our dear girl at between 19 and 20 years of age. As anyone with a cat will tell you, that’s a damn good run. I should also mention that when people talk about spoiling their cats, they probably didn’t imagine the following scene: my dad, clad only in his boxers and half-asleep, shuffling to the bathroom in the middle of the night, stopping to check the microwavable wheat we gave Ophelia to help with arthritis aches and to keep her tiny body warm during Alberta winders was still giving off heat. Then a shuffle the microwave, a warm little bag tucked in around her hindquarters, and my dad’s gruff voice muttering, “Hey, girl…” as he stroked her head. Or my mom dropping everything to get down on her hands and knees and brush Ophelia when the cat gave the unmistakable signal — sitting in the middle of the living room rug and howling her tiny, adorable face off. No, this cat didn’t just have a good life. She had the best life.

Today, my mom texted me. “My heart is heavy,” she said, “but I cannot have her like this.” Ophelia had recently suffered a stroke, losing the vision in her left eye and becoming unstable on her feet. Once she became incontinent, my mom knew it was time. “Her lost cry at night tears my heart. She is unstable on her feet and is incontinent.” Here’s what really got me, though. My mom said, “That is ignoble for such an Abyssinian princess who used to drop dinner at my feet.” We always joked that Ophelia was an Abyssinian or an Egyptian Mau because she was such a long, elegant tabby.

My mom used her empathy to determine the timing, today, and she also used it to try to figure out what a good death for our girl might look like. Ophelia had a nice last meal of her favorite food. My mom gave her a bath with a warm, wet washcloth. She was bundled up in the ragged green blanket that she adored, and laid in my mom’s arms as our longtime vet gently put her to sleep. “That’s what I would have wanted,” my mom said, and I’m incredibly proud of her for having the strength and foresight to make the arrangments that made such a sweet, soft death possible.

I fret a lot about the fact that I have three older cats and a young son. One day, I will have to guide the process that helps Molly, Spirit, and Frank to comfortable, good deaths. That might be soon. It might be a long ways off. But I have faith that as long as I keep my eyes open and use my empathy to imagine a good life for my fluffy companions, I can also watch and know how and when to give them the best possible death.

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Ophelia Grace, cute as a button.

For more resources and information about grieving the loss and celebrating the life of a pet, please visit the following:

7 Self-Care Essentials While Grieving the Death of a Pet
Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously
The grief of losing a pet is traumatic and universal. So why don’t we talk about it?
Man’s Best Friend: 5 Considerations for Grieving the Loss of a Pet

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