On Dying and Death, and Remembrance
I first posted this article a year ago as I summed up the loss of little Peaches and how her process had clearly prepared me for the loss of my mother, and how my cats often guide me through many important life events.
It is especially touching as I now work with Cookie.
A slightly edited version of this article in the Cat Writers’ Association newsletter Meow won a Muse Medallion as an “Opinion Piece, Essay, or Editorial” in the 2011 Cat Writers’ Association annual Communications Contest.
January 30, 2010—I know I risk losing a lot of readers with a title like that, but this is really not a sad article unless you are working with current loss of your own.
I’ve been remembering my Peaches in a very strong way lately, feeling her little spirit walk across my desk and help awaken me in the morning. I had planned an article about remembrance in the aftermath of loss, but somehow it just wouldn’t come together, though I knew in the back of my mind both why I was remembering her so strongly and why I couldn’t focus on writing.
I recently lost my mother at age 85 after so many levels of illness in her life: decades of chronic conditions and surgeries, the lung cancer ten years ago that weakened and eventually put her in personal care, the beginnings of dementia two years ago, the move to skilled nursing a year ago, the weight loss and greater need for care all leading to the last few months of decline.
I would not compare the loss of my Peaches or any of my cats to the loss of my mother because the relationship is entirely different, but I can say that Peaches’ recent progress toward death and her quiet passing, and that of many before her, were what prepared me for understanding and accepting the progress of my mother’s passing, and this is the reason I write this on The Creative Cat.
I have been lucky not to have lost too many people in my adult life. My parents were older and their parents older yet, so I lost my grandparents when I was really too young to have had a relationship with or remember them. My father died 20 years ago in the same nursing home as my mother after a recurrence of cancer and the effects of Parkinson’s Disease. I have lost a few dear aunts and uncles, but I was not part of their everyday life.
When I lost my father I was barely aware of the process of death. Twenty years later I have learned so much more, all in the daily ebb and flow of life with my cats, and I was prepared, not only for my mother’s loss but for the months-long process that led to it, and I’m anticipating the aftermath.
In any living being, living is an act of will, because without it a being does not thrive and eventually dies. But death is not the lack of that will to live, rather it is part of the same will as a being accepts that this physical body can no longer sustain and the body and spirit must part, but living does not necessarily end there. I make no conjectures about what happens after the body and spirit part, but for those of us who’ve felt the touch of a loved one no longer present, however brief or peripheral, I find it hard to believe that living is only accomplished in a physical body.
Especially in age and chronic or terminal illness, the process of death is the same in any being; at some point the person or animal realizes that the body has lost its potential for renewal, for self-support and will eventually stop functioning. Referencing Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief, each individual goes through the same process though with different means and at different rates, but eventually arrives at acceptance.
Even though animals can’t speak in human words, the depth of our relationship understands communication beyond, or perhaps even before, the use of spoken language, and we perceive and understand many things sometimes without consciously realizing.
From late last summer I’ve been having an increasingly difficult time staying organized, focusing on anything for as long as I am accustomed, also feeling restless and distracted, sometimes fearful or angry, without any obvious reason for it. I may have a reputation as being a scattered and abstracted creative person, but I’m actually organized and efficient or I’d never be able to run my business and take care of my home and cats and affairs for my mother and brother, so this wandering lack of focus was not at all like me, and it was also very distressing because I really need to stay focused to support myself and make sure all is done correctly for two disabled people.
Years ago when I was walking my 25-year-old Stanley through his final months I experienced this same distracted period, these flashes of fear and helplessness that didn’t seem to originate with me, and I realized I was actually perceiving what he was feeling as he accepted his own passing in addition to my own process—and no doubt he was sharing my process. I remember looking into his big green eyes as we both understood this and felt relieved that we weren’t experiencing it alone anymore, and though the distractedness continued, I understood. I have experienced this same wandering focus, periods of fear or anger with each of my losses since—and likely before as well—but now I am prepared and understand that, when this begins, they understand they are in the final part of their process and their passing won’t be long in coming.
I knew that a part of what I was feeling this past autumn was my process with Peaches as she gracefully accepted the slow deterioration of her body’s functions through renal failure and simply age. As September passed she needed her sub-cutaneous fluids more often and supplements in addition to her food as her appetite began to wane. One Saturday in mid-October she refused food and supplements and told me she wasn’t going to eat anymore, and she was okay with that. I gave her fluids and little sips of milk and bits of supplements, but she let her body follow its will and gently went into her end stages the following Tuesday night. I sat with her all night long as she slowly faded until morning when she showed some signs of pain and I called my veterinarian (read “Knowing When, and Saying Goodbye”).
After Peaches passed, though, I still felt the pull of another loved one, the distractedness and restlessness. In November our quarterly meeting at the nursing home discussed my mother’s lack of appetite, weight loss and increasing frailty and difficulty swallowing and feeding herself, though she was not withdrawn. After a hospital stay in November we decided to implant a feeding tube in case the issue was that she just didn’t like her pureed food and thickened drinks (she really hated them) and just couldn’t nourish herself enough, hoping she’d gain weight and strength. In the same case at home, I might have tried a few force-feedings of one of my cats just in case they simply weren’t strong enough to eat and sustain themselves, hoping their appetite would take over, but stopping the feedings if it didn’t.
By December there was no difference in my mother, and I knew that nothing we did would change her now. My mother was accepting her end, in the same way Peaches had looked at me and let me know she wasn’t going to eat anymore, and it was what was meant to be. I have no doubt that Peaches showed me her process in preparation for what would come with my mother; I took daily care of Peaches and was intimately aware of what was happening with her, but my mother’s care was in others’ hands and it was a little more difficult to determine what was happening even through visiting.
If I was distracted and restless before, I was about as non-functional as I’ve ever been in January, sleeping odd hours, sitting and looking out the window for minutes at a time without realizing, nearly incapable of visualizing a complete design idea along with more and more odd behavior, and every time the phone would ring I jumped and grabbed it. I let this continue, knowing there wasn’t much I could do. The nursing home called early January 20 saying my mother needed to go to the hospital, and while she seemed to be stabilizing she had a crisis Monday morning and we decided on comfort measures rather than life support because she would not have survived the condition, remaining on life support indefinitely. My sister, brother, two great-granddaughters and I took turns sitting in her room for her last two days.
Even though I knew that Peaches and my other cats had gone into some painful distress in their last few hours even after gently fading, I had no means of alleviating that distress or any other pain other than calling my veterinarian for a painless euthanasia. Humans, though, have a morphine drip and any other means the hospital can provide to assure the end is as painless as possible so I wouldn’t have to fear helplessly watching a painful end with my mother.
And now after the processes of planning, meeting, greeting and thanking, I am remembering my mother, still accepting her passing as I will be for some time to come. I am grateful for the gentle guidance of the felines who’ve entered my life to teach me life lessons in addition to living their own agendas. I understood my own months of inner turmoil as normal and I was more prepared for her passing than I would have been otherwise. I won’t fuss and fret when I encounter a photo or a passing memory of my mother months from now and have a little cry, I’ll know that’s a natural part of my process of accepting her passing.
And I think little Peaches has been wandering about to comfort me in a way she could not have in life with our concern and treatment in her geriatric condition, and also to bring me quiet comfort in the way no other being could. After all, she lost her first human mom before she came to me, so she had an extra special lesson to teach me.
Here are the four of us about ten years ago, my mother, my sister, me and my brother. This photo was from my film camera, and I just couldn’t get to the box of prints to scan it again; I scanned it from a print I had made, which is rather faded, but it still gets the point across.
I hosted a poetry reading last week, just two days after my mother died. I decided to go through with it since all my immediate family could be there and it was a wonderful opportunity to share my mother with other people. I wrote a poem the night she died, and I’ve also posted that on “Today”.
I will write soon about Peaches, and many other things, now that I can focus and time is not so compressed.
All images and text used in this article are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.
8 thoughts on “On Dying and Death, and Remembrance”
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Reading this made me cry. I’m a math teacher, but my classes are all clumped in the morning, so this is during my free time. But I cried in a good way. For Kramer. She was a girl, but as a kitten she’d slide in the room just like Kramer on Seinfeld. When I moved out on my own, my mother let me take Kramer, and she saw me coach, substitute teach, and tutor kids in algebra and trigonometry. And she’d stick her head in my smelly shoes most every day after a day of teaching. When I could, I’d lay down on the couch for a quick power nap, and she’d lay on my chest. Apparently she was the boss in the house. One relationship I had meant I had a girlfriend sleep over for the night. And Kramer would scorn and ignore me the next day. But she always came back to lay on my chest to nap.
Kramer had already had surgery, in 2003. By the summer of 2008, she started getting sick again. My vet did surgery again, and found out Kramer had stomach cancer. she recommended a specialist here in Allentown, Pa. (we came here from Philadelphia). Dr. Ron said we could do chemo, but that would buy us 6 months together. So every Tuesday I’d get up at 5, load her up in her crate, and we’d hop on the freeway to Dr. Ron. Then after school, I’d go back and pick her up and bring her home.
Turns out, we did have about 6 months to share, and to get ready to say goodbye. Then the week came, and she stopped eating, or showing much interest. But she still perked up for me. Then the day came, a Wednesday, when I’d decided to have her put to sleep. A friend of mine had said “you idiot! she’s trying to stay alive for you!” so I knew what I had to do.
For whatever reason, I still woke up at 5, got showered, shaved and dressed, and still had time to spare. I got to spend close to an hour with her before I had to leave for school. We talked… well, I talked and she listened. I didn’t say goodbye just yet, but I told her we’d meet again someday. Then I laid her head down on the pillow she slept on.
I drove home from school that day as slow as I could, dreading what I needed to do. When I got home, I found Kramer, and she’d passed away. I wondered what my other cats thought, and I cried a bit. But I felt a weird sense of relief, that Kramer was safe. And that I didn’t have to make the decision about it.
Dr. Ron and his nurses were so sad when I brought her in. They gave her a private cremation, and put her ashes in a nice wooden box. And they gave me a copy of Mr. Rogers’ “When a Pet Dies.” Signed by everyone at their practice, and a plaster imprint of her front paws.
This is too long-winded I’m sure. But I still look in places Kramer would be. Sleeping on the recliner or looking out the window. Her body’s not there, but in my heart she always will be.
Thank you. ~thad
Thad, don’t worry about telling a long story–after all, I did. And you had a beautiful story to tell about Kramer and I know you understand the depth of the relationship with an animal who is truly your soul-mate. You gave both of you the opportunity to bond in that six months, and then her the opportunity to simply fall asleep and never wake up. I’m glad you found a practice like that too, which is often the key to really doing right by our animal companions.
You have a kitty you’ll never, ever forget, and a story to share. What a wonderful gift she gave you.
There’s no doubt in my mind that our furry friends are here to teach us the things we need to know about life – the joy of birth, the exuberance of youth, the quiet calm of maturity, the graceful fading of age, and the final acceptance of death. Lessons they share with us – with love. xo
Still powerful, Bernadette. This is it — you say it so well here. Thinking of you and Cookie —