Friday, January 17, 2014

On Cats and Grief

I have a friend who has a cat.  Her cat has cancer.  Several months ago, my friend paid for her cat to have one of her back legs amputated to remove the aggressive tumor that would have otherwise taken the cat's life very quickly.

The cat pulled through surgery, but things were touch and go for a while.  My friend took her cat home, then had to take her back to vet.  She almost didn't make it.  She ended up in recovery at the vet for three full weeks.

Since then, the cat has learned to function very well with three legs.  My friend has made accommodations for her cat--mostly small sets of stairs to help her up on furniture.  The cat purrs and eats and seems satisfied with life.  She sprawls in the sun and chases ribbons and does other cat-things.

Unfortunately, the cat's cancer is coming back.  Consultations with her veterinarian and with a feline cancer specialist have given her radiation and chemo options.  Radiation is prohibitively expensive--$4,000.  Chemo is expensive but financially manageable for my friend (who is single, has no children, rents a modest apartment in a quiet suburb).  It's $300 a session.  However, it only has a 50/50 chance of working.  They'll know after two sessions if it's working.  If not, my friend is out $600 and the cat won't get better.  If it does work, the cat will have six sessions total, and hopefully her cancer will be in remission.

(Important note:  Evidently, chemo does not make cats sick or make the fur fall out.  It doesn't affect cats the way it affects humans.)

My friend doesn't know what to do.

You guys know I'm an animal lover.  I grew up with cats and would have said I was a cat person more than a dog person until we got Cooper.  If it were Cooper in this situation, I would be beside myself.  I can imagine the agony of having to make a choice for an animal who doesn't understand what's happening.

My friend told me that she's not sure she can handle the guilt of not doing anything.

I thought about this for a long time.  Honestly, I think if I were in her case, David would make the decision purely financial and take it out of my hands.  He can be ruthlessly pragmatic like that.  But if it were simply up to me, I'm still not sure I would try the chemo.  I believe there's something to the idea of us being here to be good stewards of the earth and that taking care of animals is a blessing and a kind of obligation.  It's sad when a pet dies, but there are so many animals who need good homes, and we know when we adopt a pet that (hopefully) we will outlive it.  It's part of the tacit deal we make with pets--to give them a good life and then let them go.  She's already spent at least $2,000 on the cat's surgery and medical bills.  Her cat is 15 years old.
I told my friend that she has given her cat a fantastic little feline life and eventually she will have the opportunity to give her cat a painless death and, from an animal's perspective, that's basically as good as it gets, right?

But as my friend said, no matter how much the logic makes sense, it's an emotional decision for her.  And not an easy one.

I think my perspective changed after Eliza died.  Decisions got easier.  Priorities became sharp and clear.  Children outrank pets. A baby is irreplaceable.  I could have a million more babies and none of them would be Eliza.  None of them would make up for what we've lost.

Cats and dogs have individual personalities and quirks as well, but now I feel like it's just different.  We could never replace Cooper but we could get another loving, sweet dog and eventually remember Cooper fondly but not with an overwhelming sense of grief for all he should have been able to experience or share with us.

As much as I love my dog, the difference between Cooper getting a cancer diagnosis and Zuzu getting a...  I don't even want to write those words.  One is heartbreaking and sad and I'd want to do all I could to help him and make decisions so that he could avoid pain.  The other is a horror that makes my heart seize and my stomach churn at the mere thought.  (I can remember thinking that I love Cooper so much, how crazy would it be to love a baby even more than I love my dog?  And then I had Eliza and I loved her so much, I couldn't believe that I ever thought my love for my dog would compare.)

So there was an objective part of me that wanted to tell my friend that it's just a cat and think what $600-$1,800 could do for cats in a shelter!  There are so many cats who need good homes and this cat has already lived a good long life, and why would you put it through a stressful situation that it won't understand when it only has a 50% chance of even working?

A part of me was thinking that since my baby died, I just can't get as worked up about a cat who has already lived a good, long life dying of natural causes.  I mean, for god's sake, just go adopt another cat already.  IT'S ONLY A CAT. It's not like your baby just died.

But then I remembered the shitty things some people would say as though they believed that making an effort to diminish someone's grief was a form of comfort.  I remember the things people would say that started with "At least..."

At least you know she's in a better place.

At least you didn't actually know her.

At least you can have another baby.

And I remember how furious and devastated I would feel anytime someone tried to make me feel better by downplaying the significance of Eliza's loss and the depth and breadth of our tragedy.

It's a cat, and it's only a cat, but it's her cat, you know?  And she's had that cat for fifteen years.  And she loves that cat.  And she doesn't have a baby.  And she doesn't judge my grief for my baby.  Who am I to judge her grief for her cat? It's not a freaking competition.  She's not claiming that she's as sad about her cat as I am about my baby. She's just telling me that she's sad. Because this is really shitty and really hard.

It's not about comparisons--losing her cat isn't the same as losing my baby. But matters of the heart can't be weighed and measured as "more" or "less than." It's a loss. It hurts. It's the loss of a source of unconditional love and acceptance and company and comfort. And that sorrow deserves acknowledgment and respect.

(Because, yeah, people who make comparisons between the death of their pet and the death of your baby--as someone in David's family did to me--even if it's preceded by "I know it's not the same thing, but..."  No.  Just no.  There is nothing else to say about that.  Just SHUT THE HELL UP and eff you very much.)

So I thought for a minute about what I needed to hear when I was sad and grieving.  While a cat does not equal a baby in my mind, grief is grief and hers deserves my respect.  And she's my friend, so she deserves for me to not be an a-hole. And I realized that what she really wanted wasn't advice, but solace.

Then I said,

This sucks.  I'm so sorry you have to make this decision.

This is really hard.  I wish things were different.

No matter what you decide, you shouldn't feel guilty.

I'm really sorry.  I hate this for you.

These words don't seem to offer much of anything.  There's no advice.  There's no reassurance. There's no promise of better things to come.  There's no lightening the load or changing the subject or improving the situation.

It's like I'm not even helping her AT ALL.

But that's just the point.  The only way to lighten someone's grief is to share the load with them.  Affirm how huge and heavy and terrifying it is.  Tell them over and over how sorry you are that they have to cope with this.  Don't try to fix it--it's unfixable.  Don't try to offer them advice. Even if you've been in a virtually identical situation, what worked for you may not work for someone else.

The only thing you can do for grief is acknowledge it and sit in it.  It's hard to do.  It feels uncomfortable and fruitless and you feel helpless and frustrated.  But that's because grief is a bastard.  There's nothing you or your friend can do about it.  The only thing you can do is show up and acknowledge how shitty it is, even if you can't wrap your head around it.  Even if it's "only" a cat. It's her cat, you know?


  1. You're sound like a good friend, Brooke. Good on your for not minimizing. God knows how I hated that in the aftermath of Sam's death. Why do people need a freakin' silver lining all the time?

  2. This was really touching. I certainly agree with all the logic, but these things are so emotional. I will be a wreck when we lose Roscoe even though he's "just a dog," yet at the same time it will be easier to move on from because he's just a dog. I also used to joke about worrying that I wouldnt love my kids as much as I love my dog. And then I had a kid I loved a million times more because of course - one is a child, the other a dog! But regardless, these pets do become part of the family. They are a built in heartache but it's so worth it.

    Very sorry for your friend and this tough decision.

  3. I felt your journey in this piece Brooke. I completely come from where you are. After Ava, it's a cat. But you would not be more right in the solace she needed. You are and dear friend to think outside of yourself and to identify her needs in that moment and to meet her needs even if they are not the ones you would share.