How the Death of a Pet Can be a Gift

Late last year we put our elderly cat Abby to sleep. To be honest, I probably took it the hardest, as she had been in my life longer than any of my children and almost as long as my husband. She had been with us through many moves, including one across the country. She endured the man-handling and tail-pulling of four children. And she lived through the addition of another cat, and perhaps the low point of her life, the welcoming of a dog. Though they spent 11 years together, Abby the cat and Ruby the dog could never find common ground.

Abby brought us warmth and laughs, from curling up on our pillows when we were feeling down to squeezing her pudgy self into an under-sized box. She was a classic cranky cat to be sure, and the handful of times she bit one of the kids, we said, “Well, you need to leave her alone then.” 

My husband and I adopted Abby when we were dating in Sioux City, Iowa, in 2001. It felt like a very adult, domestic thing to do. We proudly took our tiny kitten to the pet store to purchase cat care essentials and beamed like proud parents when other customers commented on her. 

I smile now to think back on my 22-year-old self getting stressed over taking care of a kitten. She dug up houseplants and woke us up at night. I thought it was all very overwhelming. Little did I know what lie ahead when human babies arrived.

When she grew out of that needy kitten stage, Abby was a typical cat, aloof and independent. When you have small children, you truly appreciate a pet that can take care of its own bathroom needs. She was a comforting companion, curling up in patches of sunlight and sharing naps. We loved her. 

When Abby reached her early teens, her health started to decline. She lost weight and her coat became ragged. She was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism by the excellent vet Dr. Gustafson at Muir Field Pet Clinic. We diligently rubbed medicine inside her ears each morning and night (thankful at least not to have to try to give her pills). We showed the kids that when you commit to love and care for someone, you do so through the hard times.

We’re thankful that we got a few more years with Abby, but her final decline at age 17 was painful and slow. She was a fairly large cat, but she weighed four pounds in her final days. She was sluggish, and we could tell she was in pain. I sincerely hoped that she would pass away peacefully in her sleep, so we wouldn’t have to make the decision to euthanize her. 

As she began the inevitable trek toward death, we had poignant conversations with the kids. “Why does she have to die?” one would ask, and I would recall a quote from the show Six Feet Under. “To make life important.”

Her gradual decline was painful, like slowly removing a very sticky and very long Band-aid. But it gave us time to get used to the idea. When my oldest son would tear up and want to escape, I would say, “It’s so sad. I’m so sad. I’ll miss her so much, but I’ll remember the happy times we had with her. We’re so lucky we had her for as long as we did.” 

We had time to say goodbye. For several days before the kids went to school we told them to tell Abby goodbye and that they loved her. She hung in there longer than expected, laying in the sun by the sliding glass door. Finally one morning, it was clearly time to ease her pain. I wrapped her in a towel, and we took her to see Dr. Gus at Muir Field Pet Clinic. He and Diana were compassionate and gentle. Diana ordered us a paw print impression and came from behind the counter to give us hugs.

That day when the kids arrived home, they came around the kitchen table and saw the empty space Abby had occupied for several weeks. Their faces crumpled and their eyes filled with tears. We hugged, felt the sadness together, and shared funny memories. We embraced the pain of death as a necessary part of the beauty of life.

My children will inevitably face much more wrenching endings in their lives; deaths of family and friends, painful decisions, and relationship ruptures. The death of a pet is something of a practice run. When you get a pet, you know you will reap the joy of companionship but also the pain of loss. It is a life in microcosm. A pet’s life and death provide the spectrum of emotions. Love, comfort, frustration, loss. Living through it gives children the chance to see the normalcy of these emotions, and to see their parents experience them as well.

Pets can be incredibly aggravating – peeing on rugs, scratching furniture, barking, meowing, shedding, digging, barfing…I could go on. But they are truly a blessing to families both in their love and their loss. Abby’s life was a gift to our family. And for her sake, I hope there is a kitty heaven with plenty of pillows, patches of sunlight, and under-sized boxes.

 

Jennifer Seeker Conroy worked for ten years as a reporter, anchor, and producer at television stations in Missouri, Iowa, and Oregon. In 2009, she moved back to her home state of Wisconsin and went on to earn an MBA from UW-Madison. Jenny now works in product management at CUNA Mutual Group and lives in Madison with her husband Tim, three sons, a daughter, two cats, and a dog. She's an avid runner, reader, and writer, and is passionate about supporting causes that benefit women and girls.

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