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On the Importance of Death Doulas
a sad cat story
A couple of weeks ago, we hired a death doula for our geriatric cat, Mimi. Something had shifted, Kent my husband noticed, and because she was his cat, he made the call. (They say you’ll just know when it’s time. Which sounds hokey until you really do know.) The going rate for a pet death doula in our area is $280. The last time we hired a doula, it’d been for Stanley’s birth. Both were worth every penny.
Death and birth are sacred thresholds. They are journeys to and from another realm beyond where we live in our day-to-day existence. They require tremendous emotional and spiritual energy. They require a gentle spirit and intuitive listening. They are joyous and painful and surrendering all at the same time. They can be excruciatingly emotional times. Birth and death create large shifts in spiritual energy—and sharing the burden—in community with others makes it easier.
Doulas are guides who help us carry pain. When I labored to give birth, my doula’s calming presence eased me through difficult contractions. Now, death doulas offer the same level of care and compassion for end-of-life care, and now, for pets, too.
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Of course, a death you can plan and prepare for feels much different than an unexpected one.
“Mimi isn’t going to be here much longer,” I told Stanley.
“A special vet is going to come give Mimi medicine that makes her fall asleep forever, and then she’ll be dead.”
Stanley looked at me, placid. Deadpan.
“Do you think you’ll miss Mimi after she dies?”
He thought about it for a while. “No. But Papa will be sad.”
He’s right. Though he’s only six, he already understands that grief is in proportion to love. Of the three of us, Kent loved Mimi the most. Love is always tangled up in grief. It wouldn’t be love or grief otherwise. About 10 years ago, I remember watching an edgy dramedy on HBO that I forget the name of. But in it, one of the characters is completely heartbroken after a romantic relationship ended. His wise, but not so tactful friend says: “You took a risk by loving, knowing you could get hurt. And you got hurt. Those were the terms.” While this seems insensitive, it’s also comforting that this is the deal. For all of us. If you love, your heart will—at some point—break.
We also talked of burial procedures. Kent had chosen a shady spot under our best backyard tree. Like all graveyards, ours existed to pin her presence and memories to that place. I knew Stanley had absorbed the concept when he told me, “And when Mimi’s buried, we can go to visit her in the backyard anytime we want.” Knowing where she would be laid to rest was important to Stanley, and he’d worked it out on his own.
There are other pets I’ve laid to rest: a tabby cat, Henry, who I buried under the giant spirea bush on the 700-block of Elm Street, in Bowling Green, OH, when I was in my early 30s. A hamster, Teddy, who mom helped me bury under the cottonwood, at the river house, in Ord, NE, when I was eight.
In the days leading up to Mimi’s appointment, we talked about our favorite memories of her. Something troubled Stanley: “Why did Mimi only start liking me when she got too old?” It’s a fair question. When Mimi had more agility, strength, and stamina, she could move away from young Stanley and evade being petted. But now, she doesn’t even try. The effort is too much for her. Stanley, though, over the past 3 years, when Mimi started declining, has also continuously been gentler and quieter. In Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, one of the last passages is a letter written to his infant daughter in his final days with terminal cancer. He tells her when you’re grown up, and you wonder what your purpose is, why you were put on earth, don’t discount the fact that you gave a dying man great joy.
Mimi gave us joy (and funny stories).
Mimi gave Stanley the experience of compassion and affection for another living creature. Every day, he spent time with her, gently stroking her fur. In her last days, he was particularly concerned for her comfort, making her up a special bed, making masking tape lines down the hallway floor, which “show her the way to the litterbox.”
In her last days, I made an effort to be present to her. I sketched her in my journal, wanting to notice and remember this cat I’ve known for 19 and half years. How quickly time passes. Wasn’t it just the other day when we were undergrads, brand new in our romance, living in Omaha? Mimi was barely out of kittenhood when she snuck into the bedroom while Kent and I were engaging in physical affection. She deposited a dead mouse next to Kent’s head. I leapt up, naked, screaming, and doing the universal dance for “there’s a mouse!” It took Kent a terrifying, confused minute to realize my panic wasn’t related to anything he’d done, but rather, the dead rodent just inches from his face.
Our death doula, Karin, from Pet Quietus, was kind and very good at her job. She knew the power of being present and listening unrushed. She asked us careful questions that helped us process the experience. What are your favorite memories of her?
Karin had the caring demeanor I often associate with clergy or really good therapists. Both are in the occupation of helping others grieve. My dear friend, Cynthia, who’s also priest, sent us a lovely picture book: Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant.
We are sad. By the time Karin’s hypodermic needle slipped the sedative subcutaneously into Mattie’s flesh to euthanize her, we’d spent days, if not weeks, trying to prepare. “Euthanasia” means good death. We tried everything we could to make it peaceful and painless. Mimi died, at home, in her bed, surrounded by love ones. We should all be so lucky.
Still, the next morning, I was hit with a wave of grief. As it had gotten harder for her to walk to food and water, Mimi’s bed migrated to the corner of our eat-in kitchen, the spot where I take my morning coffee and write in my journal. That first morning after she’s gone I notice the emptiness. There’s no energy in this corner anymore, no soft breathing, no animal warmth, no companionship.
Now I have another dead cat story. Deaths accumulate, like deaths do. The interesting thing about publishing a book about death brushing near, is that after the book is published, death doesn’t stop. Of course it doesn’t. The brushes and the close shaves, the memento mori, they just keep coming. That’s the deal. Love and loss are every tangled up. I don’t know if it could be any other way.