Thoughtful Thursday: Facing Death

August 26, 2010

Thoughtful ThursdayPicking up where I left off last week on the death of my cat

When my husband arrived at the vet, we were brought into an exam room where they’d set out a plush purple blanket and our cat in her carrier. The assistant briefed us on the process, since neither of us had been present for a pet’s euthanasia before. We signed paperwork and decided what to do with her remains. The assistant asked, “Who’s going to be here when it happens? One of you? Both of you?”

I said, “Of course I’ll be here.”

DH said, “I’d rather not be in the room.”

The irony is that our preferences turned out to be the opposite of what actually happened. The vet was with another patient, and I waited as long as I possibly could (administering hundreds of kisses and snuggles in the interim) but had to leave for work, as a roomful of people that I couldn’t contact were waiting for me to arrive. I wanted so much to stay, but I absolutely couldn’t. DH stepped in and stayed with our sweet girl through the whole process.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that DH’s first impulse was to be out of the room, given his history of preferring not to be around for others’ medical procedures in general, but I was still taken aback since this seems different. If it were a human’s death, I would imagine that he would be present for a death if that’s what the person wanted, but that it wouldn’t be his preference to be there — depending on who, of course. We can’t really know what a cat would want, but given the possibility that she might have wanted loved ones present in her last moments, I presumed that I/we should be present.

I didn’t have any special desire to be present for her death, but it’s more that I didn’t want to be absent. I didn’t want to leave her alone, and I didn’t want any discomfort on my part to prevent me from doing what I thought was right or from supporting someone that has brought me great joy for almost a third of my life.

No one has ever died in my arms before — which makes me lucky, I suppose. I’m realistic enough to think that there’s a good chance that it will happen eventually, with someone. I have a little curiosity, and a lot of trepidation, but mostly I’m matter of fact, as usual. If I am needed, then I will be there, emotions aside. I kind of hope the day never comes, but knowing that various people in my life will someday die, and that some of them may want me there, I am also kind of looking forward to it. There aren’t many bigger expressions of love in this world than holding someone’s hand (or paw) as they take their last breath.

How do you feel about facing someone else’s death?

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20 Responses to “Thoughtful Thursday: Facing Death”

  1. Kristin Says:

    I’ve been there for a pets death and I would be there in a heart beat for a friend/loved one if they asked me. Death doesn’t scare me and, if my presence would make someone’s passing easier, I could not say no.

  2. strongblonde Says:

    this is something i know too much about. most of my closest experiences have been with patients. some were expected and the patients were on hospice. some were unexpected very messy code situations with blood on the floor and hysterical family members. none are fun. none are easy.

    i still remember the first time a DNR patient died while i was taking care of him. my immediate instinct was not to be there, but then after some (like <10 seconds!) thought i realized that someone should be with him as he passed. mostly i just tried to be comforting.

    i don't think that i could handle being with a pet during the process though. B couldn't either. i do feel a little guilty that miss cleo was alone, but she did know that we loved her and she had a great life.

  3. BB Says:

    Does a fishy count? A lot of times people don’t count a fish as a real pet. But, that is the only pet I have ever had, and I can truly see why people get so connected to them. It was a beta fish, he had a personality of his own and was such a beauty! He traveled in the air with me half way across the country! Of course his death was not really dramatic, but I shed a tear or two when it ended.

    I have had a few close family members pass away, but have never been there at that moment. I am not sure how I would take it!

  4. emk808 Says:

    Death scares me bejeebers out of me. I really don’t want to be present when anyone dies. I think it would scar me for life, I’d have nightmares and PTSD. But that’s really only for humans. If it’s a pet/animal I think I’d be ok staying for a euthanasia procedure. For a human, I honestly don’t know if I could handle it.

    Then again, I’m in school to become a nurse and hopefully a certified nurse midwife. As infrequently as it happens, people do sometimes die during childbirth. I’m not sure how I would handle that as a provider, but I think I’ll be ok since it’s not someone in my family. I won’t like it, of course, and I’ll probably feel guilty as all hell if it happens. But I’m hoping it NEVER happens!

  5. a Says:

    I was there for my dad’s death, and I think I was the first one of my mom and my oldest sister (my other 2 sisters couldn’t make it in time) to admit that he was actually not going to come back. I was the first one there after my aunt died (not sure how – everyone else lived closer).

    I couldn’t go in, though, when I made the decision to put our family dog to sleep. It was 2 years to the day after my dad died. My boyfriend at the time had to do it. It was all too much for me at that time, but there were other factors (the dog was my dad’s companion while he was sick, my mom had had bypass surgery earlier that year, I was only 24, etc.)

    So, I know I can face death. I know it’s important to be there – although I couldn’t really tell you why. I don’t know if my dad knew I was there (I think he did), and I know my aunt didn’t (she had died about an hour earlier), but it was important to be there.

    The only thing that worries me (and I think about it a lot – with good reason) is facing the death of my husband. His job is currently taking him to places no one should go (Afghanistan last December/January, possibly Iraq next). Then I think “eh, he’ll be around for a while – most likely he’ll end up suffering cancer like his father’s family.” Either way, it’s going to suck really bad, and I wish I could just forget about it for a long, long time.

  6. Michele Says:

    I dont know that I could answer this question before a few years ago, but facing the death of my children made me realize that it is another aspect of our existence… a new chapter on life. That isnt to say it isnt painful or hard, but it is part of who we are.


  7. First of all, I offer my condolences on your loss. XO.

    When my childhood pet died in my young adulthood, I thought I would have done anything for her. She had been there for me through so much teen angst.

    But when that decision came, I was unable to be with her. The scent of death was already too much for me to take.

    I still feel guilty about that.

    When each of my grandparents died in recent years, I was with them. And it was an honor.

    Loved ones left in my life are first-liners. By that I mean parents, sisters, husband, children. I can hardly bear to think about facing, you know, with them.

  8. N&J Says:

    I am not graceful in facing death; mine or anybody else’s. I’ve been present for a death, and actually that left me much more at peace than the ones for which I was not present. Death is big and scary and my biggest fear and I don’t like it one bit. But I do think it is much harder on those left behind.


  9. Oh wow, I think of this often. Do I wish I had been at my mother’s side when she died. The answer, I think, is no. There’s a certain beauty in remembering someone only as she lived, not as she died. But in the case of a long-death like cancer, yes, I think I’d want to be by my loved one’s side. Not for myself, but for him or her, so that she didn’t feel alone.

  10. Rebecca Says:

    I would rather not be there, but conversely, I often think that one of the saddest things about my dad’s suicide is that he died alone with no one to hug him.

  11. Ana Says:

    I have never had to do it. But I think I would do as you said—just be there, emotions aside, if I was needed. If we ever face this with our darling doggie, I suspect DH wouldn’t be able to face it, and I would be there to hold her paw at the end, even though I am chopped liver in her eyes compared to him! I don’t think anyone/dog/kittie should face it alone.


  12. I was there when my dad took his last breath, almost exactly five years ago. He had a stroke and was in a coma for a week before he died. When we signed the DNR, I was so scared. My biggest question is “what will it look like?” How would he actually die after removing life supporting measures? I felt both terrified of being in the hospital room alone with him in case he died, and terrified of him dying alone.

    In the end, my mom, my sister, her boyfriend and I were all in the room when he took his last breath, all with our hands on him, and I am so, so glad for that. He took his last breath and kind of coughed and his tongue stuck out a little and that was it. Peace, quiet, stillness and relief that his pain was gone filled the room immediately. We sat with him for about twenty minutes before calling the nurse. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but I am so glad we were there for him, talking and singing to him, holding his hand. It made death less scary for me, having seen it.

    Before he died though, I had been in the room with two of my cats as they were being put to sleep. One was peaceful, one struggled a little until the sedatives took effect. It was so hard to be there, but I didn’t want it any other way. I can’t imagine them having their last moments filled with fear and strangers (even though our vet was awesome, he was still a relative “stranger” who my cats associated with scary procedures and checkups.)

  13. denise Says:

    Thanks for your honest and thoughtful comment on my blog today. I love your thoughtful posts. And I am so sorry about your kitty. Losing pets is my only experience with death so far, although that’s not to say those losses weren’t very hard. My husband had to put our cat down when he first moved to Los Angeles, and he chose not to be with her because he thought it would be too traumatic. I felt differently but we were living in different cities at the time. Although it’s hard for me to think about the death of someone very close to me, I think I would want to be there if I had the choice.

  14. WiseGuy Says:

    I have seen a death closely…of a family member. I and my grandma’s maid were in the room when she started heaving and taking reverse breaths. I rushed out to tell of her strange behaviour and I was sent to a neighbour to get a stethoscope.

    I came back in a few minutes and she had already died.

    I was a teenager at that time, and the sudden rush of family, rituals, grieving and ceremonies did not really let me ruminate on her departure.

    My grandmother had been bedridden for almost two years. She got up two times from the strokes with the help of physiotherapy, but the third time, her determination was gone.

    I remember the moaning, the crying and the empty stare. She became a bit delusional and pills had to be forced into her mouth. If we would not check again, sometimes the pill would still lie on her tongue. And I wondered if she understood how bitter they were.

    I think one of the things I mildly felt was relief. It seems to rude to say it, but the way she was fading away was very painful to see.

    My father still misses her, and there are moments when he starts crying sharing his memories of his family.

    Then, there was somebody I knew I should have called. She cared for me, and she sent me gifts, and I just could not bring myself to do it. She was cancer survivor who did not survive the relapse. I don’t know why but I was a complete chicken.


  15. I’d like to be at my loved ones side, when the time comes. Even if it will be very difficult. I was there in the last two weeks before my MIL’s death (together with DH-to-be, my SILs and nieces) – in the end I was not there when she died, it seemed she needed the quiet with just her son and daughter to really let go, but it was good to accompany her in those final days.

  16. Cat Says:

    I was with my grandpa at the hospice when he died a few years ago. I desperately did not want to be there, but I wasn’t about to step out of the room and make my sister be there by herself or have him “know” that I left. I really wish my uncles had taken over that part, but they’d just gone home and I wasn’t about to let my grandpa die alone.

  17. jill Says:

    I’d really want to be there for a pet and I plan to be… but… I’m not sure if I would be able to at the time. I might be so emotional that I’d have to say goodbye and let the vet do it. I hope my pets pass quietly in their sleep and I don’t have to be faced with that situation. I think I would definitely be there for a family member or friend if they wanted me to be.

  18. Mel Says:

    Absolutely, positively want to be there. Can’t guarantee I’ll be the most rock solid support, but I do have a tendency to hold it together in front of the person and cry in the hallway. I think it is important to be there — both for the person and for yourself — if it feels emotionally feasible (which is not always the case).

  19. Dora Says:

    So sorry about your furry girl. I’ve had to have 3 cats euthanized over the years. The first time, not having grown up with pets, I was too freaked out to be there. My boyfriend at the time stayed with her. The other times, since it was just me, I stayed with them. It was just the right thing to do. I talked to them, held them, and comforted them as much as possible. I also had one cat who was so sick at the vet’s that I gave consent over the phone for euthanization. It seemed cruel to make him wait in pain until I got there. But later the vet told me that when he got off the phone and went to give the injections, the cat was already gone.

    I’ve never been there for a person. It’s not something I would readily volunteer for, but I would absolutely honor someones wishes for me to be there.

  20. Heather Says:

    I was a few years ago present for the death of my mother’s step-mother, who was another grandmother to me. It was the first time I had ever been there when someone died. She had a bad fall at home and we went to the hospital to meet my mom who was traveling from several hours away. My grandfather was on the verge of being out of it from Alzheimer’s but he knew what was going on. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but I miss her a lot and remember how special it was to stay and pray in her last moments.


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