Aphrodite, although an old cat, was a relative newcomer, the last volunteer animal (Dude, Jack and Dannie we got from Rescue the Animals and they are all around two years old or less). She was waiting in the front yard for me one early fall afternoon and immediately greeted me and loved on me. She was mine from that moment on. She followed me everywhere outside and there have been plenty of photos of her sweet face on this blog over the last few years. She quickly became an indoor/outdoor cat, and she was often with me when I was out in my garden.
She'd been sick the last several months with a respiratory infection she couldn't shake, and she began losing weight. We took her in a couple weeks before Christmas and learned that she either had leukemia or feline AIDS. She was given a shot, and the vet told us it should help her stay with us through the holidays. For a time, she rallied, but the respiratory infection never went away and she continued to get thinner and she began losing hair. The vet had told us she had ulcers in her mouth, so eating would be painful.
I'm not big on secrets or in holding back, so holding this news from the kids felt odd, wrong, but they deserved a Christmas with as little stress as possible, especially given that last December we were dealing with Frankie's illness and hoping beyond hope that he would get better. We managed to keep it from them, though, and broke the news to them on Tuesday, which gave them around 24 hours to process the news and love on Aphrodite and make their goodbyes.
I'm going to be completely blunt: I'm so tired of loss, of having to tell my children news that will change their lives, hurt them. I'm not just talking about beloved pets, either. There are all sorts of loss and it's often heart-wrenching that my words will devastate my children. There's no choice, though. Honesty coupled with cuddling is the right way to go. Protecting them, shielding them from loss, is not helpful. It's harmful. The sooner they learn that life is filled with losses, big and small, the sooner they will learn to integrate it and cope adaptively. They won't learn adaptive coping without parents, family members, educators, and friends working with them to model adaptive coping techniques.
And so, on Tuesday, Rick and I cuddled our girls and walked them through it. We explained suffering and the importance of knowing when to help a pet. We worked to get them to realize that loss and sadness are a part of life and help us to embrace joy and appreciate our loved ones in the moment. We talked through our previous losses, laughing in remembrance of pets lost in our childhood, and noting that the pain was gone now, and we were able to remember those animals fondly and with joy at how they had enriched our lives.
And they saw us cry. They saw us grieve. They listened to us as we explained the struggle to make the right decision for our animals at the right time so that they lived as long as they could while minimizing suffering. We explained how it's not right to let an animal suffer when the suffering is greater than the joy the animal can find. And because they are my kids, the discussions, which continued through Wednesday, moved lightly and questioningly to euthanasia and people.
And while this post is about honoring Aphrodite and helping my children to cope with loss, it's also about the very important discussion that civilized societies should be having about euthanasia. Peter Singer brings it up often. As a hospice volunteer who works with patients and their families through the dying process and the bereavement after, I find euthanasia to be an incredibly relevant and important topic. Having a clear ethical principle regarding the sanctity of human life (or not, as Singer does) is incredibly important. We recognize the right of pet owners to make life or death decisions for their pets. We accept and applaud euthanasia of sick animals, as we recognize their right not to suffer. We do not do the same for human beings, especially not assisted suicide or involuntary euthanasia, where doctors and family members deliberately make the same kind of decision without the input of the person who is suffering.
We do allow and accept that turning off life support is morally and ethically correct for those who have no chance of recovery, for whom the machines are merely keeping their bodies alive. As hard as it is to make the decision to let a pet go, the anguish and consequences of making the decision to turn off life support, like my husband did for his mother, lingers for years after. Imagine the harm that choosing involuntary euthanasia would do to family members, not to mention the persons themselves whose lives are taken without their consent. I cannot think of a more important topic that determines whether we are humane and take the sanctity of life and personhood seriously. We can and should act to remove suffering, to offer compassion, but to maintain a strong ethical code while doing so. Choosing to let animals go is vastly different than choosing non-consensual euthanasia for human beings. And it seems that if we are being intellectually honest with ourselves that these two things go hand-in-hand. There are no easy answers, but we will each have to decide for ourselves how we feel about life, about suffering, and about how we handle our inevitable decline and whether we believe others should have the right to decide on death for us.
Teaching our children about the moral and ethical considerations of what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, and who should decide on another's quality of life--these are heady and heavy, but non-optional. Our job as parents is to create for our children a solid foundation that they can rest on, that will support them through the difficult times, that will teach them that although we might want the pain, the sorrow, to be immediately lifted, it's important to allow ourselves the full range of emotions that life provides us. We must learn to flow through the sorrow, to provide ourselves lifelines to reach out and grasp and grab hold. And we must learn how to smile through our tears and find the joy.
My favorite pictures of my Aphrodite: