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Kay W

Kay W
Texas, United States
June 22
Teacher, tinker, geek, mother, wife


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JANUARY 3, 2013 10:10PM

Letting Go of Aphrodite and Musings on Euthanasia

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Long-time friends and readers will probably remember that the last 18 months have been filled with the loss of pets. In May 2011, we had to let go of Ibit, our oldest cat, after a two year battle with diabetes. Shortly after that, we had to say goodbye to Cookie, one of my parents' dogs that we loved like he was our own. Then we let go of Scooter, another of my parents' dogs. These three animals had been a part of my girls' entire lives, so their loss was difficult and painful. They were also their first experience with loss (that they remembered). Last January, we lost Frankie, who had been with us for  several years. Frankie was my baby. He was the friendliest cat, the sweetest ginger. I still miss him. I still miss them all.

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:

All three are together again, if there's a heaven.
Lily pictures them playing poker with Cookie and Scooter.

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"I'm so tired of loss, of having to tell my children news that will change their lives, hurt them."

Yeah. I'm with you. I had to tell my kids their dad was dead. Other not-so-pleasant things too, over the years. And there've been times it's impossible to smile through the tears or find the joy. But we muddle through, don't we.

What beautiful kitties and kiddies too.
I am not a "long time reader" of your blogs - but I think I just might become one. You seem to have your head screwed on right.

We, in the 'western' nations, have some pretty odd ideas about learning to deal with death. Almost all of us shield our children from this very real and often very painful part of existence. Foolishly we've adopted a denial mode whenever it is immanent for a loved one - pet or human.

I am glad to see someone tackle this head-on as you've done here. It MUST be an accepted part of our lives. It must NOT be denied, or shied away from. I have seen children go into a state of absolute shock at the death of a grandmother. They'd been shielded from other deaths in the family until, now, almost teens, this hit them like a ton of bricks.

Euthanasia is another matter for serious discussion. I live in Canada and our government stupidly will not allow a properly qualified medical practitioner to assist me in any way in ending my own life. I am 72 years old and stand an excellent chance of developing any one (or more) of a number of problems that will leave me a virtual vegetable kept alive - in GREAT pain - only by machines. I do not want that.

The political point of view is that "nature must take its course without assistance." It does not matter how much pain I'm in, nor how terrible it is for me to lie there in a hospital bed wetting and messing myself and unable to even feed myself a bite of food. It doesn't matter that we wouldn't allow an animal to suffer this. The damned politicians have decided that a doctor can't give me a pill or a shot that would give me peace.

Soooo, this means that I'll lose a few years of life. Since I can't depend upon competent medical help when I've reached the end of my enjoyment of life, which might be after I have lost the ability to end it myself, I'll need to do it before I lose the ability to do so.

Judging that time is a problem. It is something that, if I misjudge and hang around too long, I could very well miss my chance to do. So that means going around that final bend a bit earlier than I might have liked.

I hope that this blog of yours generates lots of discussion but I fear that the same old attitude of denial will prevent that from happening.

Thanks, Margaret.

That must have been unbearably hard to do. No, sometimes muddling through and hoping that joy will show its face eventually is all we can do.

Thank you. I completely understand your dilemma--for some reason our culture rarely faces these questions openly and honestly, and those who do tackle it head on like Peter Singer are often reviled for having the temerity to suggest that some existences are not beneficial for the individual or their families.

Given that death is inevitable and something we will all deal with, it's imperative that we bring it back into the open, discuss it, deal with it, and decide how we can effectively provide support to individuals who are terminal or so incapacitated so that their decisions about how (and when) they die are theirs and are carried out according to their wishes.

I think it's a topic that brings so much pain with it that people, in general, shy away from it. We are a culture that thinks we should never endure pain, so we numb ourselves, hide it away, and essentially stick our fingers in our ears and yell "lalalalala, I can't hear you!"
My oldest daughter once told me she hated that I hid the painful truth from her so I have tried hard since then to always tell my children the truth. I have, in life, had to put a DNR on two of my children and a husband and had life support removed...there is no easy way to get through life, I have decided, but I believe you have the right ideas.
Lunchlady 2,

I read your beautiful piece a couple days ago about your husband and making peace with him as he died. I am so sorry for all your losses and hope this new year will be everything you need it to be and that you will have much to be find joy in.
I didn't get to comment on the other part of your post, the issue of humane end of life decisions. I'm strongly in favor of assisted suicide and euthanasia if that's what a person chooses who's in great pain, terminally ill or in any other situation where there's no relief or chance of a better outcome. Of course there are ethical and legal considerations but we're smart enough as a society to deal with them.

It's also smart to let your family know what you do and don't want in terms of "heroic measures" while you're in sound mind and body - and put it in writing. When my mother was comatose, all systems failing and on the verge of death several years ago the doctor took my father, sister and me out in the hall and basically said, "It's likely she could die tonight - if she codes do you know what her wishes are?" We just stared at each other; we had no clue. Still don't because even though she got better it's one of those subjects we can't talk about.

My children know my wishes and they're also watching their paternal grandmother, who's under hospice care, die from emphysema. They've seen their grandfather waste away and die from a brain tumor. It's sad but I'd never dream of shielding them from it.