Letting Go of Aphrodite and Musings on Euthanasia

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.


D..J. Kirkby said...

Beautiful, painfully beautiful. That is all.

Happy Elf Mom said...


I see that the whole family is in on this decision for Aphrodite. The state didn't come in and say well, we need that money to pay for younger cats' medical treatment (!!) or whathaveyou.

I'm extreme pro-parent rights, but I'm skittish about allowing parents and others to do this "euthenasia." On people I mean.

I only think how, for a little while at least, I was persuaded by staff to allow an abusive situation to continue at school for my child's "good." I only think how parents can be easily manipulated and how the history of our making decisions about who lives and dies is inter-twined with ethnic cleansing and he who shall not be named because blog posts go downhill once you go there.

I don't know if it makes me more or less cruel to say that I just couldn't do that to my cat... even when she was suffering terribly... I felt as though it was not my decision to make and that any decision right then was a bad one because I wanted my cat well again and THAT was the only good decision but not possible.

My husband was going to I think take our cat in after a few days of her having difficulty but as he got closer to her to get her he said you know, she is not going anywhere right now.

She died about an hour later surrounded by her family.

At the very end (speaking in an ideal situation, this time about a cat) it is hard to know what causes the least trauma and is best for the overall life if you know what I mean. If it would be less traumatic two days earlier in the vet office, but she hates vets? Or suffer for those two days but stay in familiar places.

I hate decisions like that because they are not really winning decisions. They are only how do you want to lose decisions.

I hope your children are able to grieve and take great comfort in knowing your animals all receive the very best care and love. God bless and ((hug)) to you all this new year.

Sorry I rambled but your post was very deep and sad and made me think on things.

K Wombles said...

Thanks, DJ.

Happy Elf Mom, never be sorry for "rambling"--didn't think it was at all--those kinds of decisions should evoke deep thought. There are no right answers, and certainly no easy ones.

Ashley Clark said...

you are an amazing person, but a even better teacher.. to everyone... babies... n pets.... Rip Aphrodite!

melbo said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. I will miss the pics of her .. she was quite a character.

It is never easy talking about death with kids. I've had to do it a bit myself lately and need to always remember that honesty and openness is the right thing. Pain is inevitable and we need to learn to feel it and work through it. I tell myself this even though it is hard to see your children upset.

I thank you again for talking openly about the end of life issue ... it's one that you know is important to me as well and for similar reasons. The gently assisted death of my own beloved cat, so similar in appearance to Aphrodite, was a turning point in my life. I realised that death could be peaceful, surrounded by those you love. Why oh why is it so often the opposite for humans?

This post is a beautiful tribute to Aphrodite and your other loved companions. You gave her a loving home and a safe haven. She loved you in return and became part of you. This is the bit that never dies.

I'm sorry, I'm rambling too. Hope you are all doing okay. xxx

K Wombles said...

Thank you, Ashley.

Mel, I know--it makes little sense that we cannot consistently and humanely make sure that the dying process is peaceful, comforting, and supportive. People shy away from being there and witnessing, and deaths occur far too often in sterile hospital rooms in situations that reek of a lack of humanity.

I miss my girl--she was attitude and gumption packed into one kitty body. I'm so glad she was photogenic and that I can surround myself with pictures and hold her close that way.