How my cat’s death made me question everything

Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

A month ago, my cat’s death sent me reeling in ways that I never could have anticipated.

“How long?” I ask half-jokingly one day when my boyfriend returns with our cat, Aji, from a check-up at the vet.

“Thursday.” It’s all he can do to force the word out, like speaking too many could unleash something dangerous.

Thursday. In that moment, I hate that word. It is a terrible word. Thursday is the shock of ice on bare skin. It is a fist, clenching and unclenching in my chest. It’s not a word. It’s not even a real day.

But Thursday is a word, and it is a real day — a day that is only three days away.

I went to my one and only funeral when I was around five years old. I remember my mother sitting me down beforehand, trying to explain to me what I was about to see, to prepare me to face death head on for the first time in my recollectable life. She needn’t have bothered, probably. I remember peering down at the pale body of the man who, days earlier, had been my elderly neighbor, and who now appeared to be peacefully sleeping. I conducted my observation with the same sort of detached curiosity that compelled me to do things like chew on crayons or poke frog eggs. There were no stakes.

To be sure, I cried when coyotes dined on my pet chickens, and when the family cat got hit by a car, and when my dad brought home the body of our dog to bury by the lilacs. I attended a memorial service for my grandfather, and then for my grandmother, and then for the parents of friends, later on.

The notion of what actually happens when someone dies, however, remained nothing more to me than a mildly annoying mosquito, to be swatted or squashed but certainly not pondered or attended to.

A great irony in America is that we, as a nation, spend millions of dollars every year on our pets. We’re obsessed with them. We dress them up. We take them everywhere. We buy them gluten free biscuits and we swathe them in sweaters and we get them massages and we celebrate their birthdays.

And yet, our culture holds very little space for us when we are grieving for the loss of a furry friend. The day before the euthanization was to take place, I was out of town, attending class. I’d been up nearly all night crying and, feeling hungover, hopeless, and ashamed of the intensity of my grief, I left in the middle of class with little explanation and cried the entire 2.5 hour ride home. She wasn’t even dead yet.

How could I tell my teacher that I was this distraught because of my cat? In fact, exactly a week before this, my uncle had been found dead at home on the couch, having succumbed to a heart attack.

When my mother broke this news to me, I shed a couple tears out of surprise, but that was all.

That was all.

This, though, was another monster entirely — a multi-headed and complex beast, each head trying to gnaw at me rabidly and overwhelmingly:

Embarrassment, over how much this was affecting me.

Isolation, in my private and secret grief.

Agonizing guilt, over whether or not we were making the right decision.

And of course, pure and raw sadness at the thought of losing someone incredibly, deeply precious to me as a friend, companion, and healing presence in my life.

And finally, inextricably tangled in this mess was the ultimate question of all:

What the hell does death even mean?

Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie on Unsplash

The morning of, we barely speak. We can’t. We sit with Aji in the sun on the porch. We’re not crying now, but we will be.

I remember the feeling of standing anxiously on the start line for a race, wanting nothing more than to stop time, to delay the start of the event, while simultaneously craving the pop of the start gun because I was eager for it to begin so that it could finally end.

The morning feels a bit like that, multiplied by 100.

At the vet, they sedate her first, and Aji collapses gently and lethargically into my lap as if she herself has just run a race. And in a way, she has: she’s been going for sixteen years. It’s a lifetime for her. A good, long life of mice and purrs and pats.

When they inject her for the final time, it happens quickly: one moment, her ribs are rising and falling, animated with breath. The next, she is utterly still. My hand still rests in her fur, but I remove it, devastated as the vet feels for a heartbeat and confirms what we already know: there is none. She’s gone.

The standard symptoms of grief plague me: loss of appetite. Waves of tears. Insomnia. Guilt. Anger. Depression. This is all compounded by the pivotal realization that I come to that first night when I am experiencing the raw devastation of Aji’s absence for the first time:

I have no origin-of-death myth to which I can turn for comfort, no death story to contextualize mortality — my own mortality, or Aji’s, or anyone’s. Since the beginning of time, civilization has created stories to make sense of our fleeting time on this earth.

But I belong to no religion, I have no God, I have no cultural narrative about death other than by association — that is, my secular culture abhors aging and fetishizes youth in its attempt to deny mortality, so in the same vein it also denies death in general. We fear death. We take no comfort from it. Our lives are 90-year long games of hide and seek with death. We are in a constant and fluid dance with our own demise, and yet death goes unacknowledged and unaccounted for.

Why?

It’s the common, one-word question that characterizes the universal mystery.

Why did Aji have to die? Why do any of us have to die? We do we even live to begin with?

All of this because I kept asking, where did my cat go and will she be lonely?

I hope we can expand our notions of what constitutes “acceptable” grief and acknowledge that humans can harbor deep and meaningful relationships with non-human companions. There is no criteria or time-frame for grief — the process of mourning has its own lifespan. Hopefully we can, as a culture, learn to extend respectful social support to those enduring the loss of an animal (instead of treating the process with condescension and exasperation.)

Feeling ashamed or embarrassed to grieve makes it so, so much worse.

I suppose that in a way, my journey is just beginning. Aji’s euthanization was my story’s inciting incident. My lack of an origin-of-death myth is the complication that lends to rising tension, and the first plot point is my new resolution to find a narrative that can help me interpret my own mortality.

RIP, Aji!

Professional editor. Folk herbalist. Feminist. Mountain woman. Follow on instagram @qmnichols

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