Prepared for Grief: How Our Loved Ones Grace Us in Death & Dying
Today, I want to talk a little bit about death and dying, and how we are often prepared for it, and for handling our grief. This is a very fresh issue for me, so forgive me, but I’m going to be reading much of this, as I don’t trust myself to be able to state this half so clearly without it all written out.
Over the holidays, I took some time off, and I had the opportunity to listen to a podcast of my mentor, Slade Roberson. In this particular episode, he was speaking with Dr. Martha Jo Atkins, who works with the dying, about deathbed visions.
When I was in grad school, one of my particular focuses was on death and dying. I was a hospice volunteer, and I read books about dying, from spiritual perspectives, religious perspectives, physical perspectives—you name it, I probably read it. I read about ministering to the dying.
Somehow, in the intervening years, though, I had forgotten about that specialty, that focus, but listening to the podcast brought it all back to me, and brought me peace, and I was so happy that this woman and her organization exist to help people transition from this life to the next.
After listening to the podcast, I immediately downloaded her book Signposts of Dying and read it. I even wrote a review about it on Amazon. I wondered once or twice why this was coming up again in my life, and I figured maybe I was supposed to revisit some of the lessons about the deeper meanings of life that I had learned during that time, when I had been focusing on this aspect, and when my grandmother had been dying of cancer.
A week after we got back from visiting my family, on Saturday, our 14-year-old cat developed a growth on his chin. Nothing major, we figured—he’d had one before, and it had just been a matter of getting him to the vet and having them lance it, then give him some antibiotics. After all, he had just been checked out by the vet a couple of weeks before Christmas, and they’d given him a clean bill of health, other than his kidney disease and his need for teeth cleaning. On Sunday, the growth was very much larger, so I called the vet’s office and left a message so we could get him in to be seen on Monday.
Long story short, the vet couldn’t see him on Monday, so we scheduled an appointment for Tuesday.
Later that day, Monday, however, we noticed that the growth had ruptured. I’ll spare you the gory details, except to say that we called several vets, and everyone was booked solid. Finally, we found a local vet that had had cancellations and could fit us in. We had to wait a bit when we got there, and my son picked up a book, seemingly from random, from the magazine rack. It was a book called Cat Heaven. The kids requested that I read the book, so I did. I was amazed at how calm my voice stayed—until we got to the part about the cats sitting outside their homes and watching over the families that had loved them. Then I had to stop for a few moments to keep the tears at bay.
The kids were just asking me to read the book again when the vet called us back. She pumped the cat full of fluids but said there was more going on—there was possibly a tumor.
I had seen our previous cat through to the end a few years ago and had gone through much the same process—calling vets, not being able to get him in to the vet until the next day, and then having to endure watching him die. It had been a holy experience. Not pleasant, but holy. Now, I recognized the signs: Our cat was dying.
My husband wasn’t yet ready to face it, and after all, this was his cat, so we had the vet give the cat some fluids and an antibiotic shot. The cat started to perk up a bit, so we took him home. My husband was hopeful; I was resigned.
Once we got home, the cat still couldn’t walk, so he stayed in one place on the living room floor. We made a pallet of blankets on the floor, and my husband, my daughter, and I slept in the living room with the cat that night. I slept terribly, awakened frequently by his cries, because he would cry when he tried to get up. The floor was hard and cold, and I knew he had to be uncomfortable. I did my best to comfort and soothe him.
The next day, Tuesday, he was barely moving. My husband had an idea to fill a box or crate with blankets to keep the cat in, so he would be as warm and comfortable as possible. My husband wanted me to take the crate with me to the office, where it would be quieter, without the kids yelling and screaming, but it is cold in the office, and I didn’t want that for him—besides, I hadn’t slept all night, and I needed to get work done, and I would not be able to do that with the cat’s cries causing my heart to ache every few minutes.
So the cat and crate stayed in the living room all day, amidst the noisy kids and the occasional shout. He cried out occasionally, and he was comforted. When I left the office at the end of my workday, I went to give him more cuddles, and I found that he had passed.
It was late on a cold winter day, and the ground was covered in snow and ice, but we knew the next day was going to be in the 50s, and we knew we would bury him them. So we put the crate with the cat, still nestled in his blankets, in the picture window of the living room, so he, like the cats in Cat Heaven, could watch over his family for one last night. The next morning, we held a brief funeral and buried him in our orchard.
Needless to say, we mourned. We are still mourning. We are grieving. But it’s easier for me, I think, because we were prepared. He prepared us for this. Our guides prepared us for our cat’s passing.
Here’s how I think that happened: The vets didn’t notice anything abnormal at his checkup only two weeks before Christmas, so we could have an enjoyable holiday, a family happy without anxiety about a sick pet. Over the holiday, I listened to that podcast, even though I hadn’t listened to a podcast for months, and listening to that and reading Dr. Atkins’s book brought back the memories of all that I had forgotten I knew about death and dying, and how they can be beautiful. In addition to all of that, once we were back home, our cat acted normally for a full week after we got back home—except he spent much more time than usual curled up at my feet and cuddling with me. This was strange because he was always my husband’s cat—he was a man’s cat.
The sore displayed on a weekend, when we couldn’t get him to a vet, even the one that has always, always, in thirteen years, throughout the cat’s life, fit us in any time we needed to have an animal seen. That delayed him being seen until it was too late to do any good—that is, until it was so late that we wouldn’t prolong his suffering. It also meant that the cat, who had had more and more difficulty and discomfort in traveling over the years, had to endure only an 8-minute drive on a quiet country road instead of a 40-minute drive on a very busy highway and through a crowded city.
The vet we found didn’t sugarcoat anything, but also didn’t insist that we put him down—but she also didn’t give us false hope. And the fluids and antibiotics gave him just enough comfort to be able to pass the next 24 hours or so relatively peacefully, at home, so he could live his final hours in not too much pain, and die surrounded by his loving family.
Even the book that my son picked up in the vet’s office—with its plain hardcover and nothing obvious to attract him to it—was preparing us. It gave us the language and words with which to start explaining death to our children—most especially, it gave the kids enough words, concepts, and pictures to allow them to frame questions to us. Without that book, I probably would have explained death in a way that was not very accessible or understandable to them, but it offered up terms that I wouldn’t immediately default to but that were beautiful, comforting, and so close to my own beliefs in the broad strokes that I was immediately comfortable using it as a framework to help my children understand.
And he died the evening before a two-day unseasonably warm period, when the ground thawed just enough for us to give him a perfect burial.
Some might say this is wishful thinking, but I’ve learned enough over the years, studying death and dying, and communicating with Spirit, to know that we all—including animals—have a say in when and how we will go, so I don’t care what they say. I know all of my experiences with the dying have been transformative, and beautiful, even if not always peaceful. They are deeply moving. And they are intentional.
That is the message that I felt called to share with you today: Grief is normal, and it is natural, but there is a certain beauty and grace that is extended around the time of death—by the dying being to us, and by Spirit to the dying being and to us—and if we give ourselves over to it, we can also extend that grace to the dying and ourselves by simply being in the moment and accepting what happens, by comforting the dying, and witnessing it, rather than denying it and turning away. It is not easy, but few things that are worthwhile are easy. Death is a natural part of life, and it can be just as beautiful as birth. In fact, it is a birth of sorts—out of this dimension and into another, and the energy of our loved ones lingers a while, or steps back in occasionally, while we mourn and grieve, gently pulling away to its new life as we become more and more capable of dealing on our own. Preparations were made to strengthen us, to prepare us, and our loved ones see us through, even after their passing.