The Angel of Death has been spending a lot of time in my neighborhood recently.
When you are a pet parent coping with a beloved animal’s death is an occasional, if unwelcome, event in life. When you are a pet sitter, the amount of time you spend with pets who are shaking paws with the Angel of Death goes up exponentially. Every once in a while, he starts to wear out his welcome. This is one of those times.
In the last month we’ve nearly lost two cats to serious illness. Neither of them is entirely out of the woods. Another cat was put down just a couple days ago, yet another is doing poorly and is probably in his last days, and a dog we’ve cared for over many years has terminal cancer and will not be here much longer. Three years ago we started planting a tree with the Arbor Day Foundation to honor the animals who have passed on. We’ve planted 68 trees since then.
“How do you deal with all the loss?” one of my pet sitters asked. One of her beloved clients is moving, and another has a very ill cat. She’s relatively new to the pet sitting world, but she isn’t new to death. As someone who has worked in shelters for years, she has seen more death than I ever will.
I deal with the loss, I told her, by being grateful that I’ve gotten to be a part of the lives of these people and animals for whatever period of time has been allotted to me. And if you didn’t feel sad at their leaving or passing, you wouldn’t be a good pet sitter. The fact that we feel loss and sadness, that we grieve, is part of what makes us good caregivers.
I believe all of that, but I also know the answer doesn’t help much. It doesn’t help at all when I pet sit for animals who are nearing the end. Each time you care for them, you see the decline. The conversation with their human guardians, in advance of any trip, is always hard. What level of medical care do you want if it is needed? Who will make the ultimate decision, if it needs to be made? Do you want to know about what is happening while you are away, or would you rather know when you return? What are your wishes for your pet’s body?
People would much rather talk about medicines and doses than deal with these questions. As a friend of mine, Megory Anderson, wrote in her book, Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life: “Death has too long been the elephant in the living room, while everyone awkwardly discusses the weather.” She is right on target.
Only once have I had to have an animal euthanized in the guardian’s absence, and it was with her blessing. Her cat was in terrible pain, and unable to move her back legs at all. She’d been sick and in decline for quite a while. It was time, but it was still hard. I sent her guardian a copy of the prayer we used as we sent her cat off to whatever awaits on the other side. I suspect that will not be the only time I will use, or send along, that prayer.
I would be lying if I said that death isn’t a cruel event in many ways. It hurts, makes me cry, makes me sad, causes me to grieve. It is also a natural part of who and what we are as mortal beings, an unavoidable transition to whatever is next, and it is an honor to be present for and part of that process for the animals in our care.
Like anyone else, we’ll provide great medical care and assistance as long as it is of value, as long as quality of life exists, and the pet hasn’t yet signaled that they are done. After that time, and provided the animal wants us in the room, it is a gift to be able to pet and comfort and cradle those who are leaving this life. Years ago I worked with an author who died of Cystic Fibrosis, and he talked to me about the great value he placed on people who could be a non-anxious presence in the midst of his illness. That’s our job with the animals, and sometimes their people–to be that non-anxious presence when the Angel of Death is near.
As pet sitters, this is not always our place. These final moments are first and foremost about the dogs and cats and their guardians, and not about us. But sometimes we are called to be there when the guardians are away, to be their proxy when the Angel of Death comes to call.
Do I look forward to these moments? Not particularly. Would I skip them? Not a chance. These are some of the most sacred moments in pet sitting and in the lives of my own pets, painful as they are. I am honored to be a witness to the last breaths these animals take, and to comfort them as they leave this life. Rest in peace, sweeties…rest in peace.