Saying Goodbye – A Story of a Mother, Her Son, and His Cat

When you’re a parent you never want to see your child suffering. From infancy when you hear a cry in the middle of the night, coming from the room where your child is sleeping, causing you to bolt from bed to care for someone who is utterly reliant on you for their very survival, to a toddler with a scraped knee that you kiss to make them feel better, to those first break-ups or awful moments of peer pressure that most teenagers have to deal with, that you try ever so gently to reassure them are not the end of the world, even though it seems so to them. Even when they become adults, the instinct to protect and shield them from suffering doesn’t end.

My youngest son, very much an adult now, has spent most of his life plagued with depression, severe anxiety, self-esteem issues, and social phobias. I’m not going to share his name or circumstances – that’s private – but I will share that the rescue cat that came into his life many years ago – Zoey – was his lifesaver. Yes, he saved her life, too, but she was his every reason to get up every day and their bond was intense – he was her human and the only person she trusted. The only person who could pet her. The only person she didn’t run from to hide under the bed, and the only person she’d purr for, or sleep with, or play with. She wasn’t feral or aggressive toward others, she just loved him and no one else.

When I got the call from my son out of the blue that she didn’t seem to be doing well – she wasn’t eating and was lying on the floor, lethargic – I told him to call the vet for an appointment and I offered to go with him. I was very calm and reassuring with him – we’d get to the bottom of what was causing the issue and do whatever we could to get her healthy again. She was a senior cat now, although her age was not completely known. I believe he got her sometime in 2010/11, but regardless, I had gone through this many times before. Maybe it was a thyroid issue like my Zee. He had said she was drinking more water, or maybe she had diabetes. Scary, but manageable. Regardless, I just felt being there with him was the right thing to do.

When I got to his place, she was on the floor and her breathing was labored. Again, I did my best to be positive as he put her into the carrier. She didn’t put up a fight and she let me pet her, something I had never done before. I put her on my lap in the car while my son drove, and she barely made a peep. I spoke to her in a soothing voice, and I made small talk with my son, again, trying to be positive.

We were brought into a cat-friendly room, tucked away from the noisy dogs in the waiting area and she laid on the examination table, not picking up her head to look around, or displaying any reactions at all while my son pet her. When the vet came in, he touched her stomach and was blunt. Without even using a stethoscope, he said, “this is not good.”

My son audibly gasped and my heart fell to the floor. The vet explained that there are two kinds of breathing scenarios, upper and lower, and whichever one she was displaying symptoms of was not the good one. I must admit his words were a blur and I don’t fully remember what he said. He took her for an x-ray, and it was impossible for me and my son not to cry. But still, I tried to be calm, strong, and positive for him while we waited.

When the vet came back, there was no preamble. He put the x-ray up for us to see, explaining that her lungs were filled with fluid to such an extreme that he could not even see her heart and that she did not have much time left. My ears heard bits and pieces of words – tumor – could take her to an emergency clinic – hook her up to tubes to drain the fluid – surgery – poor prognosis of a positive outcome. Nothing gave me the glimmer of hope I so desperately wanted to hear, as I would have done anything to help my son give her more time if I felt she’d have a chance for survival and a certain quality of life.

My son, primal, cried in pain, and I held him, crying myself. The vet left us alone to discuss the options and we didn’t immediately speak, other than for me to whisper, over and over, “I’m so sorry.” For all the experience I had of my own – I’d been in this awful place so many times before – the excruciating burden of having to make the worst decision of your life and letting something that you love so much, go, but I didn’t have the magic words to make it stop or make it better.

All I could do was reassure him that she was so, so loved by him and that he had given her a wonderful life. And truly, she wasn’t herself anymore as I could see her precious body was already beginning her end-of-life journey. The small comfort and solace – she had spent the previous night in bed with him, lying on his chest like she always did, although this time only for a few moments, probably her way of saying goodbyes to him.

She didn’t seem to like being on the examination table, so my son put her on the floor where she laid on her side, not moving, probably finding respite from the coolness of the tiles. He laid down beside her, cradling her body next to his, telling her what she meant to him, thanking her for saving his life, and telling her how much he loved her. It wasn’t much, but I turned the lights off to make the room as peaceful as I could for them as he said his goodbyes to her.

I don’t know how long it was. It could have been 5 minutes, or it could have been 2 hours before the doctor came back to us. Time stood still in the room, interrupted intermittently on the other side of the door by sounds of the innocent absurdity of life whirling around us, unaware of the pain we were in and the finality of what was about to happen. The shrill ringing of the telephone. Dog’s barking, making their presence as king of the turf of the lobby known. Laughter. Life. Even my own phone, pinging me with text messages and pictures from my niece. It was her wedding shower day and she was sharing the experience with me from afar, giddy with the excitement of the day’s festivities.

My son went through what any of us do in circumstances like this. He became angry, guilty, and overcome with emotion and despair in one fell swoop, blaming himself for her imminent demise. But how was he to know? Just hours and days ago, she was eating like she always did, exposing her belly for him to rub like she always did, and just being her usual, regular feline self, just like she always was. My son and I spoke cat all the time and there were no stories of concern or alarm. I’m the cat lady, so having questions fielded my way from friends and family are common, and he had none to report.

I didn’t want to overwhelm him with conversation, but the truth is, cats are, and always will be masters of disguise, especially when it comes to masking symptoms of pain. It’s a survival mechanism harking back to days of hunt or be hunted and even with the best care, or the best intentions, you are never guaranteed everything will be okay. Yes, regular visits to the vet can help, in many instances catching an illness, perhaps then being able to provide care or a path to wellness and it’s certainly something I endorse and practice.

But I know from experience that even with regular visits, it’s not foolproof. Years ago, my Harley went for regular visits, and she also went to the vet above and beyond if I felt something was wrong or out of the ordinary. Her last check-up was fine – a minor respiratory infection and no inclination of a serious prognosis from the vet. But home less than a couple of hours later she had a severe seizure and I had to rush her back to the vet, with them telling me I would have to say goodbyes to her then and there. To this day I have difficulty processing what happened, so I know the cruelness of being unable to comprehend the unfairness of certain realities.

I’m also no stranger to the process of letting go. Over the course of my life, I’ve had countless beloved pets – cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, and more that I’ve had to say goodbyes to. I wrote a book on the subject – Purr Prints of the Heart – A Cat’s Tale of Life, Death and Beyond, including a guide for coping with pet loss for people who may need help with the grieving process, and I also created a national day to honor those pets we’ve lost – Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day, held August 28 of each year.

None of my practice or experience prepared me for this type of hurt when we finally, barely audible, told the vet our decision – to please end her suffering. Honestly, all I wanted to do was run from the room and block everything that was to happen next out of sight and mind. The pain of reliving my own memories of saying goodbyes to a pet, and the pain as a parent, unable to protect my child from suffering was suffocating and excruciating. But that’s why I’m sharing this post. Not to overwhelm you with sadness, as I know this was not easy to read, but because grief needs outlets, compassion, and shoulders to lean on. I communicate through writing. It’s my catharsis and if I’ve gone through this experience, chances are someone else has to, and releasing the pain is important to healing. And the bottom line, my son needed me and no matter how hard it was, I’m grateful to have been there for him. I’m grateful to have shared memories with him, to have held his hand, and to have been able to hand him a tissue and give him a comforting hug.

This was my son’s cat just a few days before taking her to the vet. As always, she was glued by his side while he was at his computer, her belly fully exposed, and happy as can be. R.I.P. sweet love.

And despite the pain, I would do it all over again if he needed me. That’s what love is, and that’s why we open our hearts to pets in the first place because the love and joy of having them in our lives outweigh the pain. I know this with the full burden that at least 8 more times in my life with my current furry gang, I’ll have to endure the unbearable pain of letting each of them go.

All we can do is live in the moment and my son and I have become closer because of this experience, with him reaching out to me with a phone call, or pictures, or a text, or just to talk out his feelings – those moments of an empty food dish, or a shirt on the floor covered in cat hair – all triggers for an emotional breakdown. One day he’ll be okay, right now it’s too new and too raw. Maybe another cat or kitten when, or if the time is right.

When he goes to pick up her ashes, I’ll be there for him, too. Maybe he’ll want to put together a keepsake piece for her and I’ll help him with that. I also took a picture of him with her at the vet’s office while he was saying goodbyes if he ever wants it. The time is not right now, but in the days ahead, it might bring him some comfort to have it. I remember Dan took a picture of me in my final moments with my beloved Jazz. I couldn’t look at it right away, but now when I look at it, I see a picture of deep, intense love shared between me and my cat and I’m grateful to have the image.

Thank you all for your time, consideration, friendship, and support. Love those in your life every minute you are blessed to have and take care of yourselves.

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  1. Ingrid King says:

    Oh Deb, I’m so so sorry. My heart goes out to you and your son. Sending lots of love and hugs and wishing you peace and healing.

  2. Sue Brandes says:

    I am sorry for your loss. I could not read the whole thing as I just lost two babies. Hugs to you.

    • Deb says:

      I understand, Sue, and my heart goes out to you. I’m so sorry for your losses as well. We love our babies so much and it’s never easy.

  3. Wow. This is so close to how things went with Bear just a few short months ago. He acted a little off Tuesday night – took him in Wednesday and found out on Friday (after extensive tests at the emergency vet) that the prognosis wasn’t good. I’m still so angry. He went to the vet so many times this year – had his blood tested so many times. And yet, this sudden and catastrophic end. In both cases, what happened just f’ing sucks and is not fair by any stretch of the imagination.

    You and your son have my condolences. I wish I had words of wisdom and comfort – but I’m still in the midst of my own journey of anger/shock/self-blame (how could I NOT know?!? and at myself for blogging because it opened me up for the thing I love more than life to be stripped from me). I’m not even at grief yet – I’m still in shock. I don’t even know how to get past it. I’m not sure I want to. In any case, you two aren’t alone and I’m sending my love and hope for going through the process and healing.

    • Deb says:

      Mommakatandherbearcat – thank you for taking the time to read this post and to comment, as I know it could not have been easy for you. I was reminded of you while writing it, knowing you understand the pain and journey so very well. My heart goes out to you and continued love and purrs sent your way as well.

  4. I am so sorry for your son’s loss. Having been there, I feel his pain. Sending comforting thoughts to him…and you too.

  5. I’m so sorry, Deb. It really is doubly hard to watch someone you love grieve while you manage your own grief. My heart is with you both.

  6. Leah says:

    I’m so sorry Deb. My heart goes out to you and your son. I’ve been through losses of animal friends and I know how hard it is. Purrs, sympathy, and peace to you from the kitties and me.

  7. Timmy Tomcat says:

    We are so sorry to hear about Zoey. Timmy did much the same and was losing weight but the trip to the vet was uneventful and they said he was just getting older. He had been losing slowly for years so we accepted that. Then we had a problem with that vet, found another who was more up to day, had an ultrasound, and time was short.
    Your son had a profound connection with dear Zoey. We wish him all the prayers and purrs of support we can send and please know we send them to you two. Let him know that she will always be in his heart, as her picture shows her, full of love and fun and being his special kitty. The pain of the loss of a heart cat is terrible but we do move through it, in time, with support. We hope you do not mind that we will post about dear Zoey because we know there are many, many who have loved her over the years who will want to add their support to you and your son.
    Angel Timmy, Dad Pete and Family

    • Deb says:

      Timmy Tomcat – thank you so much for your kind words of support. They are quite touching and I will be sure to share them with my son.

  8. Wee ae furry sorry fore you an yore son’ss loss of sweet Zoey!
    Wee send deepest sympaffiess to both of youss’.
    Pleese know Zoey iss free of sufferin an pain an her spirit iss free……
    **purrss** BellaDharma an gentel {{huggiess}} LadyMew
    THE Purrfect Pad

  9. jmuhj says:

    Thank you for being there for Zoey and for your son when they needed you most.
    The picture you have painted is very close to that of last August when our beloved Tarifa angel was assisted to the Bridge. She, too, had eaten well that morning; she was showing signs of not being her usual self, and then on that morning there was a definite reason for her to see the vet. But I was shocked beyond comprehension when his diagnosis was delivered, and I acted quickly so as to prevent suffering. That day and that time are locked in my mind’s eye and I suppose I will always be traumatized by it. But I acted as I had to, for her rather than for myself.
    We make this hardest and most painful of all decisions out of altruism. It is the last and most selfless thing we can do for someone who has loved us unconditionally and always.
    We know we will meet again.
    My Prayers and thoughts are with you all in this very difficult time.

    • Deb says:

      jmuhj, yes, while the mind has difficulty processing it, wanting to do anything to make a contrary decision, sometimes letting go and saying goodbye is the kindest gift we can give our pet in the end. My heart goes out to you and may your precious Tarifa be at peace.

  10. meowmeowmans says:

    Oh, Deb, we are so sorry for your son’s heartbreaking loss. And for the pain you feel watching as your son grieves his beloved Zoey’s passing. We are sending love and gentle purrs to you both. XO

  11. Catscue says:

    That is so hearbreaking, and no matter how many times we may go through that with a cat, it never becomes easier. Thanks for sharing that beautiful story. We are sending purrs and POTP and out deepest sympathies for your family’s loss.

  12. After I type this, I’m going to hug every cat in the house!
    Farewell, Angel Zoey.
    Hugs and purrs to your humans.

  13. Carol says:

    Thank you for this beautiful gift you have given us… from your and your dear son’s hearts… i’m crying along with you even as i am so grateful for the heaven-sent loving bond between your kind compassionate son and his beloved kitty. You are special souls. Loving prayers are with you.

  14. Zoolatry says:

    For your son, and for you ~ words are never enough, though you have spoken from the
    soul and the heart with great eloquence. Zoey is at peace. May both of you find such
    peace in the days ahead as her love of you and yours for her enfolds you.

  15. Brian Frum says:

    I’m so very sorry Deb, it’s so tough and I understand the pain, we’ve been through it all too often too and it never does get easier, never. Our thoughts are with you and your Son and we send gently hugs your way.

  16. Mary McNeil says:

    We are so sorry to read this…and sorry for the pain you humans know. We had a similar scenario at the end of January – little Maya was suddenly an emergency. and the vet said she would probably not survive to be taken to her regular vet next day, so we parted in one of the ER rooms. Unexpected, and with a similar diagnosis.

    Your son’s beautiful kitty certainly gave and received love. That’s the best thing we can give therm.

  17. Caren says:

    I am so deeply sorry. It sounds like it might have been what my Angel Bobo had when he passed (an enlarged heart)…or……what Dakota had, Dakota had a tumor on his heart. Dakota’s was fairly fast, within a month of being diagnosed. I am so deeply sorry for your son, you and that beautiful sweet kitty. It’s always so hard. So happy though that you were there with him, I know you brought a sense of calm and peacefulness to what was taking place. Sending my deepest sympathy to all of you (((hugs)))

  18. I am so sorry for your son’s loss, and of course it hurts you too. My thoughts are with you both.

  19. I am so sorry for this hard loss. Sending love and comforting thoughts to your son and to you as well at this most difficult time for both of you.
    May all the sweet memories carry you through the days ahead and forever.

    ((( ♥ )))

  20. Marjorie at Dash Kitten says:

    I read Kat’s comment and feel the same. Tests showed nothing but a vague virus sort of ‘thing’ but they told me nothing. To this day I will not forgive them for that (sorry but no I am no goody goody). We lost Dot after her weight simple vanished off her bones.

    So, I can understand your grief, your son’s utter devastation and the total loss of someone who means the world to you. Cats are our closest family and give their total trust. My heart goes out to your son for his grievous loss – made so much worse by its suddenness.

    Love to you both.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Marjorie. I know how well you know the crushing feeling of devastation and my heart goes out to you as well. We appreciate your love, honesty, and support.