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. This is so sad. My heart goes out to you and your son. XO

  2. Stephanie B says:

    I’m so sorry for yours and your son’s loss. Thank you for sharing this with us.🙏😪💞

  3. This is absolutely heartwrenching. Sending purrs and love to you both.

  4. I am in ters. I know this terrible heartbreaking time. I am so sorry that your son is going through this. You as well, but for him, he was/is Zoey’s Dad and it is excruciating for him. I went through a similar thing with all three of my sons when our Robin passed. We were in tears for weeks and it took over 5 years not to cry when we spoke of her.
    Rest in peace little Zoey and her Dad…may he find peace and even smiles as time passes thinking of her.
    Katie Isabella

  5. Valentine says:

    My mom shed lots of tears as we read your post. We are so sad for you and your boy. You are a great momma to be there for him when he needs you the most and to be there to remind him that his kitty had lived a full, wonderful life with him. Sending purrs of comfort.

  6. My heart is breaking for your son, you, and everyone out there who goes through this type of loss. Thank you for being with your son during his time of need.

  7. da tabbies o trout towne says:

    Deb; please express my sincerest sympathies to your son on his loss of Zoey; and I express the
    same wishes to you, Dan and the rest of your family as well.

    Zoey may not have lived WITH you, but she was and always will be family. What a beautiful girl ♥♥

    It may not help, but please know St Francis was with Zoey as she made her journey
    to heaven, so she was not in pain, had no fear, and didn’t feel alone.

    I send hugs and love to your son, you, Dan and your family ♥♥♥ Laura

  8. JaneA says:

    Deb, I’m so sorry for your and your son’s loss. It sounds so much like the story of my Dahlia that it brought tears to my eyes. I hope that with time, your son will be able to forgive himself. He did nothing wrong, and neither did you. Like you said, cats just hide their illness until they’re too sick to hide it anymore. That’s what Dahlia did. Much love to you both. I’ll leave you with this line, the last line of the Buddhist Heart Sutra: Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate … Bodhi svaha! (Loosely translated, that means “gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond…O, what beautiful Enlightenment!”)