conversations, Death & Dying

Saying Goodbye

I had said goodbye and was heading for the door when Mama stopped me with an out-of-the-blue question:

“How is Smudge?”

I turned back toward her, surprised; she rarely asks about my cat. She doesn’t like cats, though we always had one or more living outside when I was growing up.

“She’s, um, old. I guess she’s okay. Sort of.”

The truth is I have been wrestling for a while with the question of what to do about my 17-year-old diabetic cat, but I wasn’t prepared to have the conversation with my mother. She was going for it.

“She’s had a long life and given you joy. You’ve been through a lot together.”

That’s when my eyes filled up. Sometimes the conversation chooses us.

“We have traveled a long distance together,” I said. “Thank you for asking about her. I have been struggling about letting her go. I don’t think she is suffering, but I can’t really know. She isn’t enjoying life much though. And I’m not enjoying her much.”

I began to forget who we were talking about.

“You will miss her, and grieve her absence.” Mama said. “But maybe it’s time.”

Mama might know exactly who she is talking about.

“I will miss her,” I agreed, my eyes filling again.

I gave her a closer hug, and another kiss, and left.

I am stunned that she brought up Smudge that day last week. I had just come from my yoga class where my mat buddy had asked about my sister’s cat, as she does from time to time. Susan volunteers at a cat rescue and put us on to the sweet cat that my sister Rebecca adopted. Then she asked about Smudge. I told her I was grappling with the decision to let her go when it isn’t clear that she is miserable. “Ask yourself if you can name five things she used to enjoy that she no longer does,” Susan suggested.

She sleeps. That’s all I could come up with. I have to carry her to her food bowl, add treats to the food to get her to start eating so I can give her the twice daily insulin injection she’s been getting for 10½ years. She’s not drinking much water, and constant water intake is a signature trademark of diabetes. Consequently she is constipated and sometimes poops in inappropriate places. She cries and whines, perhaps because she is constipated. I have seen the same thing in Mama again and again. I can’t think of five things she still takes pleasure in either.

I have lamented that humans in this country are criminal if they choose to end their life with dignity; and helping a loved one die is definitely a crime. My mother is ready to leave earth’s bonds, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. Everyone says, “She is doing great! How wonderful!” No, she is not doing great.

She can walk, pushing her walker in endless loops around the hall. She can feed herself, but mostly with her fingers now because she can’t see to connect utensil with bite, and it embarrasses her. She only occasionally enjoys what she eats. She walks because she has to, she eats because she has to, she drinks fluids because she has to, she refuses to enjoy sleeping during the day, though that’s when she sleeps best. When I find her napping in the recliner, she says she was trying to get up to walk. Every. Single. Time.

Smudge doesn’t eat if she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t drink if she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t walk if she doesn’t want to, she sleeps because she can. Unlike Mama, Smudge doesn’t walk like she can’t see, but five and a half years ago the vet told me she was getting cataracts. I look into her eyes now and those mountain-lake-deep pools of green are blank clouds, like Mama’s. The light has gone out.

Unlike for Mama, I can choose to release Smudge from this existence that is barely existing, but I haven’t been able to. My previous cat Maggie, who had a cancer diagnosis that I wasn’t going to treat, made it clear she was ready to go, spending one night in the closet of each family member until settling into mine and refusing to come out. But not all animals, human or four-legged, come to life’s end the same way.

Two months ago I had an online conversation with a retired vet following a comment I made in this blog about needing feline hospice. She provided helpful medical advice, telling me that oral fluids are not enough to relieve chronic dehydration; even if she did drink more, I would have to provide subcutaneous fluids at least every other day. She also gave psychological advice.

“Are you afraid of playing God?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “It feels wrong to end her life when it’s so unclear that it’s time. And I feel like I would be doing it for me, not for her.”

“Smudge is alive because you have been playing God since she was diagnosed with diabetes,” she said. I could hear the gentleness in her typed words.

And while it’s tempting to compare these two old-olds in my life, there are some significant differences (of course). She continued:

“Although she may not be suffering, she also doesn’t have much a life. The main difference [between her and your mother] is that Smudge has no fear (or awareness) of dying so there is no mental factor to consider (except yours). There is not just a lack of words [to tell you what she feels and what she wants], there is a lack of thoughts. Humans are the only animals who have a concept of time and know they are going to die.”

Susan, my yoga friend, suggested that I have a conversation with Smudge (not unlike the one we need to have with Mama): “Tell her it’s okay to let go.”

I talk to Smudge, and as she looks back at me and relaxes into my arms, I realize she is the one telling me: “It’s okay to let me go.”

I recall Susan’s kind words, and my mother’s, and reread those from the vet, and I am a little more ready to say goodbye. I don’t need hospice, I am hospice. I can release my tuxedo kitty who has traveled through homes and relationships with me, of whom I have taken good care for many years, to meet her predecessors—twin sister Sydney, Smoky, Fraidy, Nevermore, TJ, and Maggie—in the great cat house in the hereafter, where she can be outside again, chasing rabbits and lying in the warm sun.

I may be judged by some, but that’s okay. I have been putting my true self out there on this blog for a long time, opening myself to the views of those with different experiences and philosophies.

I am getting ready, knowing I am opening myself to the vulnerable place of choosing grief before grief chooses me.

Smudge in better days.


39 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye”

  1. This is an extraordinary piece of writing about quite the ordinary matter we face. I am late in reading it, but it still serves, as I sit in hospice to my 16-year-old dog. Sometimes I think she would be gone except for my stubborn presence and her faithful devotion to the job she signed up for.


    1. Thank you, dear one. Like my mother, just when I think she is in irreversible decline she rallies. And so, now what. Buy another bottle of insulin? Stop giving her insulin when it’s gone? Send her on her way when it is so unclear? She isn’t telling me. Or maybe she is, and I can’t understand the message.


  2. Dear Gretchen. Your writing is so honest and vulnerable. Much respect to you. We have to dive deep into ourselves to find the compassion to let our loved ones go at the right moment. Trust your love; they do.


  3. Thank you for sharing this story in all it’s beauty and mix of emotion. For those of your close friends who have enjoyed Smudge in her better days and chased her around the house and garden to play God when you were away, we love Smudge and you. She has “told it like it is or was” for many years, been an example of good living, adaptability and mystery; putting a stake in the ground about what she will and will not do. She has made every space you’ve occupied her own with her love and her clear opinions. Like my little Cosette, you’ll take her with you in every good way. I am with you in spirit my dear friend Gretchen. xoxox


    1. Haha! I remember how much you “enjoyed her.” 🙂 I do thank you for playing God. She has fought the good fight and won. And dear Cosette, and my sweet Maggie. Perhaps they will all meet up and have a good giggle. I love you so, MDFD. xoxo. P.S. I’ve been enjoying my FM scones from Asheville, and think of you with every bite. YDFG


  4. It is time. And Smudge needs you to help her to the other side. It is a privilege to assist our fur babies at the end. Both our dogs clearly told us it was time…and as much as I loved them, I don’t want to go through another ending. Prayers for this journey.


  5. Ahhhhh….crap….it is the hardest thing, letting them go. I had to put my last cat, Slater, down after she failed to respond to cancer treatment. She was my best friend…had been around before the husband…it was her and I against the world. I still miss her. But, for all of the horribleness, it was the right thing to do…letting her go. No one can tell you the right moment, though I think you’ve received some very wise counsel. But, it sounds like sweet Smudge may be helping you to reach your decision. She will love you no less for it.


  6. From Dee Ann Kline on FB: I nursed my doggie through some nasty intestinal issues for about 6 months. I told me to let me know when she was ready and she did. The vet confirmed this and the following day we said goodbye. There is something sacred about holding a loved one as they pass from this world


  7. From Julie Shea DePuydt on FB: My heart aches for you. It is so very difficult to let a soul go when they have been with you in your most private moments, your deepest heart aches and your most profound joys. You will know when the moment is right when your heart no longer aches at saying good bye. It is a different moment for all of us; but you will know. Smudge has been preparing you for this moment and for the one to come. ❤️


  8. From Lynn Jarrard on FB: I am wondering if simply the thought of compounded loss is a factor in your indecision. Our hearts are already heavy and hopeful at the same time…another layer seems unmanageable at times. Hopes for peace of mind for ypu.


  9. I am sorry to hear that Smudge isn’t doing well. I sincerely hope she dies quietly in her sleep so that you don’t have to make the decision. When Spike died I made the decision after the vet did exploratory surgery and called me mid-way in the surgery to tell me it was a lost cause. I made the decision for Spike not to wake up and have the pain of the surgery. It was a horrible, painful decision that still makes me sad. Give Smudge a pet for me.


    1. Thank you, Todd. It is making me realize that if it’s this hard to make such a decision for a pet, it would be nigh impossible to do so for a human; however much we think, in theory, it is the ultimate act of love. Love to you and Spike.


  10. From Joanna Staebler-Kimmel on FB: My sympathies. I can understand the uneasiness that comes with trying to act when you’re not sure if you’re seeing a lack of a sign, or a sign that you should not act. I suspect I have non-standard views about death; but given that Smudge probably does not fear death, I would encourage you to not fear it on her behalf.


  11. From Joel Kimmel-Staebler on FB: Hard to read, can’t imagine how hard it was to write, much less live. Grieving for a future loss seems so strange, objectively, but it still feels like a hole in your heart bigger than your body.


  12. I feel you, Gretchen. We recently had to let our beloved cat Freckles go. She was at least 16 (rescue, so unknown), on subcutaneous fluids twice a week due to kidney failure, had to be cajoled into eating the smallest amounts, and the sweetest cat I have ever known. I sobbed like a broken-hearted child as she went, but it was the right thing to do at that time. I pray you find peace as you walk this wrenching path. Love to you and Smudge.


    1. Thank you, Susan. I don’t know if this will be as hard as letting Maggie go–the sweetest cat I ever knew–but it will be hard. And it will be the first time I’ve ever been alone in a house; and the first time without a feline companion since 1976, other than maybe a year in the mid-80s. Love to you and Freckles.


  13. Such lovely bittersweetness. When I took care of Smudge in August I noticed that she wasn’t grooming herself well. Her fur seemed dull and mussed, not sleek as it was. Is that another hint that it’s time? Even if grooming isn’t painful, perhaps she just doesn’t care any more. Love you.


    1. I was thinking as I wrote this that I haven’t seen her groom lately. Sometimes she does look dull and mussed and sheds like crazy. But not so much in the last few days. I don’t know what that means. She had an insulin crisis yesterday, and I gave her corn syrup. I noticed how dry her mouth is; I was afraid the syrup had stuck her mouth shut. Maybe she just isn’t drinking enough to be able to groom. Maybe it’s why she lies in the damp bathtub.


  14. Hi Gretchen and thanks for sharing your struggle with Smudge. I appreciate your shift in talking to Smudge and letting her know that it is ok for her to go, that you will be ok. I believe that our animals have a sense of purpose, maybe not in a conscious way that we humans do, but they are in our lives because they have some work to do with us. If you can communicate with her about the work she has been here to do in your life and get a sense if that work is complete, it might help both of you in the process of letting go. I am sending blessings to both of you. With love – Jude


  15. Love this post and your honesty. And I am fascinated in the timing of your mother’s asking about your cat and the similarities you see in her own life. People who have been very in control of their lives, ‘control freaks’ if you will, have the hardest time and deepest fears of letting go I think. Much easier for it all to just happen without having to actively participate.


    1. Thank you, Kathy. I wish it would happen without my intercession, but I am thinking that seldom happens, at least with four-leggeds (and often too late with humans). And that is the beauty, to be able to help them cross the bridge. My mother is a control freak and she does fear any thought of her own participation in letting go. I think those who can choose their timing are very courageous. So I need to be courageous on Smudge’s behalf. If she were outside, I believe she would figure it out for herself.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Certainly no judgment here, Gretchen. I went through this same situation with my Chloe two years ago. She was a little over 19 years old and I’d had her since she was four months old. She also had no real quality of life, though she was not diabetic, and I was struggling with “ending things too early.” I still miss her. I’m so sorry you have to face this situation, but I call it the price of loving. Smudge is a lucky cat to have such a caring owner.

    Liked by 1 person

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