Sunday, October 23, 2011

On children, dying pets, and the Circle of Life

On Friday morning, it was very clear that one of our cats, Tigger, was dying.  It was expected.  He was old and his health had not been good lately, but it was still sad.  As it turned out, we were babysitting two grandchildren, Chris (age 8) and Nick (almost 3), that same day.  So my wife and I debated:  Should we show them the dying cat or not?  Would it be a trauma, or a lesson in compassion?  We decided it would be best to tell them and let them say goodbye to their friend.

Tigger in 2007
He was barely alive when the kids arrived, but still aware enough to respond to petting.  I explained that he would probably slip into a coma soon and die in his sleep before the day was over.  And that's what happened.   Cats often go off and hide when they die, and I did not want that happening where I could not find him.  So we put him in the cat carrier when I was not holding him.  He willingly went in there, instinctively wanting some privacy.   By mid-afternoon, he was gone. 

We couldn't bury him right away because the Sabbath was coming, but it was cold enough outside that we could store his body in the shed until Sunday morning.  I wrapped him in a small blanket with his head sticking out, and 3-year-old Nick said, "Bye, meow," which is his word for cat.   8-year-old Chris understood death better, and could see that the spirit was gone from Tigger's eyes.  It was a very sad time, but also an opportunity to talk about death.  Chris asked if he could help me bury Tigger on Sunday, and I said he could.

So this morning we did just that.  It had been raining but God gave us a window of opportunity when the rain stopped and we could go into the back field where we have our pet cemetery.   Chris and I went together, leaving my wife with the toddler, since she has trouble walking on rough terrain and we weren't sure when the rain would start again.

Chris and I dug the hole together, then lined the bottom with dried goldenrod flowers.  We laid Tigger in the grave, wrapped in one of his favorite cat blankets.   Chris is part Cree Indian on his mother's side, and he wanted to follow the Native custom of putting tobacco in the grave, so he did.  This is not my custom, and frankly it's a bit pagan from the Jewish point of view, but when it comes to funerals, I think it's important for the mourners to be able to express grief in ways meaningful to them.  Tigger was as much his cat as mine, maybe more so, since it was Chris' mother who had found him abandoned as a kitten in a gas station parking lot.  They couldn't keep him at the time, so the cat came to live with us, but Chris always looked for him when  he came to visit.

As we filled in the grave, we talked about the Circle of Life, and how everyone eventually dies, to make room for new animals and people.  I told him the story of the Rainbow Bridge, which, although it is a piece of modern poetry and not Scripture per se,  is as good a metaphor as any for animals going to heaven.   Personally, I do believe the souls of our animals will join us in the Next World.  After all, the Jewish metaphor for heaven is the Garden of Eden, and it had animals in it, right?  Perhaps that is where the lion really can lie down with the lamb.

We marked the grave with rocks and I told Chris how, when Jews visit a grave, we leave a small stone in remembrance -- a custom dating all the way back to biblical times.   So the funeral had both Native and Jewish elements, expressing each of our beliefs.  Then the rain started again.  We headed back to feed the chickens, then returned to the house.  We didn't talk much on the way back, but there was a sense of closure and we felt Tigger's soul was at peace. 

Some people may wonder why I didn't have the cat euthanized when it was obvious that he was going downhill.  The answer is the same that I would give for a dying human:  I believe it is better for the soul to transition naturally into the Next World whenever possible.  And yes, I do believe animals have souls, as I have written before on this blog.  Although Tigger had health problems, he was not in serious pain as far as I could tell.  Up until the last day, he responded to being held, purred in happiness when petted, and slept next to me on the couch.  So I felt it better to accept that he was dying, and give him the hospice care he needed for comfort.  It was a good decision -- for all of us.

Tigger (right) and Bugsy, a feline friend
who crossed the Rainbow Bridge in 2009.


Lesley said...

It's easy to see how well-loved Tigger was and he had a lovely funeral. I think it's so important to honour both people and animals in this way. Tigger had a peaceful passing with people he loved and was loved by.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about your cat. I did like reading your article about it. Thank youforsharing

Shunraya said...

ברוך דיין אמת.
(And yes, I do believe this applies to all life, no matter the species...)

It can be so hard to let them go, even after having lost so many times before. Perhaps we are simply not meant to become too comfortable with death. If we do, we risk losing our humanity. So there's never much to say in the face of death ( וידום אהרון...)

Good that Chris could share Tigger's last hours, and find closer after.

יהי זכרו ברוך.


Yonassan Gershom said...

As a follow-up, a few days later, when I was driving Chris to Cub Scouts, the sun was streaming down between the clouds in a magical way,and he said it looked like angles coming down. Then he asked if I thought Tigger was up there, too. Of course I said yes. So clearly he misses Tigger, but the funeral helped a lot.

Raffe said...

Thank you for the post. I lost my bengel cat Romy of 7 yeas this past Thursday. He was an older cat when i had found him one night on the side of a road. He too had some health issues, but did not seem to be in pain. This past Wednesday night he had some breathing difficulty. I watched him that evening. I took him to work with me the next day, but eventually decided his condition was not getting any better. Within 15 minutes the vet came in and advised he was barely breathing and that his condition was very ad. The oxygen was not taking and that they were trying CPR to resusitate him.
Looking back 3 days later it is a total blur. Could somethng have been done beforehand, did Imiss something, should I ave tried to have them resus him? I realize these are all natural thoughts and that there was something probably going on internally that i could not see. I just feel like it happened so fast.
I will always remember Romy being most happy laying in my lap or on the bed next to us, looking for affection or just wanting to be rubbed. I will always cherish the 7 years we had with him. As I'm writing this what I miss most is having him here sittng on my lap.