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Determining Quality of Life and When to Let Go: Deep Thoughts Because of Ibit (Updated)

January 21, 2011

Our cats are our family members, loved fiercely and completely, and of our five cats, Ibit is our only intentional cat. All of our others started as cats who wandered into our garden and on into the house. He’s also our oldest cat, almost ten years old now. And he’s our diabetic cat. He’s been on daily insulin for 18 months now, and I’ve been steadily increasing the dosage as he’s needed it. He’s done well, but he’s growing thinner, and when I look at him, one of the thoughts ever present in my mind is how much longer can we manage his diabetes well enough that he will have a good enough quality of life. How much longer before I have to make that decision?
He is the bright boy’s cat, and the animal Bobby is closest to. He’s been the boy’s constant companion for nearly ten years. And Bobby doesn’t really remember our other cats before Ibit, not really. So even though I still feel loss over having put my Shadow (Frankie’s predecessor, another giant tabby who ruled the home) to sleep days before I gave birth to Rosie over seven years ago, this impending loss will be a completely brand new experience for the girls and will perhaps resonate with Bobby for the first time. That seems unfair, and I think, surely he remembers losing Shadow, losing Max, and he does, but he doesn’t. I know this from our conversations about it. While we’ve had to put three animals to sleep and lost another animal unexpectedly over Bobby’s lifetime, and my parents have lost several pets in the last eight years, these losses didn’t really touch Bobby, not the way I know this one will. I’ve been preparing Bobby since Ibit’s diagnosis that there will come a day when the right thing to do for Ibit is to let him go. I do not want it to be an unexpected loss, but I also don’t want him to live daily looking at his cat and seeing that eventuality, either. It’s a difficult line.
This question of when to let go is something all pet owners eventually face. We own so many animals over the course of our life time and often many at the same time, so that we may lose over two dozen animals over the course of our lifetime (or more). And many of these losses will be scheduled losses; we will make the decision for our pets that the quality of their life is no longer there so that we believe their suffering outweighs their continued existence, or unfortunately, that the cost of maintaining them in good health when they have a chronic health issue is too expensive. 
It seems, on the one hand, odd to experience such anguish and angst over an animal’s life while we eat another animal, every bit as sentient and self-aware as our beloved pets. We are a peculiar creature, able to compartmentalize our emotions and believe contradictory things at the same time with nary a thought to how absurd that is.
I watch my Ibit, who has been with us on our journey for nearly a decade. He has worked to bring the boy out of his shell, and he’s really  the first animal that Bobby ever connected with. I will care for this cat, continue to work to keep his diabetes under control for as long as I can. It’s a battle we won’t win, though. Ultimately, there will come a day (and it may be soon) that I shoulder this decision. And I wonder if we do these things more to spare ourselves pain, to finalize our pain, rather than let it linger and play out on its own. 
I do not know. I do not. Having that kind of responsibility, that kind of power of life and death over someone you love, is an awesome and terrifying power. And I think that we should not have that power over our loved ones. That as I make these decisions for our pets, I cannot help but feel keenly for my husband who made that ultimate decision for his mother in 2005. If it is hard to do for a pet, how much harder is it to do with a family member, with a parent, and what a weight it must be to bear, even when it is the right decision.
Once again, it is also a hidden burden, a weight unseen by the world around us. We go about our lives, intersecting with other lives, and we are completely in the dark about the burdens they bear, the pain they have, the worries, the struggles. We do not know, and so we forget that others have hidden lives. It’s hard to keep all that in our heads as we go about our lives, to consider the other person’s hidden life in our every interaction with others. 
All these thoughts from this fine little cat, who is now half as big as he once was. Diminished in size, but not in heart, or in vigor for life, he watches me, and I know today I do not have to make the ultimate decision, and I am grateful. 
A reader emailed me, asking if maybe I couldn’t offer more information on how I’m preparing Bobby for the inevitable day. Every person is different; every child’s understanding of death is different and changes over time. What one believes about the afterlife ultimately guides the conversation. At 21, does Bobby understand the finality of death? There-not there he’s got.
I decided the best way to get a handle on what he really understands about death would be to go ahead and ask him. I called him out from his room and asked him, “What’s death?”  His answer may surprise readers (he’s still talking to me now about different religious beliefs–our years studying comparative religions are paying off?); he said that “death is the freedom from suffering.” Perhaps talking to him frankly (I’ve got one style, blunt) has reached him; he knows that when Ibit is suffering, we will euthanize him. Ibit won’t be suffering any more. Bobby’s ability to face these thoughts or the topic is very short; he moved from discussing cat heaven to reincarnation, and is now talking to me about Yu-gi-oh duels and listing all the monster classes and various ways to duel against them.
But who can face the idea of death for long, anyway? Frost wrote:

 “…They listened to his heart.

Little – less – nothing! – and that ended it.

 No  more to build on there. And they, since they

Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

I thought, when I was just a year older than Bobby is now, and studying this poem in college (ah, and to be honest, there’s a bit of pain in that thought, that at his age, I was married and his mama and in college and his dad was off in Saudi Arabia in the first Gulf War), that this turning away was awful. How could they? I couldn’t understand it, not at all, and thought it was a terrible poem. And now, I understand it all too well and find comfort in this poem, in Frost’s understanding of the human condition. We must turn to our affairs and resume the business of living, as those we loved did when they suffered loss. So this, too, is something I share with my children. There is little that I do not share with them, to the degree they can handle. If it gets too uncomfortable, too painful for them, backing off and letting them guide it has worked well.

The time to prepare our children for death is well before we face the actuality. It shouldn’t be a taboo topic, and we should make them comfortable with the concept of life and death well before they lose someone they love. Ultimately does it matter if Bobby gets the finality? Do I want him to? If we had religious beliefs, he would be comforted with those rituals and beliefs. We don’t have that; we have uncertainty about what, if anything, comes next and knowledge about what other people of differing faiths believe. I tell them I don’t know; what matters is how we live, that our loved ones live on in our memories, in our stories we share, and when we are really lucky in our dreams.

Honesty, I think, is always the best choice. Saying “I don’t know” or “here’s what I think” are good choices when children ask about death and what happens after. And if your child wants to skitter away from a hard conversation about death to chatter on to you about Yu-gi-oh dueling, then sitting there, listening, and nodding while you update a post, well, that’s probably okay, too. It’s a process. And there’s no hurry to get to some arbitrary finish line. We’ve discussed it again and he knows it’s a safe topic and one that does not demand tears and sadness and drama. It’s one that can be had casually and moved on from, a returning to our affairs.

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