This is actually not about my daughter, but about my nephew, an amazing nine-year-old who is remarkably similar to me in his temperament and sensitivity to the world. This weekend he experienced the grief of losing a pet, the family cat, Jose. Jose was 21 years old and had to be put to sleep on Saturday. My nephew showed us all the intensity of his grief in a way I know I have felt, in the raw and terrible loss of saying goodbye to a loved soul. But there was such incredible wisdom in his expression of grief, and I wanted to share it here.
I had been planning to spend time with my niece, age four, and my nephew, age nine, on Saturday afternoon. But when I called my brother on Saturday morning to make plans, I heard the gravity in his “hello”, and braced myself for bad news. ”We have to put Jose to sleep today”, he said. He explained that they had found out their old cat had cancer, and several other problems. My brother and his wife, and my niece and nephew were scheduled to leave for a three week vacation on Monday morning. There was not really any way to save their cat, who had been brought here from Virginia in 1998 when my sister-in-law moved to California to live with my brother. The choice they were given in the current situation was to leave him in the vet’s care where he might die while they were away, or to put him to sleep before they left. Jose has lived a good long life, and has recently been spending much of his time in my nephew’s room, (safely away from my niece who is still too young to understand the nuances of such an old cat). Jose must have felt safe in my nephew’s room, the one room in the house where my niece is not allowed. And like Jose, my nephew often needs to retreat to the solitude of his room, to read, play with his legos, or quietly go inside himself when the world outside becomes too intense.
I arrived at the animal hospital Saturday afternoon to find my family – my mom, bother, his wife and my niece and nephew, ensconced in an exam room which had the usual exam table, but also a couch and a few chairs. Was this a room set up specifically for these kinds of goodbyes? It seemed larger than many of the other rooms, and the couch made me wonder. My nephew was sitting on the couch holding Jose on his lap, and periodically he or my brother would start crying as they pet Jose, their tears flowing in the difficulty of this kind of goodbye. My niece sat on her mom’s lap, climbing all over her like a monkey, demanding focus perhaps in reaction to all the sadness in the room. So strange knowing your pet will be alive one minute, and dead the next, and that you have to be the one to make such a decision. It was intense, and I felt myself simultaneously wanting to run out of the room, and yet being drawn in to this painful goodbye as I myself pet Jose and felt him breathing and purring in his last moments of life. I didn’t want to cry, but when my nephew started crying I couldn’t hold back my tears. His grief was so palpable. There was no way to deny this pain. Of course, I was brought back to the same scenario from almost 20 years ago when I went through the loss of my cat, Phoebe who lived to be almost twenty. She had also been put to sleep, and I remembered myself sitting with her at the vet, sobbing as I held her alive, knowing it had to be my choice to end her life.
What I said to my nephew was what I remembered about putting Phoebe to sleep. “It is peaceful, like they are going to sleep. The difference is that they become very still, and then they stop breathing”. My nephew was trying to decide if he wanted to be in the room when Jose was actually put to sleep. I soon took my niece out for a walk and a snack, to help the rest of them have some space with Jose. She often makes my nephew angry, in her innocence saying or doing things that he has a hard time tolerating. My nephew later chose not to be in the room when they gave Jose the lethal medicine. He went with my mom to get a burrito. I thought about how hungry I was, and my niece seemed hungry too. Grief is hard work.
When it was over we all went back to their house. They own their home and decided to bury Jose in a special place in the back yard. My nephew was still struggling, and I felt simultaneously awed and anguished by his words as he struggled with his grief. “I can’t believe this is really real.” My brother had explained the stages of grief to him, and they agreed my nephew must be in the denial stage. “I can’t stand how bad this is. I wish this never happened, I wish he was never sick!” Perhaps some anger, still disbelief. ”This is the worst thing in the world. This is the most horrible thing that has ever happened! I Can’t believe I will never hear his meow again”. This said with intense crying and sadness.
Later he was telling my brother, “I feel so guilty if I feel happy or I want to play, like I forget that he is dead”. We reassured him that grief is so hard to feel, that your heart needs to take breaks, and sometimes during the breaks you might want to laugh or play, and that’s okay too.
My nephew wasn’t sure if he wanted to see Jose, who was now curled up in a piece of cotton cloth resting on the bed until they buried him. Eventually he did decide to look at the dead cat, which resulted in more sobbing “Oh no! Now I know it’s really real. It’s not just a dream! I can’t believe this is happening! I’ll never hear his meow again! It looks like he is just sleeping, but his side isn’t rising. It’s like his spirit is still here with us. Maybe it will stay here with us for a while, and it goes away slowly because he wants to stay with us”. His mom agreed with this thought, crying herself, and said she thought the more you love a pet, the harder it is for them to leave, and the harder it is for us to let him go.
After looking at the cat, my nephew broke out into a new wave of grief, as if it suddenly crashed in on him again. ”I can’t stand how horrible this is. I feel like I’m going crazy! I just want him to be there when I go into my room. I’m going to keep his bed there, so he will know I am not forgetting him. I wish I had spent more time with him. I wish I hadn’t ignored him and had spent more time playing with him.” More sobbing in my brother’s arms, his mom and I looking at each-other with tears in our eyes. I was familiar with that feeling of going crazy with grief, and how hard it is to know it will pass. But when you are only nine-years-old, and it is the first time you feel this kind of grief, it is terrifying. Again we reassured him that it would not feel like this forever, and he was not going crazy. My brother also told him what a good job he was doing in expressing his feelings.
My niece opted to come with me to a barbecue nearby while they buried Jose, which was probably best for all. She was demanding attention and it was clear my nephew needed the attention. They buried him while we were gone, and my niece got to see the small grave when I brought her home. My nephew was taking a break, watching a show on the computer, looking exhausted. I hugged them all, and told them about a good book for kids who are grieving that I would send to them.
The next day I called to talk with my nephew, and another amazing conversation ensued. I asked him how he was doing, and he said, “I keep walking into my room and expecting to see him, but then I remember. But I can actually still see him. My sister can’t see him, but I can.” I said, ”So it’s like his spirit is still there with you, and you can feel him when you walk into your room.” “Yeah, but It’s just really really really really sad. But I know we’ll see him again. Maybe he’ll be a mouse or something”. So I said, “Some people believe that our souls can come back as a new person or animal. Just in a new body, but the same soul.” And he said, “Yeah, It’s like baseball, but you only get one strike. Then you come back in a new game. You’re the same but it’s always a brand new game. So I know we’ll see him again. And right now he’s with his family.” I said, “I think you are right. He is in a peaceful place, with his cat family who loves him”. And my nephew replied, “And he would want us to feel happy, not too sad.”
I was so awed by this conversation. I told my daughter about it, and she agreed he’s a brilliant and extremely sensitive kid. Right now he is in Florida, at Disneyworld, having a vacation and hopefully a break from his grief. I am grateful to have shared this experience with him and my family.