On illness, dying and death of a loved one.
Recently, because of mother Theresa's post on dying, it has come to me what dying and death of a loved one means to me.
The attached photo is of the altar on my fireplace. It contains the ashes of 12 of my previously beloved cats who died over the years since 1987, and a photo of our first who died, Isadora.
Each of these deaths was very significant to me. Each caused a sense of desolation and loss, and several brought periods of depression.
Most of us who lose someone or some being close to us do not do so because of a sudden accident or violence. They die as a result of disease, and thankfully we get to spend a few weeks or days or even years together before they die. During that time we can develop a very special and much deeper relationship as we become the primary caretakers, as they gradually leave the world. And we can be there at the end of their life with them, with a moment of immense sadness and sometimes of desolation for some time afterwards. But also a sense of peace.
That time leading up to their death can become so special. As their health sinks and affects their behaviors, increasingly we become their caretakers and guardians, and a special bond with them is created that we may not have had before. For few weeks or few months it is only for them. Our lives are only for them. They may feel miserable, they may feel pain, they may have stopped eating, and we serve them to reduce their pain, help them eat, and in so doing we grow closer and closer.
That animal feels it. He or she is now constantly on our laps being caressed and purring loudly. One day, maybe for the first time, the animal may come up onto our chest and look deeply into our eyes as we exchange love for each other. She may nudge her nose against ours, or lick it.
The days pass and the animal grows weaker. She may even stop eating, so we have to begin to "force-feed" them by getting special cat food such as Science Diet A/D, or baby food, such as Beachnut chicken. We mix it in a mixer to soften it up, and spoon it into a large syringe, preferably with a soft plastic feeding tip.
Then we take the precious little one and gently insert the syringe to the side and back of the mouth, and press on plunger delivering 5 mL of food at a time. We wait until they fully swallow the food, usually eagerly. And we do it again until they get at least 100 mL of fluid a day, enough to sustain their weight. Often they seem to so much appreciate being fed this way.
One cat, Dustin had a feeding tube inserted through his abdomen directly into his stomach. Four times a day I would feed him through the tube. Four times a day I would come to his cage where we kept him until the incision was permanently healed. Each time when he saw me coming, he’d get up and move close to the door, offering me his left side where the tube was placed. He always purred throughout the five minutes or so of feeding. He enjoyed it greatly, just as much as I enjoyed serving him and his life.
The time comes when they even begin to refuse food, and sometimes instead of lying on our chests, they start hiding in the dark or under the bed. They don't want to be disturbed anymore. The life forces leaving them and they go somewhere where they can feel totally safe and not even bothered by contact with me. They want to be alone when they die. Others want to be close.
All during this time, our love for the little animal grows, because we have grown so close during those dying moments. We feel like saying to them, "I'm sorry I have not paid enough attention to you in the past for one reason or other, but I am completely here for you now. I love you so much, we will all miss you so much."
Then one day they die. If we are lucky, they die at home slipping into a coma rapidly and we can feel their life force going.
If we are unlucky, death does not come so quietly. You can see their suffering, often because they cannot breathe because of the cancer in their lungs and they pant heavily and you can see the fear in their face, or else another, like Mr. Grey, breathes hard but does not move, apparently in pain, because his sinuses are filled with inoperable tumors. Then very reluctantly we take them to a vet to be killed, or as we say, “euthanized” to take away our guilt for killing them before God would take them. We cannot tolerate seeing their pain.
If we are lucky, when they receive the needle, they seem to enjoy it, the release from pain. Mr. Grey died so peacefully in Keima’s arms this way. Other times, they resist and you wonder if they know it is their end or just another frightening vet visit.
This whole period we are filled with sadness because of their decline. But something else is happening. Something is growing in our hearts. We feel love and attachment for them as never before. We are able to dwell in our core of sadness which usually is held far away. AND, we feel their increased closeness to us, perhaps for the first time in years, we see them as precious and transient beings whose lives and loves cross our paths but for a moment.
We can feel the profound relaxation in their bodies as we hold them and as they weaken. They no longer struggle against being held gently. They no longer want to jump away onto the floor. We also share that feeling of vulnerability and impermanence, knowing we have made the most of our last moments together. For a few brief weeks or months it has been mostly you and them in a deep communion, and when they finally die, there is both great sadness that and relief that their suffering is over.
And then they are no more. What a shock! Little Satchi is no longer there. Yet sometimes I seemed to see her little brown body out of the corner my eye, and yet when I looked closely, she is not there. Gradually the finality of death overtakes us we go through various stages and periods of grief. Even years later we think of that pet and how we deeply loved her.
And because of these repeated experiences, we see how fragile life is and how impermanent manifest love will be because each of us will die, and this gives us increased measure of devotion and love for those who are alive. Death takes away our arrogance. Death takes away our feelings of omnipotence and that we have any control. Humility follows, and we just become very quiet. We can then enter that shadow world of silence that separates the manifest known world and I Am, and the deeper, Unmanifest, Unborn noumenality from which we sprang. There we can wait until love presents itself once again and we come alive once again.