Charge of the Crone

14243610469_c27d51f9c3_zOne of my coworkers left in tears today.  She was faced with an incredibly difficult decision: her 14-year-old dog needed emergency gallbladder surgery.  For $7K.

As Americans, we don’t deal with the deaths of our animal companions any better than we do our human friends and family. We don’t deal with death well in general. Either we fetishize death in the realms of the imagination, or segregate the dying when confronted with reality.

One of my jobs is working with the elderly to help them pay their bills on time. To date, two clients of mine have died (it’s something of a hazard in this profession).  When my first client, K, was dying, I tried to spend as little time with her as possible.  Simultaneously scared and ashamed, I tried to visit when I knew she would be at lunch so I wouldn’t have to face that undeniable mortality.  I’m not proud of that.  And I still couldn’t escape the trappings of death–a carpet so soaked by urine and rug shampoo that it never dried, the unrelenting beeping of monitors, and her ever weakening handwriting in the notes we left each other.  We left notes because I wasn’t there.  Because I was too scared to be compassionate and hold her hand when I could have.

I’d like to think I learned from that shame. When another client, E, and her family decided on home hospice care, I resolved to do better, be more present than I had been with K. And watching E die, seeing her skin become more and more translucent, be unable to chew, to be beset by vertigo such that her only comfort was if someone was holding her hand–somehow E made it oddly graceful.  And humorous (she decided the perfect April Fool’s joke to play on the hospice nurse was to stop breathing).  E was 97 when she died, only a few days after her big birthday bash. She died with her family around her, and if there is such a thing, I would say she died well.

We’re scared of death, both for ourselves and our animals. In many ways, saying goodbye to a beloved pet is an even harder decision. A dog can’t tell you it wants a DNR; a cat can’t opt out of chemo. Human companions are faced with decisions that are emotionally and financially exhausting, often times for very little change in quality of life. A neighbor just had plates put into their dog’s spine, to try to give him a year or two more despite ongoing vertebral degeneration. The dog’s feet bleed because he can no longer lift them. He has trouble defecating. He’s afraid to walk outside. Is this now a life worth living?

Death is probably never going to be a big topic of national conversation, not the way abortion or voting rights are. Amongst the elderly there are some whispers about hospice, resuscitation orders, sometimes euthanasia.  Those who have spoken with their families and made their wishes known have a much better chance of getting to stay at home. Advocacy and communication is so important, and it’s something very few of us ever want to think about. In my opinion, everyone should have a chance to be a “bride” when they die, to have their perfect deathbed day. Meanwhile, pets depend on us to make that decision for them and we must ensure that when we make that choice, it is in their best interest, not ours.

When it comes down to it, love is love. And death is death. Greet death with love and help our families of flesh, feather, and fur face their dying days with open arms and overflowing hearts. It’s hard work and it’s important work. You won’t regret it.

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12 thoughts on “Charge of the Crone

  1. Thank you for writing this. Coping with the looming inevitability of a loved one’s death right now. I get frustrated that Pagans often don’t want to discuss death. Or when it is discussed, it’s in some abstract way that isn’t really helpful for someone who’s actually grieving. I think this is an area in which we as a subculture really need to shape up. Not sure how, though.

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    • Peace and strength to you through this time, G.B.

      I could easily drag out a soapbox and rant for hours/pages about how we treat our elderly and/or terminally ill. I think the unwillingness to discuss death is both a byproduct of the larger over-culture, and the fact that paganism is still a relatively immature set of religions. If you haven’t run across it already, Kristoffer Hughes’ *The Journey into Spirit* may be of interest to you. It’s Celtocentric, but you still might enjoy it.

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    • I had to make the choice for my cat after she was attacked. It was either an operation that had the smallest chance of her survival or if she did survive then it would have been the infection of the bite that killed her. It was a hard choice, but I would have rather her die with me stroking her head and telling her how brave she was (despite the fact she was a wuss normally) and how much I loved her. For her, death was a blessing.

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  2. Thank you for this post. I’m familiar with the dying of the furred family members (I’ve had multiple cats for twenty years, and seen a dozen of them through their various deaths . . . and I’ve gotten better at it. Not used to it, but I try to treat them all well, and sometimes a good death is the last good gift.), and now my parents are in their mid-80s and going down the slope. I’m in the process of moving to be closer, in hopes that I can ease their passage. I have siblings close, but they aren’t dealing well with this. I’m the oldest, so I suppose it’s up to me. I just hope I give them the help they need.

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    • I agree that a good death can be our last gift to our animal family members. I don’t think any of us should get used to death–being affected by another being’s passing is one of the things that defines humanity.

      I hope you can get some help from your siblings. And, though this is only advice from a stranger on the Internet, I’d strongly suggest that if your folks haven’t made their wishes regarding end-of-life care very clear, that you have that very uncomfortable, very important family conversation. It can help so much further on down the line.

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      • They have wills (my sister is the executor) and I assume a medical power of attorney, etc. That conversation is on my short list, just as soon as I actually get moved. I am in the throes of selling my house and finding another, with safe space for outside cats, and all the attendant *stuff* . . . but soon. Mom is talking around the subject, but we do definitely sit down and Have The Talk.

        Re: getting used to death. I never have, and I’ve lost all my grandparents, my great-grandmother, a husband and an ex-husband . . . and all the animals. You grieve, and you go on. (And in the case of animals, then you go and save another one. All mine over the years have been strays and rescues.)

        I’m prepared to deal with my parents’ deaths, but I’m not *ready*, and I hope I won’t ever be. But, you know, we do what we have to.

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