How I Coped With My Cat’s Terminal Cancer
A ceremony and legacy for a beloved companion
Last night my beloved Ella Loo, one of the great loves of my life, ascended into the Great Beyond. The ceremony of her passing was one of the most profound experiences of my life and although my grief still stings in my body, I feel at peace. From the moment she was diagnosed with terminal squamous cell carcinoma at the age of 9 1/2 just three weeks ago, I knew that the only thing I could do was to be fully present for her experience and let her go as gracefully as possible.
One of the promises I made to Ella was to tell her story. The bond between owner and pet is so deep but also very individual. That makes their hospice a uniquely lonely kind of letting go. I wrote this account to bring comfort to other pet owners reeling from a terminal diagnosis. This article is her legacy, a celebration of her grace and wisdom and all the lessons she taught me, culminating in her death. I offer it in honor of all beloved fur babies but most especially my sweet little bear.
One of the hardest things since accepting the finality of Ella’s terminal diagnosis was knowing the right time for her transition. But as our vet predicted, on Monday morning, I knew. I tearfully called to schedule a visit to our home and took the day off of work to prepare. Ella hadn’t eaten since Saturday and her constant drooling was frustrating her so much that she had started hiding. If it hadn’t been for the morphine I administered three times daily her oral tumor would have caused her to suffer horribly. I had promised her that I wasn’t going to hold while her health deteriorated and I’m grateful that she was perky and aware for our last hours together.
On Ella’s last day I placed her in the window and she taunted the crows outside one last time. I let her explore the neighbor’s plants on the back deck for a bit, a rare privilege for an indoor cat with a helicopter dad. I spent the day building altars in our living room, listening to tender folk music and learning a lullaby for her on my guitar. There was something comforting about making every decision with intention. I removed the TV from the room. I choose each stone, figurine and candle with care, I lovingly prepared her space as if I was performing a Japanese tea ceremony. Like the queen Ella was, she knew where to go and spent our last few hours together reclining on the center of my purple meditation cushion right in the middle of the room — except when she lay down in my guitar case to listen to me play, which, of course, was the way we first fell in love years ago. I don’t really believe in divination, but I do believe in the power of belief. So I used a deck of animal medicine cards and pulled one for her. I drew The Dolphin, the manna of life. It was a reminder to breathe. I didn’t realize until later that this card was for me.
My closest friends began to arrive in the early evening, taking their place in the candle-lit room to pay their respects and say the goodbye. Although I’ve cried a lot for the past few weeks, I was serene on her final evening. As my friend Johnny pointed out, once I had decided to privilege her experience over my own, to let her go with as much care and presence as possible, the path forward was simple and clear.
I’ve always been one of those pet owners who claimed I would lose my shit if I lost my child. Sweet Ella has been sleeping in my bed for years. She came into my life at a time in my life when I was deeply depressed and completely lost. Her original mom, Sofia, was my roommate after college and brought baby Ella with her from Boston. Hearing me play guitar, the gorgeous little blue calico ambled into my guitar case and from that moment she didn’t leave my side. Sofia gave her to me after it was clear that she had chosen me to be her papa. My darling bear has seen me through many challenging transformations. I never realized it but she was kind of like a service animal, giving me comfort as I pushed through difficult transitions. In a way, she was my blankie.
Devastated by her diagnosis, I didn’t go home for Christmas, and instead I binged and isolated myself with her in my home. It’s not a coping mechanism I would recommend but luckily I didn’t stay in it too long. In fact, a week ago I had a dream that changed my perspective of her illness completely. You see, I had always thought of Ella as a cat, as my pet. But Ella is not simply a cat, she is a profound cosmic being, a deeply spiritual entity who chose this world and this form for ten years only. I have no doubt that she was involved in deeply personal pursuits, magical cat things I can’t possibly understand. But she was also here to protect and guide me, to keep me safe and help me become a man. One thing was completely certain in my vision: Ella’s cancer was not a tragedy. Her death was her final gift. She showed me that I didn’t need her to be my blankie anymore.
When I pictured the moment of Ella’s death, I wanted so badly to hold her in my arms but I didn’t want her to be agitated so I conceded her place on her royal purple cushion. Ella has always been a strong willed creature, one capable of chewing through heavy plastic rather than wearing a “cone of shame.” As I expected when the time came, she resisted an oral sedative completely. We had to give her an injection and angrily she stumbled from her place of honor in the center of the room. Dazed she looked around the room at my friends then wandered towards me and crawled up into my arms. I sobbed as the injection went into her little arm but remembered my commitment to her serenity and took a deep breath in. We were calm. Her spirit left her precious furry body and she ascended into the Great Mystery.
It was important to me that we “bless Ella up.” So when I felt that she was really gone, I turned on a joyful song, Ganga Ma, about the pyres of Varanasi where cremated bodies float down the Ganges and the acceptance of death is a part of life. The mood in the room was celebratory. We all felt it. We had done it right, and had given my darling Loo the very best send off imaginable. My loving friends stayed late into the evening discussing her passing and our own feelings about life and death. In the end, her miraculous ceremony, perfectly choreographed, unfolded exactly as I had hoped and I felt a profound sense of the natural order of things.
Today I feel raw but at peace. This house has never been without Ella and I feel her loss palpably. I call her name and imagine her hopping up on the bed, marching towards me with determination and insisting that I lift my top blanket for her to crawl inside to sleep on my arm. Of course, it breaks my heart that this evening ritual of love will never happen again. But this is not a grasping pain that wishes it were otherwise. This is the breaking of a heart that longs to love again. Indeed, the moment her spirit left her body I felt a fierce desire to have a child and to raise a little person with the same unconditional love I‘d given her.
I have no specific spiritual tradition but I do believe in grace. I believe that the unimaginable is fundamentally good and merciful. And so I imagine sweet Ella having cocktails with Princess Leia before hitting up David Bowie’s week-long birthday party. I’m sure the truth is far more fantastic than this but wherever her spirit now travels I know she is having a magnificent adventure. I believe in my heart that she knows I did my very best for her and that she is pleased.
I think of myself as a man not because I am not a woman but because I am no longer a boy. Holding Ella as she died is the manliest thing I’ve ever done.
Goodnight sweet little bear. You were classy to the last and I am so, so grateful for everything you were in my life and for the beauty of your passing. Wherever your spirit flies I will love you always.