To Die Or Not To Die

Mocha in her better days

She’s breaking my heart. I wrote a few weeks ago about our cat, Mocha, and how she’s dying of bone cancer. The vet told me that she wouldn’t last the month but doctors so rarely are able to accurately predict the future so… she’s still here. And I’ve been left with the decision of how long to allow her to be here. Or not here. Can I let Nature to take its course and allow her to die in her own way according to her own timetable?

Every day I ask myself if it’s time to “put her down” (I really don’t like that phrase; yet another euphemism for death – but how else to say it?) There are times when she looks – and smells – like death warmed over. Because the tumor under her tongue continues to grow, she can’t shut her mouth anymore. Her tongue hangs out at an awkward angle and after she eats long, six inch strands of wet fishy blood-tinged drool hangs out of her mouth. She swats at her mouth trying to remove the tumor as if it’s a thorn stuck in there, thus spreading the aforementioned drool all over her paws and face where it dries into a sticky, smelly mass. Sometimes my son laughs about how disgusting it is, and we laugh along with him, but the truth is that she’s breaking our hearts. If you took a snapshot of her in this state, you would surely say it’s time for her to go.

But herein lies the problem with snapshots; it’s only part of the picture. After we give her a bath and remove the dried stench, towel dry her and fluff her up, she looks like her old self again. And come nighttime, she’s following all of her old rituals: jumping up on the bed for story time, rubbing up against my hand affectionately, eating her entire bowl of food. If I’m downstairs too long in the evenings, she comes to fetch me like the good nana cat that she is. Every night I’m 100% sure that we’ve made the right decision. But come morning, when the drool and swatting and what appears to be a state of misery start over again, I question myself and think, “Perhaps today’s the day.”

A conversation I had last week with my very wise soul-sister Carrie keeps replaying in my mind:

“I wish she would just die on her own,” I said.

“Why can’t she? If she was in nature she would die on her own.”

“I guess she can. But everyone keeps telling me that I shouldn’t let her suffer. And I don’t want her to suffer.”

“Suffering is part of life.”

So much of my work is centered around the (very Buddhist and psychological) idea that suffering is a part of life and that the more we avoid suffering, the stronger it becomes. I’ve talked and written incessantly about the idea that there is great value in suffering, by which I mean embracing the grief, confusion, anger, and fear that naturally accompany transitions. The suffering is no longer experienced as suffering when we embrace it without resistance; we breathe into the feelings and, with time, they’re transformed into ease and joy.

All of this is easy to say when you’re not the one in pain, especially physical pain. When my body hurts I will usually do whatever it takes to make the pain stop. There have been exceptions to that, however. The two that jump immediately to mind are the births of my sons. Because I felt so strongly that I wanted to have an unmedicated birth both for my babies’ and my physical health, I chose to birth at home. I also knew that, if possible, I wanted to experience the psychological and emotional transition into motherhood without any barriers, including drugs, doctors, hospitals, etc. I knew that the rite of passage of childbirth was one of the primary tests that would initiate me into motherhood, and I wanted to experience it as directly as possible. That meant a level of suffering the memory of which still causes me to shudder.

Do I think that Mocha is growing through her suffering? No. But I do believe that a certain amount of suffering is part of life, and as long as her joy and connection outweigh the suffering, we’ll care for her as best we can and cherish her life a bit longer.

Tonight, as I lay with my son while he fell asleep, Mocha sat beside me, as she always does, and stared into my eyes. I’ve asked her a hundred times to please tell me when she’s ready to go. I’ve told her that I’ll be okay and that I want what’s best for her. I wondered if that’s what she was trying to communicate when she was staring at me tonight. But then she stepped onto my pillow and nuzzled her nose into my ear so I could hear her purring loud and clear. If that isn’t a cat’s way of saying I love  you, I don’t know what is.

I don’t have the answer. Like so many times in my life – and what I’ve said to hundreds of clients – I practice sitting in the unknown without anything definite to grasp onto. Perhaps it’s time for her to go. Perhaps not. I really don’t know and for now I surrender into the not knowing. And I trust that when the time is right, the cloudy state of uncertainty will transform into knowing and the answer will become clear.

The joy of a cat

Sheryl Paul, M.A., is regarded as an international expert in transitions. In 1998 she pioneered the field of bridal counseling and  has since counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, “The Conscious Bride” and “The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner,” and her websites, and She has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Phone and Skype sessions available internationally for all types of transitions.

9 comments to To Die Or Not To Die

  • After finding out that since moving to a new state my Advance Directives were not valid I recently filled them out again. Taking that awful decision out of the hands of our loved one’s is one of the most loving gifts we can give them. I wish our animals could do the same. My loving thoughts are with both you and Mocha.

  • Anna

    I couldn’t make it through this entry without having to pause to wipe my eyes. It’s SO hard. We do it in the name of humanity but part of the problem with pets is no words can come out of their mouths to tell us it’ll be ok and when it’s time. My nephew and his girlfriend had to put down their beloved Beagle earlier this year because of bone cancer. I’ll never forget her saying that while everyone told her it was the right decision, the reality is that she’ll never know for sure. I think living with that question has been the hardest part for them.

    I have no doubt that as connected as your are to Mocha, you will know when it’s time.

    • Thank you, Anna. It really is heartbreaking and sometimes too much to bear. But we bear it because our love for these little creatures is so immense – and their love for us even greater. Thank for your compassion. I do hope that I’ll know when it’s time.

  • Carrie

    Life in all its beauty my love. Very poignant.

  • Karin

    My thoughts are with you and your beloved Mocha, Sheryl. I remember to long so very much for the “right” decision, the “right” time, the “right” way when going through that with my beloved cat myself. It touches my heart to learn that animals are so much cared and thought for as Mocha is. Thank you:) Karin

  • Dorothy

    Sheryl, my thoughts are with you, Mocha and your family during this heart wrenching time.
    Last year my husband took a job out of the state for five months leaving me with our three dogs, including Toto, my first dog. While he was away her renal disease got worse and I did all that was humanly and I hope humanely as possible to provide her the best care. I gave subcutaneous fluids twice a day, fed her by syringe and would do as you are doing, asking her to tell me when she’s ready to go and telling her (despite feeling the contrary) to go. I wanted her to go on her own and I wanted to be there for her. And that’s what happened.
    It’s been five months and I am still grieving big time. I miss my best friend of 15 years and have to say it’s a death to what she held for me- my single life.
    I appreciate your vulnerability and strength in sharing this part of your life. I wish Mocha a peaceful passage and you peace of mind and comfort in knowing whatever you are doing is right.
    Thanks so much.

    • Thank you, all, for your kind and compassionate comments about Mocha and our family. Dorothy, it’s nice to “hear” from you : ) and thank you for sharing your story. When I lost my cat of 18 years when I was pregnant with Everest (my firstborn), I, too, experienced her death as symbolic of my single life and life as a non-mother. It’s amazing what these animals carry for us and how much of life they share right beside us. What a blessing that your dog was able to die on her own timetable with you as her loving support. Blessings to you during your grief. I know it well.

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