I thought letting my young sons watch our cat’s last moments would be a painful but healing experience. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When the vet called us at 8 at night, I knew it was bad news. Our cat Snuggles had previously been diagnosed with feline leukemia — commonly known as FeLV — but because it was caught early, we were told he could potentially live a long and otherwise healthy life. Things changed a year later when we noticed he’d been drooling and his breath stank. I’d thought he might have an abscess, or maybe tooth decay, but his FeLV diagnosis never crossed my mind.
“I hate to tell you this, but Snuggles doesn’t have much time left,” the vet said to me. “His blood counts don’t look so good.”
She continued to talk about blood levels and treatment options, including a costly bone-marrow transplant procedure we couldn’t afford. My sons sensed something was wrong and stood near me while I was on the phone. Their worried looks let me know they knew it was bad.
“How long?” I asked.
“About a month, tops,” she replied.
We’d only had Snuggles for three years, but he had become a fixture in our family the moment we found him under our car in the parking lot of the apartment building where we lived. His warm and loving personality drew us to him instantly.
Even my husband, who had insisted we not get any more pets, fell hard for the little guy. Our sons, who at the time were still in elementary school, loved the idea of another furry friend. For years their only animal companion had been my cat Jade, who was fast approaching his senior years and not interested in being picked up or carried around like a rag doll.
Snuggles, on the other hand, loved it.
Before long he was at our sides whenever we were home. It was as if he’d always been a part of our family. None of us were prepared for his death to come just a few short years later.
As a child, I had never been present when our family pets had passed away. Their deaths had been in quotations, delivered through an unexpected phone call. It had always made me sad I couldn’t have been there myself to say goodbye.
It was that absence of closure that guided my decision to involve our sons, who were 8 and 10 years old, in Snuggles’ death. My husband disagreed, but I argued quietly in our room for their right to have that final moment with the pet they loved so dearly.
“It’ll be good for them,” I said. “And it will help them process his death more fully.”
I clearly didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about.
My husband relented and as the days ticked by, we did all we could to shower Snuggles with unconditional love. We even took him to the beach so he could see the ocean, an awkward attempt at fulfilling what I coined “Snug’s bucket list.”
Then the fateful day came when our beloved cat would no longer eat. Not wanting him to unduly suffer, I phoned the vet, who’d been on standby for the past few weeks, and told her the time had come to let him go. It was a decision I dreaded to make. I battled with doubt and fear. What if he gets better? What if he is scared? What if he wasn’t ready to go?
My husband was my rock during this difficult experience. He reminded me that we’d tested and then retested Snuggles’ blood, and the results were always the same. Our beautiful little guy’s body was shutting down, and we wanted to let him die with some dignity.
We drove him to the vet in our dirty-laundry basket. It was his favorite place to sleep, and where he had been since the night before. I didn’t care how strange it looked to other patients. I just wanted Snuggles to be as comfortable as possible. Once we were inside the room, we all stood solemnly by Snuggles’ side and stroked his fur while whispering promises of eternal love and gratitude.
“You were always a good friend,” my youngest son whispered.
Slowly, the veterinarian administered the shots that painlessly stopped Snuggles’ heart. In what seemed like seconds, he was gone.
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I looked up at my husband who had tears brimming, and then to my sons. My oldest shook his head, and then, without warning, began screaming as loud as he could. He screamed and screamed, holding his fists up to his cheeks and occasionally stomping his feet on the floor. When I tried to comfort him, he pushed me away and screamed even more. My other son just bowed his head and cried while my husband and I tended to our oldest.
I tried to calm him down and talk to him, but nothing worked. He was horrified after watching Snuggles die. I finally grabbed him by the shoulders and commanded him to stop. The jolt snapped him out of his screaming fit and I promptly enfolded him in my arms.
When we walked out, all the patients in the waiting room stared at us as if we’d been torturing our child. It hit me that basically, we did — and it was my fault.
For days after, my son needed to sleep in my bed. Both boys seemed different, changed by the experience, and not for the better. They wanted to talk about death constantly, and began to worry about their own lives. It was not the comforting moment I’d imagined.
Eventually, time helped us all heal, but I will forever regret arguing for our young sons to be present while their friend died. It frightened and hurt them and did little to provide any real sense of closure. Unfortunately, there are some parenting decisions you just can’t take back.
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