Death and the Saber-Toothed Tiger

Our house cat appears to be nearing death. She’s 20 years old. The vet says it’s congestive heart failure. She has been responding to the medication they sent home with us last week, but that’s only to the extent that she actually digests it.* The long-term prognosis is not particularly long-term. According to the Internet, she’s roughly 97 years old in terms of a human lifespan. Average survival time after diagnosis of congestive heart failure in cats is allegedly 180 days or so, but that figure includes diagnoses in cats of all ages.

I haven’t had any direct experience of death when it comes to people I’m close to. I’ve lost older relatives who seemed to have lived lengthy and complete lives (the definition of “older” being relative to my own age, of course – 62 seemed like 92 to me when I was 18, while now 70 seems like just barely a full life span). My reaction to their deaths was muted, which is a delicate way of saying that I did not grieve. Indeed, my predominating reaction to the first deaths I remember was irritation at others for being so emotional about the whole thing. This was in my teens (14-18). I am still not sure whether to attribute that to my self-diagnosed Asperger’s or chalk it up to the other possibility, equally likely, that I am a (now better-socialized) sociopath.

It’s different now. I’m still matter-of-fact and low-affect about death, but now I get sad about it and/or sentimental about the deceased. This is either a sign that I have matured or evidence that I have gotten better at feigning normal emotions. In either event, I know enough now to dread the loss of loved ones, ptu ptu ptu. I even occasionally remember that “matter-of-fact” and “low-affect” don’t necessarily scan well to people in the throes of grief. I strive to keep this in mind now as I model grief to my spawn and, in particular, as I confer with Dino Spouse about end-of-cat-life decisions. It will come as no surprise to the paleontologists among you that Dino Spouse and I have diametrically opposing approaches to grief.

*Dosing cats with pills is a skill I learned from my ex-husband and his parents, who bred Himalayans for sale and show. Maybe it’s easier to make cats with messed-up airways actually swallow the pills. Our cat is not one of them. She can hold those things in her mouth for way longer than I would have thought possible, then she spits them out after we stop looking. She will eat pills in her wet food, but only when she feels like eating at all. I am adjusting my technique accordingly.


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