Last Updated on June 23, 2022 by Editorial Staff

By Rachel Lankester, Mutton Club Editor

This week I had to say goodbye to my dear beloved little cat Millie. I’d long suspected Millie wouldn’t have a very long life, but the accelerated pace of her final chapter took us all by surprise. When a pet dies, the grief can be intense. But we can feel shame around feeling and expressing that – they’re only an animal after all. The scale of my own grief caught me off guard.

when a pet dies
Millie at around 3/4 weeks when she’d just arrived and still had blue kitten eyes. Her favorite place to sit.

Millie came to me when she was three weeks old, a foundling in a neighbor’s garden. That neighbor said they couldn’t keep her because they had allergy issues. I have allergy issues too but this tiny little kitten with bright blue eyes melted my heart and I took her in.

We already had one cat, a ginger tom called Bogey (short for Bogart not snot), and never planned on two. We explored the possibility of an alternative home for her and one of my husband‘s friends decided she would like to have her. As the day approached for Millie to leave us, I became more and more anxious. I couldn’t bear the idea of her going.

Then almost at the 11th hour, the friend said she couldn’t take Millie after all and I was flooded with relief. Millie became mine, officially, my little girl.

If you’ve read any of my other blogs or my book, you’ll know I had issues with fertility and was unable to have a second child. It’s a sadness in my life that I wasn’t able to have a second child and I would’ve loved a daughter too. I didn’t want a daughter first, I wanted to practise on a son. But I would’ve loved a daughter second.

After my divorce, as a single mum to my son, I fell in love with a man who had three children, two of whom were daughters, part of the initial attraction – an instant family. But for many years, the girls weren’t especially keen on me. Thankfully that seems to have changed now, but it wasn’t easy for any of us. So Millie took on another layer of significance for me. My sweet girl loved me unconditionally.

when a pet dies
Bogey just about tolerated Millie. She adored him.

The grief I have felt over Millie’s death has been profound and shocking to me. Death and grief aren’t things we talk about very much. I’ve talked about death a bit on my podcast and plan to talk about it more. Grief is coming up next season.

One wonderful episode I did was an interview with Dr. Kathryn Mannix, author of With the End in Mind, talking about death. We could all do with getting better at talking about death. And getting more comfortable dealing with grief. Understanding it and acknowledging it.

Listen to Dr Kathryn Mannix on the Magnificent Midlife Podcast

But as we get more open to talking about grief when a person dies, we rarely acknowledge the extent of the grief that can be felt when we lose an animal. And unless you’ve lost a pet, it’s difficult to comprehend how intense the grief can be.

I only shared my life with Millie for 11 years but she gave me joy every single day of her short life. Her brother Bogey demands food, it’s his right. Millie would nudge you when you filled up her bowl to make sure you knew how grateful she was for everything you did for her. She would wait outside my garden office in the evening, not to be fed, just to make sure I came home. She had a strange habit of coming to look for us, when she already had her food out, so we could stroke her while she ate, something we did when she was a kitten.

Millie making sure she was always on my to do list.

Hardly ever a lap cat, Millie kept herself to herself most of the time but then suddenly she would give me what I called a love fest. My garden office was often the scene for these. And when my beloved was snoring and I decamped downstairs, Millie would be excited to sleep with me and I would sometimes get a love fest then too. This usually so reticent cat would become almost delirious with affection for me.

She would circle me, purring deeply and leaning into me. She’d demand petting and would nibble my fingers. This could go on for five minutes or so until she’d finally settle down. I wonder if it was some residual behavior from having been abandoned as a kitten. We’ll never know. As her mobility issues increased and she couldn’t jump up on the sofa in my office, I’d sit on the floor and she’d do the same thing, except on her level. I’m sad to realize I’ll never experience a Millie love fest again.

When she was about six years old she had a fit, a full on epileptic seizure. I thought she’d died. But she came round and we took her to the vet where tests were done. She had toxoplasma which had clearly caused neurological issues. She may have had it since birth. She was put on antibiotics for a month and I managed to do three weeks, before she wouldn’t come anywhere near me, incensed as she was at being forcibly medicated twice a day.

I rang the vet and I said, I’ve managed three weeks, but my cat hates me. He said OK, we’re probably at the stage where you’re doing more damage by forcing her than not. We’d got rid of the toxoplasma but neurological issues had taken hold. She would always be a weird cat, doing rather strange things and having a lopsided gait at the best of times. As she got older, she hurt herself falling when trying to scare away other cats, thinking she had more mobility than she did. Those falls caused arthritis by the time she was about nine.

Visiting the neighbors two doors down when she could jump up fences.

Last week I became aware she was hiding away even more than usual. Always an introverted and nervy cat, she would still see off the local neighborhood foxes unlike her wimpy brother. Introverted but feisty. Bit like me really!

But now she was hiding in a new place and not coming down to eat. I had a deep intense feeling she was shutting down. Then on Friday morning when I went to look for her, she had red-ringed eyes full of sticky discharge. Taking Millie to the vet was always traumatic and done only if absolutely necessary. But this time needs must. Sadly she weed herself in the cat box before we left the house. Triple trauma. The vet could find nothing new wrong with her – the eyes appeared to have cleared – but acknowledged the neurological issues were probably getting worse.

We came home and I felt very frustrated. I didn’t know what I could do to help my darling little cat. Then on Sunday things changed dramatically. She was suddenly unable to control her head and it lolled to one side. When I showed a friend on Facetime, the friend said she’d had a stroke. But it wasn’t just her head that was lolling, she could no longer stand up, and wasn’t eating or drinking apart from a few flakes of tuna I hand fed her.

She cried intermittently (another bad sign as a mainly silent cat) and I carried her back and forth to the lawn wondering if she wanted the loo. She spent lovely final moments in the sun. On Monday I rang to ask the vet for a home visit. I wasn’t going to take her away from her home again. I’m all too aware of my own privilege in that I could afford a home visit. The home vet came on Tuesday morning. I’d said I thought perhaps this would turn into a euthanasia visit. Sadly that’s exactly what happened.

Millie struggling, but still enjoying the sun, the day before she died.

The palliative vet was so very kind and coped with my overwhelming emotion extraordinarily well. It was all so sudden. Knowing she wasn’t a well cat was a long way from acknowledging she was a dying cat.

We quickly decided Millie likely wouldn’t recover. Caroline, the vet, said the changes were further neurological deterioration, not a stroke, and even trying to help her recover a bit, with a minimum of six weeks of medication, was so much to ask of her. Knowing Millie‘s previous history with medication, I knew that wasn’t an option.

I’ve always tried to be pragmatic about Millie. She was abandoned by her mother at three weeks old and wasn’t really meant to live. So every day, month, year she’s been alive has felt like a blessing. I didn’t want her to suffer any more than absolutely necessary. But in the space of just a few days and actually in the course of just one morning, I had to make the decision to let her go.

I thought it might be helpful to explain exactly what the euthanasia process was like. It was very calm, gentle and quite beautiful, in fact, despite my sobbing. First Millie was given an injection to put her to sleep. Caroline said it was like a general anesthetic. Then after 10 minutes, when Millie was fully out, Caroline shaved her leg and gave her the final injection which brought about instant death.

Caroline had warned me Millie’s bladder would empty when that happened. Millie was on an absorbent pad and that’s exactly what transpired. My poor little Millie hadn’t been to the toilet since the previous Friday, more that 3 days, so she had a very full bladder. The lovely Caroline emptied her bladder for me so I didn’t need to cope with that too.

I’d already discussed with my husband where we might bury Millie, and Caroline came and helped me decide on a spot. Not too close to the cherry tree, to avoid the tree roots and enable the hole to go down a good 3 feet to avoid her being dug up by foxes.

When Caroline left she gave me a little bag filled with Millie’s fur which I thought was such a beautiful touch. The following day I got a card from her too, with a beautiful poem about letting an animal go. So kind, so generous. I cannot recommend PalliVet more highly.

I buried Millie that afternoon. A guest I had staying in the house decided he was going to dig me a very deep hole and he did just that, so while I started the digging, I didn’t have to finish it.

My husband had been with me on FaceTime for her last breath and he was there again online for the burial. The wonders of technology. The vet said that had happened quite a lot during Covid. I think placing my beloved dead cat in the ground and then covering her up with soil was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

It may be difficult to comprehend the depth of feeling for an animal, but she represented so much to me. She’d been with me through a time of momentous change in my life and gave me unwavering love and support.

So this is my love letter to Millie. I wanted to share the experience so if you go through something similar, you needn’t feel embarrassed or even ashamed that you have this intense grief when your pet dies. For many of us, our pets are like our children. I have both children and pets, and I still feel the loss so intensely.

Goodbye sweet Millie. You have prepared me for greater losses to come. I know only too well that grief is the price we pay for love.

You may also like: Match Your Dog To Your Lifestyle and Childless Not By Choice – Through Grief To Acceptance

Rachel Lankester is the founder of Magnificent Midlife, author, host of the Magnificent Midlife Podcast, a midlife mentor and editor of the Mutton Club online magazine. After an initially devastating early menopause at 41, she dedicated herself to helping women vibrantly transition through the sometimes messy middle of life, helping them cope better with menopause and ageing in general, and create magnificent next chapters. She’s been featured in/on BBC Woman’s Hour, The Huffington Post, The Sunday Times, Thrive Global, Authority Magazine, The Age Buster, Woman’s Weekly, Prima Magazine, eShe, Tatler HK and Woman’s Own amongst others. She believes we just get better with age. Get her book Magnificent Midlife: Transform Your Middle Years, Menopause and Beyond.

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