The Season of Letting Go

The autumnal equinox is about change. There’s a miserable fog today, dense and so uncommon on my high prairie. Chilly enough for a sweatshirt, the dog bellies are all muddy, and the geldings are fracking about. If there is a New Year, this is the time to note the old year. Fall is a season of remembering those gone ahead and taking a reckoning of those here. The leaves are letting go. I stand very still, looking at my elders, thinking about the cold months ahead. Then I put on my wolf skin and ponder the meaning of being the only predator my animals have.

I am a bit of an expert on death so this conversation comes up often with strangers and friends all year through. But to be clear, for those I’ve talked to in the last week, this isn’t about you, it’s about me. Death has been a big part of my life. I used to become less with each passing, and it soon took too much of a toll. It isn’t that I welcome death now, it’s just that at a certain point in frequency, I gave up denial and tried making peace with it. So, I welcome sad conversations because we all need to talk. Because scary things shrink when we drag them out into broad daylight and pick away at them. Death is common. Living is the art.

Why are we so unwilling to see their pain? Every week someone tells me they have a thirty-something horse who acts young and happy, however people define that, and proudly brag that they still ride. Every week there are horses half that age struggling with some undiagnosable malady and in more decline every day. Is it possible for an animal to separate physical pain from anxiety?

What does it mean to a horse, a flight animal, to lose the ability to escape? To not lay down for fear of not being able to get up. To constantly pretend to be strong so others won’t see their weakness. Their senses may fade but survival instinct doesn’t dim. How stressful is physical limitation to a prey animal? Sometimes it’s a slow game of attrition. Each year there’s a health crisis, and the animal recovers about 85% of his old self. We saved him but not like he was before. And each year the elder loses ground but there isn’t a visible line to cross, just increasing frailness while we cling to the nebulous, waiting for an even bigger sign. How much suffering is enough?

Do we misread that special kind of sweetness in elders? For all the passing away I’ve witnessed, I wonder if sometimes they are just exhausted to death.

Why do we see death as a failure? Why are we shocked when elderly ones give up the fight? Do we blame ourselves because we can’t stop time? Do we blame them because they got old? That’s the last thing I’d want them to feel.

How do we separate our emotions from our animal’s experiences? We think they’re aware of what’s happening but maybe they just read our anxiety. Animals have an involuntary survival instinct, but lack an intellectual awareness of the existential question. Humans are the ones stuck with that.

I met a man who said he spent $160,000. on brain surgery on his young Great Dane. He lost his dog, but took comfort that he’d done what he could. We don’t want to talk money at times like this but we need to be pragmatic. I can’t risk the whole farm for one of us, so I have a kind of DNR for each life and then, I trust it. Animals aren’t capable of understanding money or guilt. Let that be okay.

We all know the other side. So much damage has been done; mournful neglect, hollow ribs, animals whose eyes are blank. Cruelty is cruel but I wonder if sometimes we hang on too long, compensating for all those who neglect. Maybe we think we can make up for their cruelty by keeping our animals alive forever. Most animal lovers that I talk to are afraid of being seen as “killing” for their personal convenience as if it’s ever about us. So, we keep the animal alive, unconsciously overcompensating for others, because anything is better than admitting what no one wants to know.

We can see their pain if we let ourselves. But if we can acknowledge their pain, then we must weigh it against our own.

Finally comes the day when the worst thing possible starts to look like a relief. The end of life is complicated. I’ve seen too much to believe that a natural passing is peaceful and pain-free. The struggle, organs don’t always shut down in the right order, they don’t just fall asleep. It happened with my father, and I’ve seen plenty of animals struggle when “letting nature take its course.” When I declined to help my father kill himself, he spat out, “If I was a dog, you could shoot me.” I just nodded. It isn’t fair but it’s a gift we have for animals. It’s legal to stop their suffering.

I’m watching two elders in my barn just now, and one ancient ginger cat. She was a shy barn kitten when she came, hiding in closets for the first two years. Her meow sounds like a bird chirping. Now she’s shed on all the furniture and outlived her contemporaries. I won’t say her age because it isn’t a contest. If one cat lives twenty years, we think they all should, and most fail. Lulu stopped coming out of the bedroom long ago. She gave up grooming herself or letting me try. Her last trip to the vet nearly did her in and I promised her no more. Her best days are behind her and she is uncomfortable.

Forgive yourself. The end-of-life decision is never easy. Knowing that we will mourn them forever, is there a way to make this easier for them? I’ve had visitors, near strangers, overreact to plans to euthanize and play out a death drama that scared a couple of old horses who were trying to graze. It seemed like a weird kind of domination. I felt embarrassed I’d let them be disturbed.

Here’s my plan. The in-home vet will come. We’ll let it be like any other shot. There is no reason an animal who’s had vet care before would worry about an ordinary shot. It isn’t that I won’t mourn her; I’ll just wait until she’s dead. Anticipatory mourning makes animals nervous; besides it isn’t like I stop loving her. That would be cause for real concern.

Just breathe. Let your breath be enough; breath was their first memory, let it be the last.

Sometimes, looking around, it seems they are all on the way to dying. It’s a one-way ticket; the best care I can muster until the end, with the promise that it’s better to go a week too soon than a day too late. It might make my farm a hospice with benefits. For the sake of your animals, I hope yours is, too.

(Soon, Lulu, and I’ll let you go, and dream you find that dog bed you used to like so much.)

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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40 thoughts on “The Season of Letting Go”

  1. Thx, Anna. Beautiful and good timing for me :). Very wise words. Hugs to you for your cat.

    PS. Rereading (third time?) “Stable Relation”. Man you write well !!

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  2. This gives new meaning to the words “dog bed.” ❤️How beautiful. We’re so out of touch with the natural cycle of things as a species for the most part. How ironic that it’s based or own need and desire to survive. It all seems to have gone sideways.

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  3. Anyone who lives with an animal should read this, Anna. Yeah its tearymaking (not sure thats a word) because it forces all of us to pause & THINK. Do we all realize that its ALWAYS about US – how we feel – how much we will miss each and every being that we were lucky enough to be with – some for a short time – some for longer than we had human relationships! Thinking about my Chico boy – his last year was a good one – he looked good & happy – the only change, I think, was his good buddy (younger) seemed to have become his protector/watchhorse. I’m so thankful for HIS sake (yes, as well as my own) that until less than 24 hours before I had the vet come to put him down – he had been his normal, contented self – out with his herd. Cant ask for more than that, I guess. Well maybe another 16 years but……
    Little Lulu is a very lucky cat – to be where she is.

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  4. What a beauty you are, Lulu! Female orange cats are unusual. She is fortunate to have found her place with you.

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    • Thanks, Mary Lynne. Oddly, I tried to help another stray orange cat who ended up being pregnant. Kittens are in homes, she’s with us, and I’m a ginger magnet.

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  5. Ugh! So true and so damned hard to let them go, but it’s selfish. I feel guilty about some of them… I wasn’t there for all of them whether they were here at home or at a vet clinic and deemed un-savable. One of my favorite horses – 37 yrs old and lost his appetite. Never was a big eater anyway and super fussy. I tried everything I could think of to perk him up but didn’t test the possibility of ulcers. I still feel guilty of that… He wasn’t really miserable, but winter was coming, and I never could get any weight on him his whole life. He hated blankets and actually seemed to act insulted if I put one on him, so… I called the clinic and the backhoe service.

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    • Forgive yourself. Ulcers usually cover another malady. Can we let it be old age, instead of a failure in us. You did the right thing. Thank you, Leslie.

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  6. Lucky for Lulu to have you, Anna, who will protect her from what would be a painful time before the inevitable. Of course, she will pass with a dignity we all hope for, for ourselves as well as our loved ones.
    I treasure this post, Anna, because of my own recent loss. It was remarkable (prescient?) that one of my vets (a neighbor and friend) and her daughter was helping me take care of my horses while my husband was overseas on an extended stay. During that time, Dover’s chronic illness overtook his ability to remain in this world. My wonderful vet was on the spot to administer to him, while simultaneously arranging for Johnny (also, a neighbor) to immediately provide the backhoe service.
    “…with the promise that it’s better to go a week too soon than a day too late” are words I so appreciate reading on this post as I reflect on the decision I made for my very best friend.

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  7. Oh, Anna, hugs! We have talked a lot about this subject and having worked in the animal welfare field for decades I am more pragmatic than most. I have said goodbye to so many over the years. Like so many of us, I have multiple animals and not unlimited resources so there are limits as to how much I can do to prolong life. That said, having watched so many animals go through extended painful treatment, I doubt I would put an animal of mine through much of that, even if I could afford it. My philosophy is to love them as well as I can and provide for them as long as they have a good quality of life. When they don’t, I try my hardest to do what is best for them, not me. It is never easy and I feel for you, but know that you and I share a similar philosophy. She has had a wonderful life with you and the crew, no kitty could ask for more, except to be given a good death as free of pain and suffering as we can manage. That said, I am bawling like a baby in sympathy and with the memories of those gone and of those I will lose in the future..

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    • Yes, that is what this time of the year is for me; I’m unstuck in time. Also the reminder that I gained a stray ginger cat lately as well and the circle moves along. We woudn’t change a thing; as you say, it’s our first love. Thanks Peggy

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  8. If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that a good day to die IS a real thing. Unfortunately, to understand the truth of that you’ve probably experienced the opposite.

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  9. Dear Anna, it’s almost like you read my mind. Recently I had to put my Andy down (you met him in Australia) his anxiety was through the roof. An otherwise healthy horse no longer safe to himself or others. Then on Wednesday I took my little ginger girl cat to the vet for what I thought was a broken tooth. It was a tumour in her mouth, the vet offered me options, all invasive none a cure. We put her to sleep. I have another elderly horse, looking great coming out of winter but I know his time is coming. It’s never easy but I wish we could offer the same relief to people.

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    • It’s been a rough year for you, and I’m sorry for that. I’m not sorry about any of your choices. I lost a cat to a mouth tumor as well, for what it’s worth. Who knew?
      Thanks, Christine. Take care.

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    • I read this earlier & meant to comment – my son had adopted a cat which we found eventually had a mouth tumor – he did pretty well for a little while but of course it came time to put him to sleep – the sad fact that our animals have so much shorter lives than we do – just gets harder every year. But when you remember how much joy & companionship & love they give – who would pass that up just to keep from hurting for a while?

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  10. I agree wholeheartedly. Having let it go too long for some of my animals, I have gotten much better at letting go. I like to think of letting them go on a good day, when they still feel (more or less) OK in themselves, and letting them go with a minimum of fuss. There’s plenty of time after they are gone to mourn. Even though it’s hard, if we can let our hearts be light and our breathe be deep and rhythmic, it helps them so much. That anticipatory mourning? That leads to so much fuss and anxiety and clinging, all things that make horses anxious and even fearful. What a terrible thing to do to them in their last hours. Now I’ll climb down off my soapbox and say thank you for writing this so eloquently, Anna.

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    • No. Don’t get down on my account… why not add a rant about anthropomorphizing death…
      Just kidding, thanks Abby. I appreciate you.

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  11. Resident elderly feline Lucky Barnett is approaching 20. She’s thin, not grooming anymore, and is super grumpy… just existing at this point. I will probably ask my vet to do the deed when she visits the farmette in November. I’d like to spare Lucky another winter, as she’s not on board with house-catting. I feel (surprisingly) settled about the decision this go-round. There’s something to be said for letting them go before it’s an actual crisis.

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  12. This is one which I imagine many will feel all too keenly. I’ll need to keep (and possibly share) it. You articulate things so well. Thank you.

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  13. This is a good one, Anna. I always welcome conversations about death. I think it’s Thich Nhat Hanh that says every day we should remind ourselves ” everything and every one we love will grow old and die.” Yet we continue to be surprised it seems when the inevitable plays out.

    I so appreciate your willingness to talk to horse people when they are having to make the hard decision about euthanasia. You were so helpful when you consulted with my sister about her mare Nellie.

    It’s an ongoing project to separate our projections on to horses from what they are actually experiencing., physical and emotional. If it’s accurate that 60-80% of what we see is actually our own projections, well, that would mean we aren’t very clear most of the time about reality. That’s maybe why it’s wise to have good friends to process and deliberate with on these heart wrenching decisions.

    I love the photo of Lulu napping on the dog. How sweet is that ? I’m sorry she’s at the end of her time with you.

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    • I agree about having friends to process with. Talking it out, having someone to remind you, in an emergency, the things we forget. So important.
      And thanks, Sarah. There were years when these two were never far apart. Now she is the last of that generation. Such good years.

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  14. I couldn’t agree more Anna. My vocation as a nurse has always been focused on reducing suffering, but without the one tool that would end suffering. Letting my animals go is always a tortuous decision, but the final act brings a very deep breath and a sense of palpable peace. This topic always sends me on a memory journey of all the incredible animals that I have had the privilege of knowing, and clearly has slowed my response time to your written thoughts. Thank you as always for sharing your wisdom.

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