Parenting

“My cat has been dying for the last two years. It’s normal to me now—it’ is just the state of affairs.” So writes writer and science editor Elizabeth Lopatto on Verge.com.

Yes, we all must come to terms with the eventual passing of our beloved pets, an event that is both destined and yet unimaginable, their steadfast presence creating a solid, reliable comfort in our lives. Pets teach us a lot about love and companionship.

What Lopatto discovered is that pets can also teach us a lot about death, and what to strive for when it comes calling. “Over these last two years, I've come to suspect that my cat has gotten better, more comprehensive planning around her eventual death than most people do,” she writes.

Lopatto’s cat was diagnosed with a slow-moving leukemia. “She’s clawed out two years,” she writes. “I’d like longer, but that’s not in the cards.”

She continues: “And this is where I feel I have been better served by my vet than many patients are by their doctors: we have had, for the last two years, a continuous conversation about Dottie’s end-of-life plan. No one has ever promised me a cure, or made me hope Dottie will beat cancer. I have not been shuttled from one expensive treatment to the next, in the hopes of another month or two.

“Some of it, I suspect, is that it is very difficult to look a person in the eye and tell her she is dying — even though it may be the kindest possible thing to do. No one has to do that with a cat, and there’s only one person making Dottie’s decisions: me.”

Lopatto points out that what we can do for our pets, we can’t yet quite do for our loved ones, the humans in our lives.

Part of the issue—aside from the core issue, our general cultural avoidance of talking about and accepting death as a part of life—can be tied back to the political (and politicized) healthcare battles in our government. As the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was making its way through the Senate, some conservative politicians broadcast that parts of the legislation around end-of-life care and conversations were essentially “death panels” (a term coined by Sarah Palin). The referred to provision was meant to pay physicians for providing voluntary counseling every five years for Medicare patients regarding end-of-life directives and care—which would have led to the kinds of conversations that Lopatto was having with her vet about her cat, with some frequency.

Palin asserted that these “death panels” of doctors who would be able to make judgments about “rationing” medical care, and therefore deny care to senior citizens and the disabled, for being “less productive to society.” The resulting media fracas around the topic blurred the truth (Politifact later called “death panels” the Lie of the Year), and the provision was struck from the ACA.

“Most Americans want to die at home; most don’t do so,” observes Lopatto, citing figures that have been replicated in study after study. “Only 19 percent of people ages 85 and older die at home. They die, instead, in the hospital or a nursing home.”

And yet, the latest Kaiser Family Foundation survey (done in partnership with The Economist) shows that in ranking end-of-life desires and issues, the U.S. population says that what is most important in death is not burdening the family financially. Least important? Living as long as possible.

Which brings us back to Dorothy Parker, a.k.a. Dottie, Lopatto’s cat.

“It’s possible one day soon I will wake up and discover that my cat did not… but I know what to expect.” she writes. “I know her life will end, and I’ve thought about how... And it’s because I’ve had difficult conversations with my cat’s health care provider that I’m ready. I only hope that when my own time comes, my doctor is as forthcoming as Dottie’s vet was.”

Thoughtful words, and an instructive example of how ideas about death (and unneccessarily prolonging life) are changing. Lopatto makes many other insightful points in her post—please click over to read the entire article here.

Ed note: Lopatto’s cat died between her writing of the piece and its publication. Although this was back in 2014, we send all best wishes to Lopatto and thank her for sharing the story of Dottie.