We had to put a beloved cat to sleep this week. This was painful and difficult, but as with all things, it came with its own set of profound lessons.
Abigail came to us as a middle-aged cat, and we enjoyed her for five years. For the past year, we knew that she was ill—likely some form of cancer—so we watched to make sure she wasn’t suffering too much. This past week, we could tell that she was suffering, and she hadn’t been able to eat in at least two weeks. It was time.
We don’t believe in spending hundreds or thousands of dollars that we don’t really have to try to prolong the life of an animal with a terminal illness who will probably just be made more miserable by the process. Death is another part of life, and we will probably see Abigail again in a new, healthy kitten body one day. But parting is still painful.
When I had her put to sleep, we didn’t really have the money for the cremation, too, so I opted to take her body back home for burial. At the time, I wasn’t very happy about it, because I was already so upset, and dealing with her mortal shell seemed overwhelming to me. But in retrospect, I’m so very glad that I did. I learned something important, and so did the entire family.
When we told the children to say goodbye to Abigail, they did so almost casually, as though she’d be back again in an hour. They are 6 and 8, and death did not seem real to them. They couldn’t really grasp it, although we had lost other cats before. But when I returned home at dusk with Abigail’s lifeless body, they began to understand.
I asked our dear friend Jonathan to help me bury her, in the dark and the rain, out underneath our “Christmas tree,” a large, tall fir tree in the corner of our yard. The children came out in their coats and galoshes to see what was up. I handed the flashlight to Wren, so Jonathan could keep digging, and then I went to the car to get Abigail.
She was still warm and heavy, and I petted her and invited the children to do the same. This was their first visceral experience with death: here was the lifeless body of their old friend. This is what death looked like.
When the hole was ready, I laid her in it gently and made her “comfortable.” “She looks like she’s sleeping,” said my son Harry. I said a few words and sobbed, and then she was covered in dirt. This had a profound effect on my son, who worried that she would not be okay beneath the dirt. “Her soul is gone, Harry,” we told him. “Her body is like an old coat that she outgrew. She doesn’t need it anymore.”
My son, who had so nonchalantly yelled “Goodbye!” to Abigail, now understood. He went to his room and cried. My daughter, seeing my distress, was sad and subdued. Death was now real.
I don’t believe in hiding “the real world” from my children, and death is an important experience that happens to us all. I was thankful that we buried Abigail, and for the lessons that this brought to us. But even more than that, I began to realize—viscerally—how disconnected we have become.
Our society has become so specialized that the bodies of our loved ones disappear out the back door, are “prettied up,” and laid in the ground (possibly sight unseen) or cremated without our direct involvement. Most of us in the west have no idea how to produce—much less prepare—our own food. We have no idea how to make our clothes, build a dwelling, or teach our children about the trees and the stars. We are isolated from one another in little boxes, performing specialized functions while others take care of our dirty work for us. And it’s precisely our “dirty work”—the stuff of life—that connects us to one another and to the planet itself.
We no longer gather around the fire as a community and sing and dance. We have “talented” professionals whom we pay to watch instead. We no longer gather in a circle and participate in our own unique spiritual experience. We have “professional” religious people who tell us what our experience should be instead. We no longer participate in the cycle of the moon and the seasons and its impact on our world and spirit. Instead, we shop for certain holidays and curse the winter snows or the summer heat, confident that Safeway’s shelves will continue to magically fill. We no longer mark the passage of time by the stars or retell the stories that they illustrate and wonder why they matter to us as human beings in this plane of existence. We no longer see the stars, and we don’t notice their absence.
We are suffering from a profound spiritual malaise because we are disconnected from the source of our spirits: the Earth, the trees and plants, the waters, the stars, the entire cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. We have forgotten the ways of our ancestors, whom we dismiss as “primitive” and “superstitious.” We believe that we can control nature and bend it to our will. Our hubris and arrogance are precisely what is killing the planet we depend on for survival.
There is a cure, of course. We can reconnect to the earth and with each other. We can reconnect with our inner divine spirit. We can see it everywhere we look in the world. The trees have a spirit. The waters have a spirit. Everything is alive and One, and we are a part of that. I miss Abigail terribly, but I’m so grateful for her final lesson to us. Bury me, experience me, honor me, remember me, and then look for me again! Love is eternal.