Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Death in the Family: A Conversation Catalyst


Last night we held a good friend in our arms as she died.

Our good friend was a mouse named Basil but the process of dying and our being present was no less significant to my children than had Basil been a human friend.

My husband and I were walking swiftly out the door when my daughter first called out, “MOM! MOM, I NEED you!” Since my daughter is not afraid of spiders or any other creepy crawlies, I expected something along the lines of a teenage feminine problem and was surprised to see the mouse in a fetal position in her hand. Instantly I assumed, as had my daughter, that our littlest pet was dead and, as I gently scooped her up, I was a bit startled to find her still warm.

My son and husband joined us quickly and I explained she was still alive but not for long.

Suddenly the errand of the evening was insignificant compared to bearing witness to a family pet’s final moments.  Actually, what I assumed were final moments stretched into lengthy minutes and we stood gathered in my daughter’s room speaking in low, soothing voices.

This is not the first mouse death in our home. A few months ago, I held Basil’s sister Rue as she took her last few breaths. The difference this time involved my husband and children’s participation and an active conversation around end-of-life decisions and consciousness. We spoke clinically of the processes going on (the twitches and erratic breathing were especially disconcerting to both children) and we spoke from the heart about wanting to be with her in her final moments.

Rue had died very quickly in my hands under similar circumstances and my daughter never touched her. She was unnerved and a little afraid. With that memory still fresh, I was thrilled to note that this time my daughter had actually scooped her out of her habitat and that everyone felt comfortable enough to gently stroke her fur.

“Do you think she wants to die?” she asked. “You know like people who are just done and choose to die days before they actually do? Does a mouse think like that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I really don't know.

“Do you think she’s conscious?” she asked.

“I don’t think so but, either way, I don’t want her to die alone,” I answered.

If you’ve been a longtime reader of this blog, you’ll know that among other things, helping to demystify death for my children is important to me. The catalyst to remove some of the associated fear and aversion to conversations around end-of-life has been generated in large part by cancer and the multiple diagnoses and death of many friends and family. Ironically, my own turning point with end-of-life came slightly before the onslaught of cancer diagnoses, through the death of my grandmother, just over three years ago.

As we continued to hold and stroke Basil, our conversation continued around what senses remain in those final moments. I spoke softly to Basil and thanked her for her being such a wonderful snuggly pet. And I asked every few minutes, “Do you want to hold her?” My children responded by gently stroking her fur but neither child offered, asked or indicated a desire to hold her.

My son noted the cyanosis quietly, “She is getting very pale.”

Indeed her normally pink feet and nose had developed a greyish hue. “Yes, the oxygen in her blood is very low.” 

As her respiration became more and more erratic, her body would spasm slightly. My own self-doubt played intermittently yet silently through my head, “Is this the right thing to do?” “Does she want to be held?” “Is she in pain?” “Gah! What should I do?” But my outside mannerisms belied any internal ambivalence and I went with what felt comfortable: being there, holding her, talking out loud about what was happening and supporting my family.

Basil’s respirations ceased being visible but I could feel her heart beat for another several seconds before everything stopped. “She’s gone,” I said. “I’m very glad we could be with her.”

A few more tears were shed and then the search for the appropriate burying box began.

The death of a loved one, be they furry or fleshy, is difficult. But the death of loved ones is an inescapable part of life. Thank you Basil, for the two plus years of enjoyment you brought our family in life and the lessons you taught us all in death.