Yesterday my husband and I had to put his cat to sleep. Celi (Cell-lee) was seventeen and wasting away, starving from not eating. Despite multiple blood work ups and visits to the vet’s office, no obvious cause for her rapid decline could be found, except that she was very old for a cat. For weeks we watched her slow her eating, lose weight, and look less and less like herself. Watching anyone you love move closer to death can be agonizing, and this was. My husband adopted Celi when she was nine years old from an ASPCA shelter in the heart of downtown Philadelphia, in the middle of a snow storm no less. This cat chose my husband by climbing into his coat. She was his first pet and they were quite a pair. So when we saw how uncomfortable she had become, we knew what we had to do in order to be merciful to her.
I have had to euthanize three of my pets. It never gets easier. In fact, each time I just relive the experiences that came before. It feels like I’ve put down my first dog three times now. My beloved first cat twice, and now Celi. I stood in that examination room waiting for the doctor to come in, and I thought about all the wonderful memories I have been blessed with and how much I was going to miss her. Then I wondered how anyone could ever do this to a human being. No matter how much I love my pets, and they are my children in fur coats, they are not human beings. There is something distinct about animal and human life, according to God.
“For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (Genesis 9:5-6 NRS).
As an owner, I felt a sacred duty to keep my pet from suffering a prolonged death struggle. When we allowed her to be euthanized, I have no doubt that we were doing right by her and in God’s eyes. Yet I cannot do that for another person, even though I can imagine circumstances where I would want to. How can I watch another human being suffer, knowing they were going to die? What if it was my husband or my child? It doesn’t sound right, but I have personal experiences that illuminate just how important those last months, weeks, days, moments can be for the dying. It’s a tragic flaw in human nature that many times we do not have those life changing encounters with God until we are close to losing life. Too many times as a hospital chaplain I witnessed someone edging closer to their own mortality come to a crossroads moment with God. It is that time when they realize how much they need God, and that God wants to be with them. In this most personal time, they commune with their Maker and Creator. They are laid bare and find that God has not abandoned them, but is right there with them. They look back over their life and see the glaring mistakes of their sins, and are greeted with forgiveness and grace. Who am I to deny anyone that opportunity? Who am I to deny God one more chance to be with his beloved child?
When we die, we rest in God until the day when Christ returns and we are resurrected. The time leading up to our death is when each one of us will have our final time to speak to God, to hear what God wants to say to us, and to get our relationship where it should be before this long slumber. The Old Testament speaks of Sheol, the land of the dead where people go to sleep in death. Have you ever tried to go to sleep, but couldn’t because your mind was too busy and you were too worried? Try dying with a guilty conscious. I’m sure each one of us could think of some things we would want to say to God if we knew we were going to die tomorrow. There are some things I would like to apologize for and ask for forgiveness. Some gratitude I would like to offer, and some prayers I would offer up for those I leave behind. I wish that our earthly suffering was not the catalyst for this, but it tragically seems to be. We are seriously ill, we pray. We fall on hard times, we go back to church. We find ourselves dying, and we want to get right with God. Celi didn’t sin. She was always right with God. Now she has gone down to Sheol in peace and awaits the redemption of this world and the coming of Heaven on Earth, the day of Resurrection. Every human being deserves that same chance, that gift. We can only rest in peace after we make our peace with God.