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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Grief

A year ago today, my family and I had to make the decision to put down our smallest and quietest cat Dino. For those of you that haven't read previous posts about my cats, my family took in three cats that were born in our yard in 2014. I named them Pebbles, Bam Bam, and Dino. These cats came in to my life at a time that I was dealing with significant stress while at Lehigh in grad school. They had been abandoned by their mother and were hungry and thirsty. We wanted to help them so they could survive. Dino was quiet and slow-to-warm-up. All of our cats had been trapped as part of a local trap neuter return (TNR) program. She was fearful. It took her awhile to be okay with us petting her. She didn't like the TV and was very solitary. She spent most of her time on our enclosed back porch or in my bedroom. While she was small, she started to look healthier.

In Loving Memory of Dino
April 2014- August 2, 2016


On July 7, 2016, she started to look like she wasn't doing well. Her eyes looked cloudy and she wasn't eating. When it didn't get better the next day, we had to rush her to the vet. Since our cats were born outside and trapped, we had never been able to get them in a crate, especially Dino. This was her first vet visit. I had named her Dino thinking she was a boy, but she was actually a girl. They gave us some not so great news. The vet told us that Dino may have something called Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP). Simply put, it's a problem with leaky blood cells and inflammation. If she had this, her body was basically attacking itself. There was too kinds: wet and dry. Wet was worse and she would have only had 2-3 months to live. Dry had a prognosis of 3-5 months. They had to do tests to confirm. By the time the results came back, Dino was much worse. I had to try to put medicine in Dino's food and she had to eat a special food that increased her appetite so she could gain some weight back. Watching her so sick made me upset. Dino had grown extremely close to me since December 2015. She sat with me while I spent hours on end studying for my School Counseling Praxis. She waited for me to come home from work, internship, and grad school and would fall asleep on my legs at night. I did anything I could to take care of her. I guess I was hoping that taking good care of her would save her from the unavoidable. As she got worse, the FIP diagnosis was confirmed and she also had toxiplasmosis. She had to be kept isolated in my bedroom so she couldn't transmit anything to Pebbles and Bam Bam.

The day before we had to put her down, we were at the vet. I knew she wasn't doing well, so I asked them how I would know when it was time to put her down because I didn't want her to suffer, but I didn't want to put her down if she still had more time. They just told me I would know. The next day, she sat facing my bed, but could barely see. When I pet her, she rubbed herself all over my face and chest. Later she sat under my chair, barely able to breathe. I knew it was time as I sobbed calling the vet. When we took her to the vet, she seemed so scared. I know she was just a cat, but I think she knew she was dying. They said her temperature had started to lower and she was beginning the dying process. They said at this point, it would be inhumane to keep her alive. She only lived for three weeks after showing symptoms and died much faster than anticipated.

When we got a terminal diagnosis, I started going through the stages of grief before Dino even died. I didn't really go through it in order. I was angry about the diagnosis and all the pain Dino was experiencing. I was angry that I only had two years with her and I was often busy with grad school. Then I went through denial. Any small sign of improvement indicated to me that she could pull through and maybe it wasn't FIP. I was isolated to my room, watching her struggle through this totally alone without her siblings. My mom was often too upset to help take care of her, so I felt alone. She had already had the trauma of watching her own mother die of cancer. Then I would go back to being angry. I tried to bargain. I prayed that if God would let her live longer, I'd take such good care of her... anything to have more time with her. Then I would be angry again when it didn't work. When I wasn't angry, I was crying and devastated. I never reached acceptance. After she died, my feelings went between denial, isolation, anger, and depression. Anger and depression were pretty much constant. Even now, I still don't feel like I've reached acceptance. I may have gotten "used to" my life without Dino, but I'm not okay with what happened or with her not being here anymore. Pictures of her helps and talking about positive memories of her helps too. Like the fact that she would swat at Pebbles and Bam Bam when they chased each other or that she liked to eat my potato salad.

So what does this have to do with school counseling? Well first, based on my state, I wasn't able to provide a grief group to students last year, but I did realize that students might benefit from one. I did talk to students about the passing of my cat as needed to help them see that their feelings about losing a person or pet close to them was normal. Sometimes students would spend a little too much time asking me questions about my cat that died because I had a picture in my office and it would upset me. I used it as a teachable moment for them to recognize when to drop a subject. Another reason I bring up grief is because our students, like me, may not go through the stages of grief in a specific order. This may be something to consider when planning a group on grief or conducting grief counseling with students. I'm not specifically trained in grief counseling, I'm merely speaking from experience. I suggest meeting students where they are at. If they come to you angry today, then address the anger. Help them work through whatever they are currently feeling and prepare them for what else they may feel in the future. I also recommend that you self-reflect. Did you have a pet or loved one die that may upset you if you talk about it with students? Don't be afraid to talk about and work through your feelings on your own, with a counselor, or with a psychologist. When a student comes to you to discuss grief, consider asking them to share a picture with you and some positive memories. It may help them heal.

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