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By Bob Shaw
firstname.lastname@example.org Updated: 11/07/2011 12:08:35 AM CST
Sid Korpi is glad that death makes house calls. When her cat, Giles, approached the end of his life in August, Korpi called on a unique in-home euthanasia service. Called Minnesota Pets, the St. Paul business does euthanasia—and only euthanasia. It has no clinic to treat animals, just four veterinarians who make about 20 house calls a week, each one ending an animal’s life. Customers say their pets die more peacefully at home. Korpi said that instead of dying in a clinic, her cat died in her lap, surrounded by love, peace and candlelight.
“There was no stress from cramming him into a carrier. I didn’t want to have to drive him somewhere with tears streaming down my face,” she said.
The idea for the business first dawned on Dr. Rebecca McComas four years ago, as her two beagles aged. Being a vet, she always planned to euthanize them at home. “I would never consider doing it in a clinical setting,” McComas said. “Then I started talking to other vets, and they said they wouldn’t do that in a clinic, either.” So, she asked, why would anyone? She knew that other clinics performed in-home euthanasias but wanted to have the first Minnesota business to specialize in them.
But the business does more than stick needles into dying animals. The vets are expert grief counselors. They dispose of the body afterward. And they offer mementos of the pet, such as a clay imprint of a paw. The basic visit costs $225, up to $375 for cremating the body and Advertisement returning the ashes. McComas helps customers deal with a form of grief that is misunderstood—and underestimated. When someone’s mother dies, friends and family share the grief. Everyone understands it. But when a pet dies, it’s not the same. “A lot of clients report that the loss of an animal, for people with a primary bond, is worse than that of a mother, father, sister or friend,” said Lisa Havelin, a grief support specialist with Minnesota Pets. “It’s incomparable. It’s much worse.”
That’s because pets spend an enormous amount of time with their owners. “We get used to them. They go in the car with us. We are with them all day,” said Havelin. “We do not spend that much quality time with other people.” That makes the loss of a pet hard to explain to others. “It’s disenfranchised grief,” Havelin said. But can’t a person who loses a pet just get a replacement? “For some people who do not have a connection with the animal, they can say, ‘Fine, I will replace a black lab with another black lab,’ ” Havelin said. In other cases, the animal-human bond is very strong.
“It’s just like with people. You may have a lot of people in the course of your life, but some stand out,” Havelin said. “I have had animals my whole life, but two or three of them have been especially difficult to lose.”
Linda and Allen Anderson of St. Louis Park realized last summer that their 19-year-old cat, Speedy, was no longer living up to his name. “He was falling down,” Linda Anderson said. The cat stopped eating and drinking, and death seemed imminent. But McComas said cats are very hardy – and can sometimes live for weeks without food. That means that an owner determined to let nature take its course will watch the cat deteriorate—painfully.
For the Andersons, euthanasia in a clinic seemed too cold, too impersonal. “Speedy hated vets,” Anderson said. McComas showed up at the house, dressed in surgical scrubs and carrying a bag with the equipment. Together, they talked about Speedy’s life. “She was very kind,” Anderson said. The experience was perfect, she said. “To be able to do that, with him on my lap and my husband there, to give him that last dose of love—it was a remarkable experience.”
Korpi is a Minneapolis author of the book “Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss,” and an expert on grieving over lost pets. So when her own cat, Giles, was near death in August, she liked the idea of a peaceful death at home. When the vet arrived, Korpi lit a candle and dimmed the lights in the room. “Giles came right up to her. He knew what was happening—and he was grateful,” Korpi said.
She has been through euthanasias of 16 of her other pets. “Every single time,” she said, “I say that when I go, I want to go like that.”
Bob Shaw can be reached at 651-228-5433. Follow him on twitter.com/BshawPP.
I remember the lyrics to a song played in the movie “Valley of the Dolls” that went “Gotta get off, gonna get / Have to get off from this ride…” That was certainly an apt sentiment for all of us regarding my dear cat, Giles’, final weeks on this Earth. If you’ve followed this blog recently, you may have read of my preparation for his passing and the subsequent stalls due to his surprising, repeated rallying. (See my book, “Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss,” for the story “Tuppence and the Arby’s Effect” for a description of this phenomenon.)
Giles would go from lying inert for days and staring through us as though we were no longer seen by him to being completely present, talking incessantly to us, and even playing with the string of a light fixture. He’d also go from not eating or drinking for days on end to climbing, despite his obvious frailty, 13 basement steps to yowl at me to feed him—up to three times a day! The obvious joy he experienced in devouring his “junk” cat food told me I was right to honor his wishes to remain with us just a while longer. Believe me, it would have been easier on me to help him cross at the first sign that he could not get well, and I would have if he appeared to be hurting. I kept a very close eye on him for signs of pain or distress and never saw any, just a rapid winding down.
Despite all these rallying attempts of his, I never kidded myself that he was actually recovering from whatever ailed him (and it was truly moot for us to put him through umpteen tests just to try to find out whether that was cancer, kidney failure, etc.). In a month’s time, he’d lost about one-third of his body weight and no amount of eating put it back on. His body was definitely finished with him before his spirit was finished with this physical world.
Finally, on July 28, he stopped eating again, though he was walking around and sassing. After having tentatively scheduled and then canceled two previous appointments with Dr. Rebecca McComas of Minnesota Pets—Gentle in-home euthanasia, we finally agreed she would come at 2 p.m. that day to help Giles with his final passage.
Dr. McComas is a phenomenal human being—all kindness, compassion, patience, and love for the animals and humans she is helping at the hardest time of their lives. I wish with my whole heart I’d known her when all my past pets were ready to die, but Giles was the first to get to be freed from his used-up body in the comfort of his home. Far from being stuffed into his carrier and driven to the vet’s office (oh, Lord, did he hate to ride in the car!), he didn’t even have to get stressed out from having to be brought upstairs (where he was naturally afraid his nemesis, our newest Westie, Oliver, might be lurking to attack him). We all went to his basement “apartment.” I’d dimmed the harsh overhead lights and set up a candle that heated some lavender essential oil and scented the air with that relaxing, calming aroma.
When the good doctor arrived, and shortly thereafter, my husband Anthony came home from work (bless his heart!) we chatted about our goofy Westies’ antics while upstairs and they got in lots of petting, then we went downstairs to be with Giles again. Though very tippy from weakness, his spirits were high and he walked over to greet and nuzzle Dr. McComas and gave me a series of kitty kisses (gentle bites on my hand) as he purred loudly.
Dr. M told us Giles, being so emaciated, looked more like he was 19 than just about 15 years old, confirming that he was through with this physical body. She then explained that the sedative/painkiller shot she was about to give him would sting for a short while as it went in and that we could expect resistance or crying out from Giles. She delivered the shot and not a peep was uttered besides a tiny meow when she removed the needle. He was truly ready. We all complimented him repeatedly on his bravery and handsomeness. He deserved the praise and ate it up.
Within moments, he fell into a very, very relaxed state in my lap. He was so out of it, when Dr. M had to shave a tiny bit of his fur off his front leg so she could administer the euthanasia drug into a vein, he didn’t stir in the slightest. Giles simply drifted to sleep…and never woke again. (I know I’m a broken record, but every time I witness this, I beg the Universe to let me go that peacefully when it’s my time!) Dr. M kindly saved me his bits of shaved fur and pressed both of his front paws into some clay so I’d have a permanent paw print to remember him by. (This now joins Ludwig’s and Mortimer’s clay paw prints in my office.)
We noted that after his death the inside of Giles’ ears had turned a pronounced yellow, effectively performing a postmortem that confirmed his liver was no longer functioning and most likely was his cause of death.
We then brought down each of the dogs (except Oliver) and my other cat, Xander, to say goodbye to Giles and be sure they understood what had happened. That’s when my heart truly broke into splinters.
Our little Blanche, age 6 and second oldest among our four Westies, had always LOVED Giles. She would frantically kiss-kiss-kiss him to pieces, and he allowed it until it got so obnoxious that he had to place his paws on her shoulders, push her down and merely set his teeth on her as if to say, “Enough already!” Well, for all the months during which we’d had to keep Giles separate from the dogs for his safety, she’d been unable to kiss her friend.
(Quick backstory recap: After we’d had him a month and everyone was getting along splendidly, our newest adopted Westie, Oliver, age 7, suddenly decided to attack Giles after the cat hissed at him. That triggered the pack mentality among the other three dogs and they ALL—Blanche included—attacked Giles, numerous times, and often with me in the middle of the dangerous milieu. I’ve had seven Westies now, and this is the first time one has been mean to one of my cats. What’s strange is that Oliver is generally accepting of my other 15-year-old cat, Xander. We suspect the newcomer, Oliver, was the first to smell or sense the fatal illness that had taken hold of Giles and was responding as he would in the wild—getting rid of the weakest member of his “pack.”)
Anyway, back to Blanche in the basement. She became instantly frantic again, trying to kiss Giles’ dead body. She scratched at the pee pad on which he laid, tearing a hole in it in seconds. You could see her frustration mount as she couldn’t waken her kitty friend. She whined in a voice we’d never heard her use before then barked more shrilly than she ever had, too. I just sobbed for her loss and confusion. All of the other animals (except Oliver) came, sniffed for a second and walked away with no upset, which is what I’d expected would happen with them all.
Later, when I was holding Giles wrapped in a blanket, readying him to leave with Dr. M for his cremation, Anthony was holding Blanche and we put them near each other again to say a last goodbye. She again so urgently wanted to rouse him she actually nipped his ear! We had to give Blanche Rescue Remedy (a homeopathic Bach Flowers mixture to help her calm down) after Giles was taken out. I felt just horrible for her. (She’s better today, thank goodness.)
I will forever miss Giles’ obnoxious, insistent demands for attention and treats; the way he let Anthony rest his soda can on his kitty head and kept it balanced there; his neurotic tugging out of his fur whenever things weren’t absolutely to his liking (such as if his food dish were set down somewhere he didn’t deem proper); and his unbelievably handsome, regal bearing. He was a gorgeous boy, and quite self-assured of that fact, right up until the sweet (not bitter) end. He’s forever in my heart…and in my book. I’ve excerpted his story from “Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss” below. Rest in peace, my dear, darling cat.—Sid
Giles’ Story: A Supernormal Experience from a Still-Living Cat
More than a decade ago, months after I had lost my two beloved Siamese cats, Dudley and Genevieve, I knew my home was in dire need of more kitty energy to complement the doggy energy provided by my two Westies, Tuppence and Ludwig. As is so often the case with me, I knew what my upcoming pet’s name would be before I
met the actual animal in the flesh. I knew I was on the lookout for two cats named Giles and Xander (after characters on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” one of my all-time favorite TV series).
I’d been casually visiting places like Petco during their adoption days and seeing many beautiful, sweet cats, but I sensed that none of them was to be mine. I went home empty-handed time and again. And this is unusual for me, being someone who’d like to adopt every needy animal on the planet. Finally, my husband at that time and I had gone to a Holiday Boutique sale at the Golden Valley Animal Humane Society and decided to stroll through the cat section just to say hello. Again, I petted darling kitties through their cages, visited several that were
free to roam in a special interaction room, and still, my heart told me to wait, these weren’t meant for me.
Just before we were about to leave, however, my husband pointed to a charcoal-and-gray-striped tabby in the last cage in a long row. He said, “What about this one?”
My eyes met luminous green ones, my heart skipped a beat, and I exclaimed embarrassingly loudly. “Oh my God, it’s Giles!” No deliberation was necessary. I literally “recognized” him. I knew as certainly as I knew my own name this was Giles, not Xander. We took him from his cage and he climbed into my arms, stretching his front legs
around my neck like a desperate hug. Several people came by as I held him and noted his incredible handsomeness, expressing interest in adopting him. I flatly pronounced to them and my husband, “We’re getting this cat.”
While he went along with the purchase at first, quite to my surprise, once we’d gotten home, my then-husband got angrier with me than I’d ever seen him in our (at that point) ten years of marriage. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the cat; he pointed him out to me in the first place. It was just that, to him, I was apparently making a unilateral
choice and somehow disrespecting him by doing so; I can understand his perceiving it that way because, outwardly, I’m sure it seemed I was a little nutty. But I couldn’t walk away from what I knew was the Universe’s gift to us, our Giles, just to say I’d taken time to properly deliberate. When I know something is right to do, I do it. Simple as that. Consequences be damned.
I think, too, my soon-to-become ex was correctly noting that my love more readily flowed toward our pets than toward him (and the same likely was true for him). I won’t say we divorced years later because of Giles, per se, but my desire to expand my furry critter family, and my obvious adoration of them all, and my husband’s subsequent
resentment of all that surely exacerbated our growing distance and difficulties. I believe part of the reason Giles was brought into our lives was to help bring to light what was seething beneath the surface of our relationship. Sometimes what we need to see isn’t always pleasant.
This is not to say my first husband didn’t come to love Giles; he most certainly did, and he never mistreated him. It was just me he came to love less and less — a sad fact that had to happen to move us both along our respective, separate paths to where we were supposed to be years later. Though not something we would consciously wish, it is understandable that we might transfer our affection to our unconditionally loving companion animals when we feel the people to whom we were closest are withdrawing from us.
But not all times with this newly expanded family unit were unhappy or strained, of course, and one in particular
was downright phenomenal.
It was early December 1997, and I had drawn up some Santa-themed flyers for my husband, who was a reflexologist
(therapeutic foot massage therapist and teacher of same), to send to his clients to color in and enter into a
drawing for prizes. We’d received dozens of entries and wanted to be truly random in choosing the winners. Folks had been told it wasn’t important that they colored well, just that they made some small attempt and at least mailed in their entries on time.
I got the goofy idea to have Giles choose this year’s winners. So, I made a large circle (about seven feet in diameter) on the living room floor, evenly spacing the 8.5×11-inch papers along the edge. I then placed Giles in the center of the circle and said, “Giles, would you please help us choose the winners for this year’s contest? Show us who
should win third prize, the foot-care basket.”
Giles looked at me for a moment, then walked very deliberately to a colorful entry at the 7:00 spot on the circle. He placed a paw on it, looked at me again, then returned to the center of the circle and sat down! My husband and
I gaped at each other. I noticed my hands had begun shaking a little, and I forced myself not to jump up and down screaming, not wanting to spook Giles.
I thanked our cat profusely and took away that entry. I then repeated, “Giles, would you please choose who wins second prize? Who wins a copy of our book, kitty?” (That was Reflexology: Therapeutic Foot Massage… and other matters concerning the soles, ©1996, which we’d co-written and I’d edited and designed for him to use in his classes.)
Again, that handsome cat looked knowingly at me, then went to a colored entry sheet at the 1:00 spot, put his paw on it, and returned to the center of the circle and sat down!! “Fluke” was no longer a term we could apply to what was happening. My voice cracked a bit as I thanked Giles and retrieved the second-prize winner’s sheet. I silently whispered to my husband, “Did you see that?” He nodded, stunned, from his post on the sofa nearby.
One last time, I asked Giles if he would kindly choose the first prize winner, the one that would receive a free reflexology session. The third time was still charmed, for he went to the 5:00 spot, placed his paw on it, and returned once more to the center of the circle!! I finally couldn’t stand it, and I scooped him up and gushed praise on this remarkable creature. I kept saying to my husband, “Oh my God, you saw that, right? I didn’t just dream this, did I? Giles actually understood and chose those winners, right?” He just kept nodding
his head, eyebrows raised impossibly high.
I pointed out to my husband that not only had Giles chosen entries when we asked him to, but he’d also chosen the three that had been colored in the most artfully! I immediately got on the phone to my brother Dave in San
Diego, practically screaming into the phone, “You are never going to believe what our cat Giles just did!!!”
I spent another hour on the phone, calling everyone in our phone book and telling him or her what happened.
The rest of the evening, as we drove around town delivering the prizes and Christmas cookies I’d baked for friends and family, I periodically checked in with my husband, “You saw it, too, right? It really happened?” He reaffirmed my perceptions about twenty times before I finally shut up and accepted that either our cat is a genius or someone
from the Other Side was working with him to blow our minds.
Giles is still a wonderful cat, but he’s never re-enacted such a supernaturally miraculous feat since then. He actually appeared chagrined from all my gushing. I posited the theory that he wasn’t supposed to actually reveal his full animal brilliance to us because pretending to be “dumb animals” is the natural kingdom’s greatest defense against humans discovering these creatures’ inherent superiority. I’m sure he felt he’d shown us too much and now might have to kill us to keep the secret safe. Tee hee.
(Excerpted from “Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss” by Sid Korpi)
The ever-wonderful Linda and Allen Anderson of Angel Animals Network (authors of such books as “Dogs and the Women Who Love Them“) were kind enough to snap this picture of me with my table partner and fellow speaker on the End-of-Life-Issues panel, Dr. Rebecca McComas of Minnesota Pets in-home euthanasia service. They weren’t, however, kind enough to tell me my face was shiny enough to blind people from the glare of light reflecting off its surface! Is this another “benefit” of being perimenopausal???
But despite my unintentional glowing, I did have a marvelous time and was spoiled rotten by Trish Phillips, Dr. Kate Knutson and the rest of their wonderful staff at Pet Crossing Animal Hospital and Dental Clinic in Bloomington, Minn. Their FurEver Fun Day was well planned and expertly executed. They also made sure their vendors were well fed—oh, that blueberry-rhubarb crisp Dr. Kate’s mom Darlene made was to die for!—which is always a nice touch. Proceeds from the day went to support their animal-boarding services, which they offer to families (primarily women and children) who are displaced by domestic violence).
My thanks to you all!
Yesterday, I got to meet a wonderful veterinarian, Dr. Rebecca McComas, whose business is Minnesota Pets Gentle Euthanasia at Home. She is a warm and gentle person with the very best attitude toward death I’ve ever encountered
I asked her how she manages the sadness of her job and she said she understands how sad the people are who are personally losing a beloved friend, but, she said, “I LOVE my work! This is the most loving thing you can do for a pet that’s suffering.” She told me that when she’s surrounded by the animal’s human family and they’re all shedding tears for their loss, she doesn’t feel the need to cry herself because they’ve got that covered. Tears are the first stage of their honoring and saying goodbye to their pet, an indication of how much that animal had meant in their lives.
What is hardest for her to take is when the humans are all stoic and nobody’s crying at all. “That just kills me,” she said.
I shared with her the fact that I always, ALWAYS cry at a euthanasia, even when I’m accompanying someone whom I may never have met before and witness the passing of a pet who’s also unknown to me. “I’m crying somewhat out of empathy for the grief the people are feeling, but more than that, I’m crying because of the profound beauty I’m witnessing when the pet actually transitions out of this life and into the next so peacefully.” Apparently, this made Dr. McComas’s day because she finds it difficult to explain that part of the process to people.
“It really is beautiful!” she said, eyes glowing.
I know that whenever I’ve held my own sweet animal companions and watched them gently slip away, I always think, “That’s exactly how I want to go!” They better have legalized human euthanasia by the time I’m in need of that release from my body.
Below is a video made by Dr. McComas to explain her services. If you’re facing this painful decision, this is well worth watching.—Sid