I confess. When I wrote Good Grief, a part of me hoped that would take care of the vast majority of my duties as an animal chaplain for me. And, aside from speaking to groups and offering words of comfort to individuals, it has. But what I’d written about the whole life-death process was put to the test today. A longtime friend of mine, John, reached out to me and asked me to help him a bit with putting his cat, Max, to sleep. He just asked me to go to lunch with him afterward so he could talk. Knowing that volunteering to watch someone else’s pet die would be the last thing I’d ever willingly do (having to do this for my own was tough enough), my mouth betrayed me and I found myself saying, “I’ll be there. I’m coming in with you and Max.” I knew it was part of my calling as an animal chaplain to see this through for my own sake as well as Max’s and John’s.

Max was 21 years old, though you’d never have believed it until recent weeks when his health took a sudden turn—he had had a seizure, was suddenly unsteady on his feet and struggling to meow, and had stopped eating and had lost several pounds in mere days. He gave many signs that he was exhausted and had used up this old body and was ready to move on. He was still a handsome fellow despite his now-bony frame and  less-than-perfect grooming, but when I kissed him head and got a nose-butt in return, I could see acceptance in his beautiful green eyes. This was what he wanted, what he needed.

When the vet entered the office—Dr. Oakes of Diamond Lake Animal Hospital is our fur-family vet as well—he looked a bit quizzically at me. I told him, pointing at John, “He stuffs his emotions. I’m here to do his crying.”

Max, who’d bitten this doctor at an earlier visit, laid passively as Dr. Oakes shaved his (Max’s) front leg with a buzzing electric razor and applied alcohol before administering the overdose of sedative.

All the while, John was petting Max and I cradled the cat’s little chin. The doctor said, “You’ll see him gently slump soon.” And within seconds, he’d voiced his last meow and his head dropped into my palm. I gently lowered my hand to the table, continuing to stroke his face and head.

We chatted of this and that, I blew my nose—a LOT—and I noted that Dr. Oakes remained beside Max, petting him gently for many minutes after he’d passed. (OK, so I’m crying again now.)

Max wasn’t my pet. I’d only met him a dozen times and he never spent much time letting me pet him. John had given Max a home 2-1/2 years ago when his friend could no longer care for Max, but he’d known him since Max was a kitten. My tears weren’t out of sadness for Max, per se, because we were setting him free and doing for him what he could not do for himself. My tears were twofold: 1) I always cry when I see a profoundly moving process of life/nature and transitioning into death is surely profound and, in this case, serenely beautiful; and 2) I was feeling tremendous compassion for tearless John, who, for all his bluster about not being a “cat person” and not wanting another cat, etc., I knew was going to be blind-sided by the silence and emptiness in his house when he went home. He was making lame jokes to cover the sorrow he truly felt and would feel. He’s always been far too stubborn to admit to such feelings, but I know better.

He then took me to lunch at a nearby Perkins. I told him, “It’s lucky I don’t give a s*#@ what people think of me,” or I’d never be able to walk in there looking all red-eyed, blotchy, and tear-streaked as I was. I did briefly explain what we’d just done to our hosstess, whose expression did a quickly covered double-take when she saw my puffy, pink face. Uncomfortable, she scooted away and a waiter took our order.

He didn’t ask why I looked like a big crybaby, and I didn’t feel like telling.