A man and his daughter arrive with the daughter’s kitten. The kitten is not feeling well, they tell me. She hasn’t eaten for several days.
I examine the kitten, who is dehydrated and depressed. Her belly is large and pendulous. “Where did you get her from?” I inquire. The shelter, they tell me as they watch me pull several cc’s of straw colored fluid from her abdomen.
We talk about FIP, a nasty disease with a very poor prognosis. The young girl, probably 7 or 8, nods solemnly. She knew something bad was going on, looking up at me through her tears with the sad eyes of a child who has known loss before. I leave them to talk.
The nurse tells me they have decided to euthanize the kitten, and I go back into the room to talk to the family.
“Where’s your dad?” I ask the girl.
“He’s waiting outside,” she replies.
“Are you going to stay with your kitty?” I ask her, and she tells me that she would like to if she can. She is upset, looking small and alone with an even smaller and more alone kitty in her lap. I excuse myself and find the father.
I ask him if he is going to go back in the room with his daughter. “I can’t,” he says. “I got this kitten for my daughter before her mother and I divorced. It’s just too hard to watch.” He adds that he is OK if his daughter stays, though.
A lot has changed for me in the decade I’ve been practicing. I’ve learned about people as well as about animals. I’ve learned about loss, and the resilient children who surprise you and the adults who fall apart who also surprise you. I’ve also become a mother, and maybe that has made me better in the role as loss counselor. Maybe it has made me worse. I haven’t decided which one yet.
So I look at this stranger in the eye and I tell him, “I’m sorry this is so hard for you, and I mean that sincerely. But I need you to go in there and be there for your daughter. She needs you more than you need to be out here.”
Did he have to be there? Yes and no. Could I have done it without him? Probably. But I know things now that I didn’t know before, and as mother, as well as someone who remembers what it was like to be 7, it wasn’t the right thing to do.
He looks at me with an unreadable expression, and goes back into the room. I euthanized the cat. As his daughter holds the lifeless kitten, he holds her, her head leaning on his shoulder, supported by him. He walks out holding his daughter by the shoulders, and nods at me.
I did not know going into this field how much harder this part is for the men than the women.