After my sister was murdered and all the chaos died down, we eventually buried her ashes in a small ceremony – just my parents, my brother and me. It was the first time my parents had been together that closely since they broke up 5 years previously, and we stood in a graveyard and placed a box of her ashes into the ground. Each of us trying to all keep hold of ourselves so as to not reveal our overwhelming hurt, and deepest vulnerability to one another. It was beyond intense.
That evening I took an overdose.
I went into hospital two days later having spent two days slipping in and out of consciousness. I went into a psychiatric unit, and was then release a few days later into the care of my Dad for a little while, before I returned back to the flat I shared with a friend.
The friend requested I move out, and she moved her boyfriend in rendering me homeless. Things were so unstable, so unsettled. I was in a waiting game, as I was going to be electively admitted to a therapeutic community where I would spend 10 months in intense daily therapy. So, an old school friend gave me her spare room to stay in until I went into hospital, and to stay in at weekends when I would be on weekend release from the hospital.
I think it is fair to say this was an all time low point in my life. I realised later in life that I hadn’t really wanted to die, I just wanted my life as I knew it to end. But, I didn’t know that then. Then I just knew how tenuous my life felt. I was self-harming, cutting, drinking, binging, starving. Everything to avoid the roaring grief within me.
I needed to create a base for when I was discharged from the unit and so while I was there bought a flat to moved into when I got out. I had no furniture and borrowed the school friends canvas garden chair to sit on of an evening, she lent me lots of little bits that could help me get by while I got myself sorted. I needed to build up a life for myself, step by step. I made that flat my home, my sanctuary. Everything was to my taste, how I wanted it. It was really beautiful and I loved being there.
I returned to work, I saw friends and family, I was alive but I was fragile. My relationship with family was strained, I lost a number of friends because of how unwell I had been, lost credibility at work from being mentally unstable and unreliable. I felt I was balancing on a knife edge between moving forwards with life and falling back into unhealthy behaviours and self-harming.
I decided that to move forwards I needed something outside of myself to live for.
This is when I got my cat Clifford.
I found him through an advert on the internet. He was the one ginger cat from a litter of Tabby cats and there were pictures of him reaching up to catch a toy, revealing his beautiful speckled, fluffy tummy. I loved him immediately. I rang the owner and said I was interested in one of the kittens and he said, ‘Oh I am so sorry, we only have the ginger boy left’,….. ‘That’s the one I want!’ I exclaimed.
I drove to the owners house to meet him. The cat’s owners were a Black woman and a white man with ginger hair, and they had 3 beautiful children with ginger Afros. They were so attached to this little ginger kitty, and sad to see him go so I spent quite a long time with them talking about him and their favourite things about him. I said I would send some picture of him settled into his new house, which I did.
When I took him back to my house he would run round and round the living room and then collapse onto my lap and fall asleep. He was so small, and precious. I knew that I had to be the one to keep him alive and to do that I had to take care of me. This is where my healing journey began.
Clifford has been witness to my life for very close to 15 years. He was there when I moved job, through a difficult relationship, and when I moved jobs again. He was there for a 10-year relationship with my ex, and my heartbreak when that relationship ended. Clifford and I moved home 3 or 4 times. He has been my constant companion, a little ginger furry friend who I have cried and laughed with, to whom I have shared my secrets and my soul. He has been there for my sobriety, for my ups and downs. He has begrudgingly welcomed my other cat Mabel into our lives. The last 2.5 years he has been here with me and my wife in our little flat with lots of plants. He has aged as I have, grown as I have, moved on when I have.
My wife and I took a holiday to Crete earlier this month. The cat sitter said Clifford seemed a little off for a few days. We agreed he had seemed a little sleepier perhaps, but we had brushed it off as ageing. We intended on taking him to the vet when we got home and booked in an appointment for the following week.
The Sunday before the appointment we had been out at the shops and returned home. Clifford walked towards me as he always does when we get home, and as he rubbed his side along the living room door frame I saw his belly was distended. Big and swollen. It hadn’t been noticeably so when we had gone out that day, so we called the emergency vets and took him in to have a check up. They were concerned. We had to leave him with them and they would call once they had some blood test results, and would arrange an abdominal ultrasound but that would not likely take place until Monday morning.
We got into bed that night. He wasn’t there to get on the bed as he always does. The possibility of what might come next caught in my throat. We eventually fell asleep, deeply concerned for him.
Just before midnight the phone rang. It was the vet with the worst of news. Clifford had a tumour in his abdomen. It was likely to be cancer. They had done the scan that night to confirm, and tried to take a biopsy but due to the swelling it was too hard to get. We had 3 options…
- Open him up to see what’s going on
- Take him home for palliative care
We discussed the options with the vet and agreed that operating was not in his best interest, and as he may have weeks left we decided to take him home. She said we could pick him up the next morning.
I hung up the phone and sobbed. The tears flowed, I sobbed from my heart, from my gut. All my previous griefs rose to the surface and I let them be heard. Pouring into the bedroom making the air thick and acrid.
Within an hour we rang the vets back to check what time we could pick him up from, she said he had just woken so we could get him then if we wanted. So we got dressed and went to collect him. He had been sedated so he was wobbly and we needed to wait an hour to take off the dressing from his leg from a slight bleed where there removed the cannula. At home he had some food, wibbled around the house and eventually settled for the night at around 2am. As did we.
The next week was tough. Grief began to pool around us in preparation. Like vultures circling overhead waiting for death to arrive. Our job was to make sure that we made decisions with Clifford at the centre. That we didn’t let him suffer. We watched his breathing, his bowel habits, how often he peed. We monitored his food intake, his fluids, and gave him his daily steroid. Mostly we gave him cuddles, and love and strokes.
Cats will rarely show pain, they just become more withdrawn. Sometimes when it is time for them to die they will just take themselves away, settle under a bush and let it come. We watched his every move.
Our cat sitter is an ex-veterinary nurse. We invited her round to come and check on him, with the intention of having her visit once a week to take an objective view of how he was doing, in case our closeness to him prevented us seeing his deterioration. On Thursday we took him back to the vet for a check up. They reminded us of the signs to look for. We agreed that although he was a little off his food, once he was rejecting Licky-Lix (a tube of liquid meat that he absolutely loved) we would know it was time, and if he wasn’t getting up onto the bed for his morning or evening cuddle that would also be an indicator.
By the weekend he wasn’t taking in solid food anymore, just Licky-Lix. We got someone round to give him some red light therapy to reduce pain and inflammation, and we started to discuss how his end-of-life care would look. My boss had told me about home euthanasia, and so we looked that up. We discussed when it would be and as it was a Bank Holiday we started planning it for later that week. It was heartbreaking to plan, but we knew it was right for him.
On Sunday night he rejected the Licky-Lix we tried to feed him, yet got up onto the bed for his cuddle, but is was hard for him to jump up with his distended belly. He was beginning to get weak from the reduction in food. As he walked over and stood on my chest, settling in, tucking his paws under and starting to purr, I knew this would be the last evening cuddle we would have. I thanked him, and he looked me in the eyes. It was time.
In the morning, the Queen’s Funeral and Bank Holiday, he got onto the bed for his cuddle but soon after settled down in a gingerbread house box in the corner of the room. This had been his spot the last few days, not the bed where he would usually stay all day. We started to ring around for the home euthanasia. The one we planned to use in the week couldn’t come on the Bank Holiday, nor could the vet practice come. We watched some of the Queen’s funeral on TV. There was something weird about so many people lining the streets for the Queen, and the tension of energy in the house knowing it was Clifford’s last day.
We had lunch, then decided that we would book him for euthanasia at the vets that afternoon if we couldn’t get someone to come to the house. We made one more enquiry and found a vet who was able to come here for 16:30 and they also arranged for the pet crematorium to pick his body up at 17:30.
There were lots of tears.
I spent the next few hours in the bedroom with Clifford. Sitting on the floor by the gingerbread house, stroking his head and listening to him purr. I managed to get him to eat a little Licky-Lix off my finger. I thanked him for always being there for me, for seeing me, for witnessing me, for never judging and for always loving me. I apologised if I had in any way ever harmed him, or hurt his feelings. I told him how much I loved him. The tears flowed and the cries rung out. I shared my grief with him. I didn’t hide from it, drink it away, eat it down. I felt every moment of it.
The vet arrived and we held a dignified ceremony for Clifford. We held him and stroked him and guided him to surrender. He passed peacefully surrounded by love.
I got to hold him for a while before the crematorium team arrived to take him away.
All my griefs rose up in me. All the losses. All the goodbyes. All the love.
And that’s the thing with grief…….. it is the price we pay for love.
As heartbroken and battered as I have felt this last 2 weeks in losing the first boy I ever really loved, I would do it all again to feel the unconditional love he gave me through the last almost 15 years of my life. All the ups and downs, trials and tribulations he gave me a sense of security to stay alive when I could not offer that to myself. In a way, he saved me.
And he taught me how to love again after losing my sister.
I will never forget him, and I will love him always. In life and in death. He will always be my darling boy, Clifford.