Should I tell my 5-year-old our cat has cancer?

Grieving a family pet is hard at any age
By Tonilyn Hornung  Published on 02/13/2019 at 9:00 AM EDT
The family cat has been a permanent fixture in the writer's 5-year-old son's life.

I speak cat.

“Mom! What’s she saying?”

“She’s saying, ‘Hi!”

I am my 5-year-old’s translator. While Kitty tucks my son into bed, I interpret her many meows. The two friends cuddle while he reads her a bedtime story, and then she and her boy chat about their day. He talks a lot about school, while she mostly says, “Hi,” “Good night,” and “Shall I tell you the meaning of life…?” Lately, her conversations have shortened, and I’m torn. I don’t know if I should I tell my little guy what my attuned ears are hearing her say: Goodbye.  

Feline Translator was not officially added to my résumé until recently. One bedtime, in order to amuse my kid, I answered every grunt and meow that Kitty made. She and I held a lengthy conversation about balls of string, ear rubbing, and the true definition of love. My son’s eyes were bright and believing, and I’ve been her official interpreter ever since. I had no idea my job would suddenly become so complicated.

That particular day began like any other, which I suspect is how all bad days go. My husband and I dropped our son off at school and then went on to our vet appointment to check on our kitty’s sudden cough. Two hours later, we left with an ultrasound photo showing us a tumor and terminal cancer. We were unprepared.

For the eight years I’ve been with her, I’d always been diligent in my care—almost obsessive. I’ve been surrounded by pets all my life, so I know how their health can turn on a dime. This is why I’ve provided check-ups on top of check-ups, all in an effort to avoid the hollow, powerless hole that engulfed me when the vet gave us her diagnosis. Holding my kitty close, I begged her to stay—if not for my sake, then for my son’s. I explained to her through my sobs that it wasn’t just my heart at stake now.

I waited to translate an answer.

She was silent.

When my kid was born, Kitty was already a much-loved part of our family. We rescued her at six months old, and once home with my husband and I, she immediately inserted herself into our clan. She came to us already ours. Kitty cuddled with my husband, our two dogs, and my preggo belly. She talked to my son before he was born. So, when I hear my kid shout, “I love you, Kitty!” my eyes cloud over with happy tears because I know he’s experiencing a true love connection.

“Mom! What’s she saying?”

“She’s saying, ‘Let’s cuddle!’’

I figured my boy and his cat would have many more conversations and many more adventures together. In my mind, I was ready for him to draw Picasso-esque renderings of the two of them on some fun adventure. I’d find a place of honor for them on our refrigerator where we could all (including Kitty) admire them. “Mom! What’s she saying?” The artist would ask. I’d tell him that she loved his work (even though she was secretly asking for turkey slices from the fridge).

Cats have nine lives, but my cat will not. There will be no refrigerator drawings, because the doctors tell me we don’t have much time—months, if we’re lucky. I hope our luck holds out, because maybe time will show me how to tell my son. How do I tell him that his best kitty friend only has a handful of bedtimes left? Do I tell my 5-year-old our loving friend is dying?

cat cancer

The knowledge that my kitty’s illness is terminal follows me around like an eerie cat-shaped shadow. I’m stuck in a state of powerless grief wondering what to do next. Feeling helpless isn’t totally a foreign feeling to this newish mama; because as my kid grows I realize (again and again) how limited I am in the ways I’m able to help him. This is just one more example. There are many days I want a re-do so I can help my son avoid those hurt feelings or that scraped knee. My kid may feel the pain in his bruised knee, but I always feel it more intensely in my heart. Those are the days I try my best to feel helpful instead of helpless—like now.

My son knows that our kitty has had a little “cat cold,” but in the time since finding out about our cat’s cancer her stomach has been shaved and she’s lost weight. My son hasn’t noticed. I thought about pointing out these differences in an effort to prepare him for the huge change that’s to come, but I’ve chosen not to.

All he sees is a cat he loves, and to him she is perfect. His is still a world where cats talk, moms translate, and life has magic. I may not be able to give my cat a longer life, but I can give my son more perfect time with her. I can let him have his joyful magic without the eerie shadows. If she could really talk, I wonder if she’d tell me I’m doing the right thing.  

Kitty is still tucking him into bed, and we’re having very lengthy discussions about indoor bird watching. We’re loving every second of our time together, and loving our Kitty. When that inevitable day arrives, I’m planning on using my magical interpreting powers to help ease some of my five-year-old’s confusion and heartbreak. I will answer as many questions and translate as best I can, although, in the end, some things need no translation…

“Mom, what did she say?”

“Oh, my beautiful boy, she said, ‘I love you.’”

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