When to tell my parents that their beloved cat has died?
March 24, 2010 11:40 AM   Subscribe

My parents are on a long-anticipated vacation overseas. They return in 2 weeks. I'm taking care of their house and their very, very beloved cat (which I was also very fond of). The cat was hit by a car last night and killed; I just found her body this morning. What do I do?

I can see several options on when to inform my parents:

I can email them both now and either tell them both outright or ask them to call home. And ruin their vacation.

I can email just my Dad and let him know, bearing the burden of this knowledge alone.

I can wait until my parents arrive at the airport and tell them at the airport and have a horror of a car ride home.

Or I can have a pleasant lie of a car ride back from the airport in April and tell them when they walk in the door to their house, now missing the cat that they have cherished like a grand-child.

Help. (regardless, I'm going to have a horrible guilt ridden next 2 weeks)
posted by Auden to Human Relations (95 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I am voting for letting them enjoy their vacation. There is nothing they can do from there except be miserable. Tell them at the airport.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:42 AM on March 24, 2010 [17 favorites]

Ouch! That's a tough situation. If it was me, I would wait till they got back to the house. But I could be wrong.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:42 AM on March 24, 2010

Do not let them return home, eager to greet Beloved Kitty and only then tell them kitty is not there. If it were me, I would want to know immediately, because I would view the time I was happy without knowing as living a lie, and that would bother me more than being upset about it in the first place. There was a very, very good AskMe about how to share the news of an accident with a friend or family member. I remember that Jessamyn had a fantastic answer, but I cannot seem to find it.
posted by bunnycup at 11:45 AM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

When I was on vacation, and my parents didn't tell me that my childhood cat had died, because they didn't want to ruin my vacation, I was angry as well as sad. It felt like they had overstepped their bounds and prioritized my vacation above, well, reality, which they didn't have any right to do.

So I'd go ahead and tell them. It's up to them what they want to do next.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:45 AM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

I am so sorry. This is my ultimate nightmare. As for the answer, depends on your parents. If it would truly ruin their trip, don't tell them until they return. Knowing my parents, I would tell them when I found out and probably start crying during it and feeling all guilty, and they would be more concerned about calming me down and saying it wasn't my fault, etc. They may handle it more gracefully than you think.

It wasn't your fault, btw. Don't feel guilty.

On second reading, just wait until they get back.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 11:46 AM on March 24, 2010

I'm so sorry you're in this situation and that the cat was killed. I think you need to be prepared for the possibility that they could call or email, asking how the cat is doing. In that case it could be even more awkward and you might have to think on your feet if you decide to hide it from them until they get back.
posted by bristolcat at 11:47 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh PS my parents didn't tell me my hamster died while I was away for a month. They let me enjoy the vacation and be sad when I was with people who could comfort me. I was glad.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 11:47 AM on March 24, 2010

When I was younger, my dog died while I was away at camp for a week. My parents waited until after I was home to tell me. I was angry at first but I eventually understood why they made that choice, and was glad they did.
posted by Diskeater at 11:50 AM on March 24, 2010

Our family cat died while we were on vacation once and my parents told us on the drive back home (a 12-hour drive). They had mentioned once or twice during our trip that she was sick, I guess so it wouldn't be unexpected. However, I was LIVID that they had lied to me.

So will your parents be more upset over having their vacation possibly ruined, or about not knowing?
posted by leesh at 11:50 AM on March 24, 2010

My friends lost a beloved cat while they were away on an extended vacation in Europe; the cat-sitter called and told them right away. I asked her what she thought about your situation and she said she would not tell your parents. She did say if the cat was old and/or sick (and the death would be less of a shock) then she would strongly consider telling them, but it sounds as if that wasn't the case.

I'm so sorry, you're in an awful situation and I feel for you.
posted by kate blank at 11:51 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I vote for sending them a "call me ASAP" email and breaking the news over the phone. It'll put a damper on their vacation, but if it were my pet I'd much rather know immediately than be told days or weeks after the fact. I think it's okay to delay the news until after a short event, like a job interview or a party, but two weeks is pretty long. Plus what would you tell them if they called to check in?

And I doubt they'd want you to stew alone in your guilt for the next two weeks. That's got to be an awful feeling.

I'm sorry for your loss and I hope for the best for you and your parents.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:52 AM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

If their grandson died, you would tell them, right? Even if there was no funeral to go to and thus no pressing need to tell them. With something so close, you really don't have the right to decide how they should receive the news. They just need to know. If the cat is as beloved as you say, I think you should tell them. While it may ruin their trip, it also gives them space to grieve while they're still away on vacation, away from their other obligations, which may be helpful.

By the way, I think you should email and tell them to call you and that you have some very bad news about the cat. It will prepare them for the shock when you deliver the news.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:53 AM on March 24, 2010

Tell them at the airport. There's nothing that they can do, so why ruin their vacation? I LOVE my cat, but really! What are they going to do? Fly home early? How will that change anything? I know that lots of people will tell you to inform them immediately, but if you know that it will make them miserable, then why do it? How would you feel if you were on vacation and your parents called you and told you that the cat died? Would you fly home immediately to comfort them? If not, don't tell them until you pick them up.
posted by shrabster at 11:54 AM on March 24, 2010

When they return to the house let them know the fate of the cat and add, "but I'm alright"; then brace yourself for the ensuing shit storm which is going to rain on your head for the next twenty years. You might want to consider having someone else pick them up at the airport. That would be the longest and shortest trip of your life. I am sure you are already hoping for a possible plane crash where of everyone survives but is just traumatic enough to divert attention to more human matters.
posted by bkeene12 at 11:55 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'd tell now. It may not ruin their whole vacation; the loss of a pet often doesn't quite hit you until you're in your familiar environment, and you keep expecting to see the pet and don't. (At least, that's what it was like when my childhood pet died when I was out of my parents' home -- I didn't really grieve until I came for a visit.)

They'll be sad, of course, but I think if you don't tell, you run the risk of appearing not to take the loss seriously. I know that's not what you're doing, at all, but it might seem that way to them, at least at first.

If you decide not to tell until they get back, write a long letter to them today, and date it, in which you describe your thinking, why you decided not to tell them immediately, and how sad you are for them. If they get angry, hand it to them and ask them to read it. At least they'll know you were doing your best to think of them, even if they end up disagreeing with how you decide to handle it.
posted by palliser at 11:56 AM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I spoke with my Mom's sister (my aunt; they're very close) and she leans towards not telling, not ruining this vacation. The vets who is taking care of the body (cleaning her and putting her into cold storage; very kind people there) said that she would want to know because of the later guilt of having enjoyed a vacation while her cat had died. (I'm still in shock and its all a little abstract still, and the house feels strange and empty)
posted by Auden at 11:56 AM on March 24, 2010

I would strongly vote against telling them when they walk in house. If you don't contact them now, tell them when you get in the car at the airport so they can adjust before they walk into a house full of memories. Yes, it is more uncomfortable for you but better for them.

If you do decide to tell them, ask them to call home and tell them over the phone - not in a email. That way you can respond to their questions and emotions as they come out instead of trying guess what to put in an email. (also an uncomfortable conversation for you but, hey, welcome to adulthood. I had to call my father and tell him that his youngest son had died. My approach - you ask them if they are in place where they can talk, you tell them it is bad news and then you tell them what happened and give them space to respond and to ask questions as they feel the need.

One reason for telling them now is to give them a choice about what to do with the body - bury it in the back yard, cremate with the ashes returned or cremate with the ashes buried. This may be very important to them and I'm not sure you want to leave the cat in the freezer until they come home.
posted by metahawk at 11:59 AM on March 24, 2010

Another possiblity is to let them know in two weeks, just before they return. Avoid mentioning when exactly it was that the cat died; if asked, say you're not sure, but you think it must have been the previous night. It's a bit of a lie, but it's one that both avoids spoiling their holiday and also avoids bad feeling about your not having told them. Of course, this depends on you having buried the cat.

Whatever you decide, you're not to blame.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:01 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would go with your aunt's advice, as this kind of thing strongly depends on the temperament of the ones getting the news. Then if they get angry you can share the blame with her.
posted by amethysts at 12:02 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

This happened to me almost exactly. The truth was postponed, not altered or omitted. I was happy for that. Why not pull over on the ride home from the airport, if they didn't already ask about their cat, and tell them about it somewhere nice, but not familiar.
posted by chrillsicka at 12:02 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I vote for telling. My parents did the other to me once, and I still think it was a betrayal. I'd want to know while I was gone, where I could be distracted by vacationy things.
posted by jeather at 12:02 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would not tell them, because they only lose from your doing so. If you feel you have to tell them, then you keep quiet for now, the cat actually died 2 days before they got back.
posted by biffa at 12:04 PM on March 24, 2010

I'd want to know, via telephone, ASAP. I always worry about my kitty when we're away.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:05 PM on March 24, 2010

tell them now - enjoying a vacation doesn't even come close to comparing in significance to the death of a loved one
posted by jammy at 12:06 PM on March 24, 2010

In many families, news of death is a responsibility of the senior family member geographically nearest the one who passed away, and it is expected that notification go out within 24 hours of the death, simply to allow each person receiving the news to react as presently as possible, and pursue whatever options of attending a ceremony of passing, or other grieving, as they wish. To withhold information from family members about any member of the family, including pets, would be seen as an attempt to control or avoid their reaction, and to co-op any response they might wish to make independently. It might also be seen as an attempt to avoid sharing of grief, and responsibility for conducting a dignified funereal or memorial ceremony. Very not good, in families like mine.

That said, my family is not yours, and you should do what seems consistent with previous practice in your family. You probably have to do something with the body, and unless you know that your folks would want it buried, or cremated or freeze dried and mounted in taxidermy, you can't do the right thing.

I'd say tell your Dad immediately, and let him decide when and how to tell your Mom. And get his instructions on what he wants done with the cadaver.
posted by paulsc at 12:08 PM on March 24, 2010

Response by poster: I can see my Mom canceling this vacation (Galápagos Islands) and returning home immediately. It's a group thing so it would be extra hard, I would think, keeping up appearances.
posted by Auden at 12:09 PM on March 24, 2010

My partner and I have had, and lost, many pets in the years we've been together. I would want to be told. I think it is possible to grieve a beloved cat and enjoy a vacation at the same time, odd as that sounds, and I would feel weirder in the future had I not known. In your place, I wouldn't want to be in the position of possible having to dissemble if they call or e-mail to check in.
posted by not that girl at 12:14 PM on March 24, 2010

When I was 16 or so, my cat died while I was away on a summer program. My mom didn't tell me until I came home. This was a cat I'd had since I was at least five. If I'd been told that he had died - much less that he'd died violently, which was also the case with my cat - it would have ruined the rest of my trip.

I don't think less of her for keeping it from me, and in retrospect, I appreciate it. Let them enjoy vacation. If you think your dad can take it and keep it to himself, maybe it would be okay to tell him, and he could decide (being your mom's lifelong partner) whether it's best to tell her or keep it from her.
posted by Medieval Maven at 12:15 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

roomthreeseventeen - why would you want to know immediately? As I said earlier, I am very, very attached to my cat. Maybe I'm a bit hardended, but I don't see why knowing at the EXACT MOMENT that my kitteh died would make it any easier. I only have two experiences with "death at a distance." When I was in the Peace Corps my grandmother died. I was devastated - I was very close to my grandmother - but the only reason that I came home was to help support my grandfather and father. My family's cat also died, but I didn't consider coming home...because it was a CAT not a PERSON!!!!
posted by shrabster at 12:16 PM on March 24, 2010

I see you're getting answers all over the board here, so here's my vote. I'm a major, major cat person, and I say do not tell them now. Let them enjoy their vacation. Galapagos Islands?!? That's not a trip they can just cancel and go back to easily another time. If they were an hour away, perhaps. But no, do not tell them. I would also wait till you get back home from the airport. The news will likely be quite traumatic, and I remember hearing some traumatic news from my parents when we were in public -- I hated that I was sobbing in public.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:16 PM on March 24, 2010 [5 favorites]

shrabster , I wouldn't consider coming home, but I guess I'd just want to know. I definitely wouldn't want to get home and find out my beloved pet died two weeks ago. *shrug*
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:23 PM on March 24, 2010

To your knowledge, have your parents ever faced a similar situation, maybe having to decide whether to tell you bad news while you were away? I realize this is a long shot, but maybe their past actions or words have given you a hint as to their personal preferences.

Another thought: there is no right answer here. Therefore, there's no wrong answer. Whatever course you choose is going to be painful and awful, so don't torment yourself feeling guilty about doing the wrong thing.

I'm really sorry about the cat.
posted by amtho at 12:23 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Tell them now, over the phone. The idea of letting them "enjoy their vacation" is tricky, because if they have a great time and then come home to this news the biggest memory of the trip may well be: "Remember that vacation where our cat was dead and nobody told us and we had so much fun but the memory of it was pretty much ruined at the very end?"

Let them know. They will be sad but it may actually be easier in the long run. They can toast to and remember their dear cat from wherever they are. It may even bring them closer together on their trip, believe it or not.

If it matters, I've been in your your parents' shoes and I am glad I was told. I would have been crushed to have it hidden from me, and even felt betrayed.
posted by quarterframer at 12:25 PM on March 24, 2010

Is it bad that my gut wants you to replace the cat with a cat that looks just like him so your parents don't have to face the heartbreak? I feel so bad for your parents. I suppose the logical thing to do is to let them enjoy their vacation and tell them the day before they come back.

I'm so sorry this happened.
posted by anniecat at 12:28 PM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Would you conceal the death of a family member? Because from their point of view, that is what has happened.
posted by hermitosis at 12:37 PM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

However you decide, know in your own mind that you made a very difficult decision the best way you knew how. This is a no win situation. Whatever you decide to do, you have the best intentions and your parents' best interests at heart. I hope your parents will understand and appreciate that.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:41 PM on March 24, 2010

I have no intuition about this, I can't decide whether I would want to know or not. I asked my husband though, and he would want to know because he would feel so bad about having a great vacation while his cat had died. And I guess that regardless of how it will affect their trip, they deserve to know-the cat was a member of their family and I can see how having that information kept from them could add to the pain.
posted by Kimberly at 12:44 PM on March 24, 2010

I vote for telling now over the phone.

Especially so if they are the sort to ask "how's the cat?" should you get a call or email from them while they are away. What on earth would you do then? If you lie or you tell them at that point it's even more awkward.

And if they are the sort that would come home over this doesn't THAT tell you that they'd want to know now versus later? Tell them and explain that the vet is caring for the body until they get home, etc.
posted by FlamingBore at 12:51 PM on March 24, 2010

On my (married-into) family's long-awaited three-week long trip to Germany, a very close friend of the family died. My in-laws got told by phone the night before the trip was over (he had died of a heart attack about a week into the trip), and they told everyone else on the way to the airport. There was no question in my mind that this was the correct way to do it, both for the family back in the states (who didn't call until after the funeral) and for the family on the trip. This trip had been literally years in the planning, and the friend in question would have been very chagrined to learn that his untimely passing had brought this trip to a screeching halt. Even if we had all decided to stay with the trip, it would have been tainted.

I love my dog and think of her as a member of the family, but I certainly wouldn't want my vacation ruined knowing that she had been hit by a car. I wouldn't come back, I'd just be sad. So based on my own feelings and based on experience, I'd wait until either a call right before they come home or wait until they actually do get home.
posted by norm at 12:53 PM on March 24, 2010

From your posts throughout the day, you have, I think, sufficiently described your mother's reaction upon finding out while on vacation. She would cancel and return home. From the Galapagos Islands. I am still, and now even more so, on the side of not calling.

Do not make them keep up appearances or feel the guilt of continuing to enjoy their vacation when they have the option of flying home. Allow them to enjoy this vacation that they have "long anticipated". What a waste of a lovely and once-in-a-lifetime experience.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:53 PM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

I love my dog and think of her as a member of the family, but I certainly wouldn't want my vacation ruined knowing that she had been hit by a car.

These are totally contradictory statements. You wouldn't want your vacation ruined by finding out a member of your family died?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:57 PM on March 24, 2010

These are totally contradictory statements. You wouldn't want your vacation ruined by finding out a member of your family died?

My answering yes to this question proves that I don't consider it contradictory, correct? Although let us be frank, not all family is mourned equally. Mom? Dad? Kid? Wife? Yes. Dog? Close friend of family? Second cousin? Nope!
posted by norm at 1:02 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There really doesn't seem to be any consensus on this... It seems like they deserve to know right away (hermitosis is right, it is like the death of a family member) - it's not my right to keep this from them - and yet knowing this will almost certainly destroy and likely end their vacation and cause terrible pain in a terribly awkward social situation.
posted by Auden at 1:03 PM on March 24, 2010

These are totally contradictory statements. You wouldn't want your vacation ruined by finding out a member of your family died?

This thread will go better if we don't second guess other people's feelings.

This is the comment bunnycup referred to above, but it is mostly about how to deliver bad news not when. My general rule of thumb in a situation like this is: if there is anything they could do, tell them now. If there is not anything they could do, tell them later.

In your particular situation, if they're likely to communicate with you regularly and mention the cat, I think you have to tell them sooner. Otherwise I would side with your aunt since it's better to have more people on the "this is why we did what we did" side. I am so sorry you are going through this and sorry about the cat.
posted by jessamyn at 1:09 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Could you possibly ask the vet's office about this? They've likely encountered similar situations and are familiar with your parents' relationship with their pet.
posted by Meg_Murry at 1:12 PM on March 24, 2010

Is it bad that my gut wants you to replace the cat with a cat that looks just like him so your parents don't have to face the heartbreak?

Please don't do this. There is no cat that "looks just like" a cat someone knows well -- any cat owner worth their salt could pick their cat out of a whole room full of cats of the same color. The owners will figure this out the instant they see that Fluffy doesn't look or act like Fluffy, and then you will be in deep trouble.

If one of my cats died, I would personally want to be told ASAP... but given what you've said, I think it's reasonable to wait until the day before they return from Galapagos. Give them a call the last evening and break the news gently -- that way they won't find out in public, and they'll have some time to absorb the news before they come home, but it won't wreck any vacation days.
posted by vorfeed at 1:29 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm leaning towards doing the wrong thing, the practical thing, and telling them when they arrive at the airport, not now. But morally I think they should know now. (The Vets gave conflicting advice, also)

I'm going to be a little more specific... right now they are on a boat off the Galapagos with 15 other people and scheduled to be there for another 5 days - I just checked their itinerary and called their travel agent. I think knowing this would tear my mom up and really make for a terrible situation. Its not like they are staying in a hotel in London for a couple of weeks.
posted by Auden at 1:30 PM on March 24, 2010

Over the phone next time you speak: "I haven't been able to find the cat." This will hopefully allow them to prepare themselves for the worst.

Then tell them what happened the day before they return home or upon their arrival.
posted by juliplease at 1:33 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's nothing they can do now. Nothing you can do now. Don't tell them now. But if they ask about the cat while they are on vacation, you must tell them right then. If they don't ask, then you tell them at the airport.

You might stretch the truth a little when you DO need to tell them by saying kitty died "two nights ago and I just couldn't bear to tell you right away" Once their grieving is over they may suspect you stretched the truth a little there but I think hindsight will get you forgiveness for that.

(Arrange for the cremation yourself.)

I'm really sorry for your, and their, loss.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:38 PM on March 24, 2010

This sucks so hard either way. I keep going back and forth in my head, but I am leaning towards "wait until you see them". I would wait even longer until you get into the car so they don't have to worry about crying in public.
posted by amicamentis at 1:42 PM on March 24, 2010

There really doesn't seem to be any consensus on this... It seems like they deserve to know right away (hermitosis is right, it is like the death of a family member) - it's not my right to keep this from them - and yet knowing this will almost certainly destroy and likely end their vacation and cause terrible pain in a terribly awkward social situation. (Auden)

Given that this will be like the death of a family member to them, I'm going to tell you about what happened when my grandfather died:

My parents had just left for a trip to Brazil. It had been planned for ages and ages; they were going to be celebrating their 30th anniversary in Rio. My grandfather (whose health had been poor, but whom we were expecting to live for a good deal longer) died unexpectedly one night just a few days after they'd gone. My parents, of course, came home as soon as they could.

Several weeks later, well after the funeral, I asked my mother (it was her father who'd died) if she was disappointed not to have been able to complete her trip. She said no, but that she felt like her trip hadn't been ruined—in fact, she couldn't really comprehend how a trip might be ruined by news like this. A trip can be ruined by really bad weather all the way through, or by getting dysentery. It is, in many ways, a petty thing, and can be ruined by petty things. The death of a family member is much larger than a trip; it's an important life event in a way that a trip, no matter how long planned and looked forward to, just can't touch. To prioritize the trip over such an event would be, to her, according an importance to the trip that it couldn't ever have.

If I were you, I'd email them and ask them to call you as soon as they can. I'd tell them the news, and let them decide whether they want to come home. If your mom wants to come home from the Galapagos because of her cat's death, that is her decision, and I doubt she will regret it.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:46 PM on March 24, 2010 [12 favorites]

I agree with hermitosis. This is a family member. Frankly, it is a family member they probably love more than half their human family. They need to know. Now.
posted by teg4rvn at 1:46 PM on March 24, 2010

There's nothing they can do now. Nothing you can do now. (seanmpuckett)

I disagree. They can grieve. You can be there for them as they grieve. Just because the fact that the cat died can't be changed doesn't mean that nothing can be done.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:47 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

right now they are on a boat off the Galapagos with 15 other people and scheduled to be there for another 5 days

Don't tell them now.

Tell them when you meet them at the airport.

If you tell them now, they'll be wanting to grieve, cry, etc on a boat where they have very little privacy / ability to retreat, and it will make things even worse for them.

If you tell them just before they get on the plane - again, they'll be in that awful situation of needing to cry but surrounded by strangers. (Also, a long-haul flight is enough of a hellish situation to get through without having to add grief on top of it.)
posted by Oceanesque at 1:48 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think their vacation is gonna be ruined no matter what at this point, whether they learn now or when they're back and retrospectively feel like crap.

What stands out to me is that they are on a group trip to the Galapagos, somewhere they are probably not able to get out of quickly, or go back to, and it will upset the plans of the group they are with.

I'd be inclined to lie and say that the cat died right before they left to go home, but is there any way they can find out that's a lie? (i.e. they want to see the cat's body immediately and cat has very obviously been frozen for 2 weeks rather than 24 hours.) Or will they ask about the cat over the phone while gone? If they do, I think the gig is up and you'll have to tell, because the flat-out-lie will probably piss them off most of all, regardless of good intentions.

I'd lean to the side of "don't tell until they get home if you can get away with it," but you might not be able to get away with it. And the lie will probably be the worst problem of all if you are flat out doing it, rather than just not mentioning the cat (and they don't bring it up) until they're in the car on the way home.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:51 PM on March 24, 2010

Do NOT tell them while they are on the boat. That boat is too small for the other people to have to be around someone who is grieving their cat. Not everyone is understanding about these things, and that may make things even worse for your mom and dad. Wait until they get back to land and to a hotel where they can react privately as emotionally as they need to.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 1:52 PM on March 24, 2010

How much contact will they have with you before they get home? If they call and specifically ask about the cat, I think you'd have to tell them. At the very least tell them "I haven't been able to find the cat." and hope they don't worry too terribly. However if it's the kind of trip where they won't be in contact with you I say hold on to the information and allow them to finish out the vacation. Tell them between the airport and home. Don't wait until they walk in the door, but be cautious about blurting it out the first moment you see them in the airport. The car may be best if you think they'd be more comfortable in a private place.

For me, the key difference between this and a family member passing isn't about the strength of the relationship, but about the family's grieving process. With a family member, arrangements would have to be made, people contacted, loved ones supported, a funeral held, etc. I would not want to be left out of something of such importance. But because the cat is a much more personal and private relationship, (combined with the vet's gracious offer of cold storage, essentially freezing time until they return), you can delay the their grieving process until they arrive home and are able to fully respond to the news.
posted by platinum at 2:02 PM on March 24, 2010

My family and I went to London for eight weeks last summer, leaving our four cats in the care of my mother-in-law. I specifically told her not to tell us if one of the cats died during our trip. I love my cats very, very much but I also knew that having that information while overseas would do no good for me or my children. I would have wanted to come home immediately. I trusted her to trust the vet if one of them became ill and she was authorized to make important decisions regarding their care. She's also a cat lover so we knew she'd do whatever was necessary to keep them well.

As it was, one of them did become ill - very mildly ill - while we were gone and she took care of it and let us know when we returned home. I'm so glad she followed our instructions. I have no guilt about enjoying myself while one of the kitties was ill because I knew she was in good hands.

I vote for not telling them right now, especially given where they are and how difficult it would be for them to get back home. When you pick them up at the airport, greet them warmly and wait until you're out of public areas to tell them. I hate falling apart in public, as many people do, so I'd give them the chance to be in private before telling them. Will it be an uncomfortable ride home? Yes. But for heaven's sake, how much worse will it be to tell them now? I think it would be remarkably worse.

This is also a good time to remind everyone to tell their pet-sitters what to do in a situation like this. If you're going away, let the pet-sitter know your wishes. That way no one has to agonize about what to do.

I'm so sorry for your loss, Auden.
posted by cooker girl at 2:03 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm leaning towards doing the wrong thing, the practical thing, and telling them when they arrive at the airport, not now. But morally I think they should know now. (The Vets gave conflicting advice, also)

Sometimes the practical thing is also the right thing. There's nothing you can do about this, there's nothing they can do about this -- it's already happened, and nothing about it will be changing in two weeks. If the cat were injured, it would be different.

The only thing that can happen now is that a once in a lifetime trip could be ruined, and overshadowed with memories of sadness and loss.

For full disclosure, my dog died when I was in NYC for the week when I was 19. My parents told me when I got home, after I'd finished telling them about the weekend. I looked over and her bowls weren't there. It was horrible, and I was really angry for about 60 seconds, and then I felt they did the right thing. There was no other reasonable thing for them to do.

I think shouldering the burden alone, for your parents, is a kindness. If it turns out you were wrong, and they wish they'd known, they will understand that you acted in a way that you thought protected them the best in a situation where ultimately, no matter what, you can't thoroughly protect them.

I am really sorry for the loss of your cat and for this sad dilemma you're facing.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:03 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

The suggestion of the 'missing cat' has reminded me of another family data point. My mother-in-law just returned from a trip down south. During this trip, one of her cats did go missing. This would not have been so unusual, except that it stayed missing for the whole week after she was told about it. They found the poor kitty's body a day or two after getting back (it had gone off to a remote corner of the farm to die). Perhaps this isn't a terrible way to get them prepared for it; they were certainly expecting bad news by the time they returned. And you could tell this to your dad, who could have the option to let your mom know or not.

My overall vote (not that I get one) remains to wait to tell, though.

This thread will go better if we don't second guess other people's feelings.

Total aside: I'd be more apt to be offended by this if I hadn't had to be in this situation before. I also had to tell my brother-in-law that his dad died, while he was in Vegas, and to get home ASAP. No ambiguity there, it just had to happen, and I just happened to be the one on the other end of the phone when he finally returned the frantic calls to him. These situations suck really bad and there's no way to sugar coat it. I am sure everyone knows here that I'm offering my advice, such as it is, in good faith.
posted by norm at 2:23 PM on March 24, 2010

Don't tell them. There is nothing they can do. The cat's in cold storage and they can have a little service when they return. They're going to be upset no matter what and from the sounds of it they will take it very badly and possibly go to great lengths (and possibly costs) to get home to do nothing in particular other than be sad.
posted by whoaali at 2:28 PM on March 24, 2010

You already consulted a family member. Now the responsibility for whatever decision can be shared (at least if you both agree).

Then it doesn't look like (whichever decision), you've singlehandedly made a bad choice.

Safety in numbers for what is (ultimately) an arbitrary (but emotion-laden) decision.

I understand you're not trying to "cover yourself" here, but if you decide to defer the information, "we decided" is better than "I decided", as it will also soften the rationale to your parents.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 2:40 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

My vote is wait to tell, but at the very end of their vacation -- maybe the day before they head home. Then they have some time to come to terms with it, including a long plane ride, but it won't wreck their trip.
posted by changeling at 2:40 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ok this may be a horrible horrible idea, so feel free mefiland to strike me down in my stupidity, but why do they need to know the cat died now? I know you said the vet somehow preserved it, but would this same preservation have taken place if the cat had died while your parents were in transit returning home? I only say this because it may be easier for them to accept "cat died yesterday/a few days ago and I wanted to tell you in person/had to wait until you landed" than "cat died 2 weeks ago and I purposely hid that from you" ...
posted by kthxbi at 3:06 PM on March 24, 2010

Response by poster: I'd like to thank everyone for your suggestions, experiences, and kind words. She was my parent's cat, but I helped pick her and raise her from a kitten, and ...

After reading all the suggestions, talking with friends and reflecting on it, I think I prefer to tell my folks shortly after they arrive at the airport (I won't lie if they call or e-mail, and I won't lie about the date that the cat died to protect myself). I will be driving, and it's a 30 minute return trip to their house. If anyone has suggestions about the best way to actually tell them (pull over the car? have Dad drive so I'm free to address them? etc), I would appreciate that as well. I don't want to wait to tell them at their home. (I'm going to be reading the ask.metafilter thread on delivering bad news)
posted by Auden at 3:18 PM on March 24, 2010

If one of my dogs died while I was away, I would want to know immediately and would be infuriated by anyone else's utterly wrong assumption that enjoying some stupid vacation would be more important to me than the fact that somebody I loved had died. A vacation is so utterly trivial to me in comparison to the people and animals that I love. Yes, it would ruin the vacation, but I wouldn't care about that at all. The vacation would be retrospectively ruined as soon as I got home and found out, anyway, plus my grief would be compounded by anger.
posted by HotToddy at 3:24 PM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

Don't wait until you're in the car -- you'll be distracted, everyone will be upset, and it's not really a safe moment to be driving. I would find a relatively private spot at the airport (an empty gate or some such) and say "Mom, Dad, let's sit for a minute, I need to tell you something important."

I think you're making a wise and loving choice. I'm so sorry for your family's loss.
posted by ottereroticist at 3:31 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't let your dad be driving the car!!!!
I was driving at seventy miles an hour on the highway in the passing lane when my mum chose to spill some similar news! I narrowly missed the barrier after describing a fairly large S curve with the car.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 3:34 PM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't have one of them drive; I would crash the car if someone told me one of my dogs had died while I was driving. Seriously.

I choose the option of telling just your dad and making clear that there is nothing that their returning early could possibly achieve and letting him decide how to handle this with regards to your mother. I would never trust someone again who hadn't immediately told me that something had happened to one of my pets.
posted by Acer_saccharum at 3:43 PM on March 24, 2010

I think that any decision you make is the right decision here, and it appears that you have settled on what you are going to do. This is very difficult and you are doing your best, and you know your parents much better than anyone else here does. No one here can predict what is best for you and your family in this situation; we can only point to similar situations or say how we might react.

That said, do not have your father drive. I also wouldn't recommend breaking the news in the car.

Please take some time to take care of yourself here, too. You've lost someone you loved dearly as well, and you said yourself it was quite a shock and that the house feels quiet. Please do what you need to do to take care of yourself in this situation.
posted by k8lin at 3:50 PM on March 24, 2010

I agree with your decision. I'd tell them in the car before you leave the airport, not while you're driving, and not in the airport, you want some privacy for them, for all of you. I'm so sorry.
posted by lemniskate at 3:51 PM on March 24, 2010

I'm so sorry to hear about your cat and having to deal with delivering the bad news. If you find yourself regretting waiting on telling them (since it's just recently happened), it's okay to change your mind.

Myself, I'm torn on whether I'd want to be told ahead of time or not. But even if your parents are very, very angry with you not telling them right away because you didn't want to ruin their vacation, I imagine that down the road they will still forgive you. If you lied or tried to hide the fact that it had happened, that would be a lot worse. Good luck.

As far as giving the bad news, I'd find a nearby park or someplace quiet to tell them before you head home from the airport. The car is a waaaaay bad idea.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 3:54 PM on March 24, 2010

Park the car in the lot, even if this is not what you normally do. Once you get them into the car, but BEFORE YOU START DRIVING, tell them. This is probably the most private spot you can find at or near the airport.

I still think you should tell them now; failing that, before they get on the plane. But given you know your parents, and that you've decided that it is best to tell them in person, later, I think you should do it in private, and free from the distractions of anyone driving. I agree that you should not lie to them if they ask while away, and that you should tell them the truth about when the cat died.
posted by jeather at 3:54 PM on March 24, 2010

You and your aunt know your parents the best, so you will make the right decision. Keep in mind that many people are bringing up what happened to them as children, which I can imagine might be more traumatic than with an adult (but not necessarily).
posted by nestor_makhno at 4:02 PM on March 24, 2010

I didn't read all the replies above, but just dropped in to give you my bit of anecdata.

I had a very similar experience years ago; my parents' house was burglarized while they were on their first-ever trip to Europe. Rather than ruin their vacation or let them be shocked when they came home, I "split the baby". That is, I called them in Europe on the day they were leaving. Their vacation wasn't ruined, but they also had time on the trip home to process what had happened and decide what to do.
posted by DrGail at 4:22 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I cannot advise on when to tell them because you have more information about how they would react, etc.

What I will advise is NOT to lie, or even bend the truth.
Do not tell them that you don't know when was the last time you saw the cat. Do not tell them that it happened yesterday.

It will be difficult enough for you to pass the remaining time before they get home while you fret about the outcome. If you misrepresent the truth you will have to hold that for a lifetime. Worse yet, if they find out the truth afterward, it will really be a mess.
posted by Drasher at 4:27 PM on March 24, 2010

Don't tell them in the car if you can help it. I once was given quite bad news by my parents in the car and it was awful to have to sit there upset and crying in a captive environment.

Find a private area in the airport, or pull over at rest stop or something. Tell them in the car if there's no other choice, but if you can find somewhere more private that is best.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:30 PM on March 24, 2010

Parked in the car at the airport works, too... just don't be driving.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:32 PM on March 24, 2010

It might be nice if you can find a way that your Mom or Dad won't be in the back seat alone when you tell them. Maybe bring a fourth person to sit in the front seat with you so your parents can sit together during the ride home.
posted by amtho at 5:14 PM on March 24, 2010

It is going to be fine, even if it's hard. The death of a loved one is always going to be hard. It is supposed to be hard. You don't need to worry about making it less hard. Your actions have been kind, considerate, and respectful. That is the most that can be expected of anyone in this situation.
posted by nickjadlowe at 5:45 PM on March 24, 2010

That sounds like a fair decision, Auden. I hope it goes as well as possible. I'm glad that you're choosing not to lie to them if they ask. I would not have either of them drive the car while you tell them. Pull over in a quiet place. I would definitely not tell them that the cat has gone missing in the hopes that it will prepare them for its death. If I were in their position, I would worry constantly about the whereabouts of my cat. If I found out that my cat died after it had gone missing & I had not flown back to find him, I would feel guilty for so long... that lie would cause me a great deal of distress & prolong the grieving process for me. The cat's death is a certainty - tell or don't tell, but don't introduce that kind of uncertainty.
posted by studioaudience at 6:31 PM on March 24, 2010

(Just wanted to say that my post above, immediately following your decision to wait to tell them, was a failure to preview. Sorry. Positioned as it is, I think it looks like I'm reprimanding you for your decision but I honestly wasn't.)
posted by HotToddy at 6:45 PM on March 24, 2010

Awww dear Auden, I'm so sorry for the loss of your dear cat and so sorry for your parents' loss too.

I'm sorry you are in this predicament and having to decide how to break this bad news to them.

I read all the comments carefully.

My initial reaction was to wait and tell them. Then I thought it through carefully, what it would be like for them to come home and be slammed with not only the death of their beloved cat but then all the fun they had on the vacation might be a source of guilt, they had fun when their cat was killed and dead. Then you had kept a secret from them. Then they would be in the house suddenly alone without their cat.

What I think is the right thing to do is tell them now.
No email but in a telephone call.
No pre-drama lead up.
Just a call.
Either parent.
They will feel loss, sadness and grief.
They will feel guilt that if they had not left home their cat would not have died.
Telling them now leaves them the opportunity of mixing their enjoyment, wonder, concern, curiosity, interest in the Galapagos, all the animals of the islands there and their feelings of loss for their animal companion. By the time they return they will have been going through the various stages of grieving. This will soften coming home to their house without their cat.

Telling them now honors their relationship with their cat more than the idea that a death of a beloved could "ruin" their vacation. Honoring their cat is about feelings of love, of connection, cherishing, valuing, in life and in death.

It's also the truth. I believe they have a right to know the truth now and decide how they will handle their sadness or what action they will take.

Hi mom/dad. I'm terribly sorry to tell you this. It's very bad news. I'm heartbroken to tell you that x was killed last night by a car. I'm so sorry. I've gathered his/her body and taken it to the vet's. It can wait there in storage for burial or cremation.

They will have their reaction. Their feelings and their decision to do what they choose.

You can be there to comfort them on the phone, cry together and then when they come home. It's a process.
posted by nickyskye at 7:33 PM on March 24, 2010 [9 favorites]

I'm in the camp who says tell them. When I was a freshman in college, I didn't find out until a few days after it happened (when my brother happened to pick up the phone) that my dog had been hit by a car and badly hurt. I was very upset with my parents that they didn't let me know.

I also missed the funeral of a dear friend of the family because my father wasn't willing to tell me what had happened through voice- or email. I was traveling, but could have gotten back in time if I had been told promptly..
posted by brujita at 12:53 AM on March 25, 2010

When you do tell them, please get to the point as quickly as possible. Avoid trying to soften the blow with extra phrases before delivering the news. This minimizes the time available for their minds to run wild imagining every bad situation possible. It may only be a few seconds, but it can seem like an eternity when you're hearing bad news. Looking at nickyskye's example above me, their thought process on the receiving end might go something like this:

"Hi mom/dad. I'm terribly sorry to tell you this. (Oh my god what happened? Who died? Grandma? She hasn't been herself lately, but I thought she was ok. Cousin Larry maybe? He's always getting into trouble...) It's very bad news. (Oh sweetie, are you ok? Are you sick?) I'm heartbroken to tell you that (Oh no, I hope it's not cancer, it does run in the family. We'll get through this together...) x was killed last night by a car. I'm so sorry. I've gathered his/her body and taken it to the vet's. It can wait there in storage for burial or cremation.

Instead, I would recommend something like "Hi mom/dad, I have some very sad news about x. He/she was killed last night by a car. I'm so sorry. I've gathered his/her body and taken it to the vet's. It can wait there in storage for burial or cremation." This approach gets to the point a little more quickly, especially since you will probably be feeling overwhelmed with emotion too and may have to stop to collect yourself during the conversation.
posted by platinum at 12:59 AM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't tell them until they got back home. And keep in mind... you don't have to tell them exactly when the cat died. I'd let them think the cat died the day before you picked them up at the airport.
posted by orange swan at 6:35 AM on March 25, 2010

I would tell them. If it were me and someone concealed the story from me, I would not trust them with anything, let alone anybody, precious to me again.
posted by Salamandrous at 2:47 PM on March 26, 2010

Response by poster: OK, My parents arrived last night at the airport from their 3 week vacation to the Galapagos islands. I picked them up at 11 pm. They were tired from traveling all day; my dad was in a bad mood, my mom was tired but happy.

My dad had emailed me once during their trip (but didn't mention the cat), and I returned a nice but short, general reply. My mom called during a stopover on the day of their flight, about 7 hours before their arrival; luckily she also didn't ask me about her cat.

Earlier in the day I drove out to the airport to find a good place (a "pull-over cell-phone stop") where I could stop the car quickly and to break the bad news. I'm very glad I took this step. I also planned out what I wanted to say, with a quick-to-the-point "I have some very bad news to tell you about Daisy..." followed up by a detailed account.

They had had a great, great vacation; they swam with giant turtles, traveled from island to island, wandered among thousands of tame iguanas, had the perfect local guide, and so on.

It was terrible to watch my mom's face break up into tears right after I told her. After a while she said "let's just go home," and she cried in the car next to me all the way. My dad tried to make a little small talk and then was quiet. Mom cried before bed, and cried from time to time today. She wants to bury Daisy out in their yard tomorrow.

I explained to my parents how much I wrestled with whether to tell them, and explained that I'd spoken to many people about what to do. Both my parents said that I'd done the right thing, and weren't angry or upset with me at all, but were concerned that I blamed myself for what happened.

So, I think I made the right choice. My parents had a truly wonderful few weeks, unsullied by the grief that they're now going through. They don't feel anger towards me or feel that I betrayed them by not immediately letting them know. My mom (and I will assume my dad also) is going through the kind of sadness and shock that I went through last week. For myself, I had a week full of terrible, empty anxiety about telling them and sadness for the cat.

I don't know if anyone will check back, but if you do, thanks again everyone for your help and for the advice and comfort you gave me. It was invaluable to me.

I uploaded a photo of Daisy if anyone wanted to see her. She was a good cat; she had, I think, a happy life. Though much too short.
posted by Auden at 3:34 PM on April 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm so sorry you had to go through this Auden, but it sounds like you did the right thing by your parents and that everything worked out as best it could in the end. Make sure to do something nice for yourself this week and take care of yourself.
posted by amethysts at 8:31 PM on April 4, 2010

RIP Daisy.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:06 AM on April 5, 2010

Oh, poor Daisy. She looks like my kitty. I'm so sorry you had to go through this but I'm glad your parents don't seem to be holding any kind of resentment against you for not telling them sooner. It's nice they were able to have such a great vacation.
posted by amicamentis at 7:10 AM on April 5, 2010

Auden, thanks so much for following up with this post. I'm so sorry for you and your parents, Daisy looks like a wonderful cat and it sounds like she will be terribly missed. ((((hugs)))))
posted by platinum at 1:18 AM on April 6, 2010

Thank you for updating. I've been checking back to see how things went. I'm glad your parents had such a wonderful vacation, and that they were okay with your decision. You're a good daughter.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:09 AM on April 6, 2010

Thanks for updating. Sorry for what you had to go through. I'm so glad your parents had a nice vacation.
posted by Sophie1 at 6:26 AM on April 9, 2010

What a sweet kitty she was.

Again, I'm so sorry for your family's loss and I'm so relieved for you that your parents don't blame you and agree that you did the right thing. I'm sure that takes a huge weight off your heart.
posted by cooker girl at 6:00 PM on April 9, 2010

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