From the first cuddle, the first lick of the hand, the first day we know a lifetime bond has been formed with a beloved creature of another species, we know our time together will be short. We put that out of our mind. Since our pets accept whatever is good or bad in the moment, only we know what's ahead. As a life cycle spends itself, we may grieve long before death takes our dear companion away. We hide our tears so not to stress our ailing friend, and it hurts not to share this time. But now, the day has come or is near. An accident or the natural way of things thrusts an impossible but inevitable decision upon us. A beloved pet is at life's end. It's up to you to make the decision no one wants to make. Even if you've tried to prepare, how do you cope? How do others get through this tormenting process?
First, accept that you and your pet are attuned. Stay in communication with your instincts and observations. He or she will be letting you know that it's time. Many pet guardians say after the fact that they waited too long, focused on their own angst rather than facing their pet's stress. The signals usually are clear and measure the quality of life remaining. Are the basic functions of eating, eliminating, and responding diminished or impossible for your pet to perform? Is pain, nausea, physical weakness, incontinence or mental detachment chronic?
Second, talk about what is happening with family, friends and your veterinarian. Ask if available medical measures would simply prolong or cover up suffering? Ask for help to understand that euthanasia can be the ultimate gift, your final act of unselfish love for your pet. Your veterinarian can only present the science. Many of us go to bed praying that an angel will take our pet during the night so that we do not have to make the decision. It seldom works out that way. It can be even more difficult if a pet simply disappears so that we never know what happened, or how it happened, that he or she is gone from our lives. The bowls stay in their places. So do the bed and the favorite toys. Time passes slowly. Guilt and imagination torment.
The fact is that we are fortunate if we can help our pets pass on in a loving, honorable way. At the veterinarian's office, or if our vet comes to our home, we feel renewed respect for our pet and gratitude for our life experience together. Through our tears, we witness that the first injection of a tranquilizer calms our pet and gives us time to look into each other's eyes for the last time. Happy memories may flash by. While stroking and holding our pet in our arms, we feel a spirit letting go as the second injection - basically an anesthesia "overdose" - allows our pet's system to shut down, ending all suffering in a painless, permanent sleep. Our heart is heavier though there is a large new hole in it. Now we grieve openly.
Grieving is part and parcel of honoring a lost pet. It takes time. Especially if long lived, our pets share and endure our life's ups and downs with us. We lose some of ourselves when we lose them. Fortunately there is more support than ever for loss of a pet as a family member. Some employers include pet loss as basis for bereavement leave. There are books to help children understand loss. Often it's helpful to hold a ceremony to honor the beloved pet, a simple gathering to discuss what was so special about the pet and how he or she will be missed, how family routines will change. A photo album brings back memories. Children and adults can write poetry or stories. A plaque or the planting of a tree can be a yard memorial. Donations can be made to help unloved or homeless pets. The life lost is to be cherished, and the experience of sharing with a companion animal valued forever.
Each pet is an individual soul. Without exception however, each brings to a human companion unconditional love and a joyful, liberating, in-the-moment perspective. No wonder saying goodbye is so hard. We take comfort that sharing the cycle of life, joining in the web of life, enriches our own mortal experience for having loved unselfishly in return. For pet loss support resources, call 530-542-2857.
- Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help Keep Tahoe Kind. Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.