The loss of a loved one and the grief associated with it are never easy. There is no play book or standard operating procedure to deal with the wide array of emotions that are attached to those two subjects. I remember taking a Death and Dying class in high school and learning about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. I also remember thinking that if we could all just accept that death was inevitable, then we would not have to spend weeks, months or even years of our lives crawling through each stage and missing the ‘living’ part of life that our lost loved one would have wanted us to embrace. In Kübler-Ross’s grief theory, the length of time a person spent in each emotion differed greatly.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross noted that the stages are not meant to be a complete list of all possible emotions that could be felt, and they can occur in any order. Her hypothesis holds that not everyone who experiences a life-threatening or life-altering event feels all five of the responses, due to reactions of personal losses differing between people. (Wikipedia).
To some of us, losing a pet is like losing a human family member. To true animal lovers, our pets are our family members. They are family members with significantly shorter life spans, typically, and we grieve the loss of our furry loved ones over and over in our lifetime. One major difference occurs though. If our pet does not die suddenly of an accident or illness, and we are fortunate enough to have them into their old age, at some point, we are faced with a decision. We have the ultimate power to put our pets to death, humanely, of course, but that horrible word, euthanasia, comes with a big price; guilt. Kübler-Ross didn’t cover guilt when I learned about death and dying in high school; so as prepared as I thought I was to skip over stages one through four and go straight to acceptance, I was devastated when this unprepared emotion named guilt crept into the picture.
The first time I had to make that decision as an adult was with my ten year old German Shepherd, Canein. The family spend a long, emotionally draining, tear filled day saying good-bye to him only to change our minds when we saw how excited he got after loading him into the car. His old, tired head perked up as if he was ‘going for a ride’ to something fun. I didn’t have the heart to take him to the vet that day, and I convinced myself that the old boy still had life left in him. We took a detour from Rainbow Bridge. Unfortunately, a few days later, he couldn’t even drag himself out of his bed. He whimpered in pain and his eyes pled with me to make it end. I carried his once strong frame, now weak, frail and thin to the car for the long, heart wrenching drive to the vet. I walked into the waiting room, my vision blurred by my tears as everyone turned to look at me. One by one, people quickly averted their gaze at the realization of what was. An uncomfortable silence hung over the waiting room, even the dogs seemed to bow down their heads as I carried a dying old man past them into a private room.
I sat on the cold, tile floor with him, only a white terry cloth towel to cushion his brittle bones from the hard surface. I held his head in my lap trying to remain strong for him. I owed it to him. After ten years of love and companionship, I owed it to him to be there with him, to comfort his fear. I tried to control my breathing as the vet injected the vein in his right arm. I watched his breathing slow, and I felt mine come faster until I was in an all-out uncontrollable, heaving sob. I buried my tear soaked face in the black and tan fur that stuck up on his neck from a lifetime of wearing his collar. His breath slowed to a stop. He was still. The vet silently exited the room, and I sat there with my boy through a full box of tissues.
I thought I had this down. I had expected sadness, what I didn’t expect was the guilt. Had I made the right decision? Was it too soon? Could he just have been having a bad day? Could I have managed his pain better and given him more time with me? Did I do everything within my power to make him better?
I went home and wrote, because I thought writing always made me feel better. Not that day.
Our dear friend Canein was put to sleep today. It was the day he decided that play no longer outweighed the pain. For Cane, you see, a warrior with a reckless abandoned and an undying loyalty to his people, play was his motivation for living. Catching a Frisbee, popping a basketball, splashing into the pool, tugging his rope or playing hide and seek. We promised ourselves that the day he stopped playing would be the day he was to go peacefully into freedom. Freedom from all his ailments and fears. He was the true and classic definition of man’s best friend. A protector, a guardian, a healer, a playmate, a puppy, an old soul. The sound of his howl, the smell of his head, the warmth of his breath and the dance in his eyes. Cane was all those things and more. Words fail me now. But memories will last a lifetime. (Originally posted on Florida K9 website- May 29, 2003)
The entire family was affected by the loss of Canein, even his best friend, Bantam. Bantam was my eight year old Doberman Pinscher that had never known life without Canein. She cried. She whined. She paced. She died ten days later, and I repeated the entire soul wrenching process again. Guilt times two now.
I memorialized them by wearing their brushed nickel Ruin Symbol on a piece of leather around my own neck. Canein wore the symbol for Protection and Bantam wore the symbol for Humanity (years later, tattooed these symbols on my body to remind me of the tremendous lessons that loving those dogs taught me). I kept their collars displayed, but back then, I never thought to retrieve their ashes, something I regret to this day.
Then nine more years passed before I ever had to make that decision again. This time, though, I did so without that nasty emotion named guilt. I had rescued an old Doberman Pinscher from the county shelter at about eight years old. About the time Quinn turned 12, her old body was wearing out and she had the beginnings of a liver issue. At the same time, my old Great Dane, Emmit, was becoming withdrawn, not eating and having an extremely difficult time getting up.
My neighbor shared with me his experience with a veterinarian named Dr. Dani McVety who started a company named Lap of Love. He explained that she was an emergency room vet that started a practice for in-home euthanasia and hospice care for dogs. He went on to tell me one of the worst days in his dog’s life was able to be virtually added stress free, and he was able to grieve in the privacy of his own home.
My wife and I called Dr. McVety for an in-home consultation. Her message to us was this: the kindest thing anyone could ever do for their pet was to never let them suffer one moment. I then realized that there is no “right” time aside from adhering to the philosophy of never letting my dog suffers one second.
I have received hundreds of calls from panic-stricken dog training clients over the last 20 years, as their dog was screaming in pain, asking what to do. Of course, this usually happens in the wee hours of the morning and they have to make the Nascar race to the emergency vet in middle of the night. What if what Dr. McVety has said to me was true then? If they had not waited until that horrible moment when their dog’s eyes are laced with panic and fear themselves, could there have been a kinder last moment for the furry loved one? My answer now is resoundingly, yes.
A few years back, Dr. McVety has come to our house to evaluate Emmit. Her assessment found that Emmit still has life left, and he was not suffering, but Quinn was another story. So it was with Quinn and then Emmit six months later, they passed on to Rainbow Bridge peacefully as they lay on their own bed, in their own home devoid of all the stress and fear of the unknown that the ride to the vet brings. They never knew a day of inexplicable pain or suffering. And while I still sobbed deeply over the loss of my furry family member, guilt was no longer a factor. I knew that I made a kinder, selfless decision for them. The decision this time was for them, not me.
Its human nature to want to keep what is comfortable and known to us and to avoid pain. We keep our pets around much too long under the guise of taking care of them or not giving up on them; when in reality, we are taking care of our own emotional needs.
My wife asked Dr. McVety why she would have a hospice care program. Her answer was simple. She manages the pain of the pet until the owner is ready to let go.
I am now of the belief that if my old dog has a terminal, debilitating disease or reoccurring pain that will not ease or cease, then it’s time for me to start looking hard at the quality of life my dog has and the totality of the circumstances. Lap of Love has a quality of life scale on their website that I have used. It was quite eye opening.
Making the decision when to let my dog go peacefully over the Rainbow Bridge will never be an easy one, but I know now that I can do it without guilt. The kindest and most loving decision I can ever make for my furry loved one is to never let them know pain and allow them the dignity of dying with grace. I will never take the Rainbow Bridge Detour again for the sake of my own heart.
After the excruciating pain of losing a pet, I have had people tell me they never want to go through it again and will not have another pet. To them I answer like this: I am willing to know extreme pain and heartache time and time again throughout my life in exchange for the immeasurable love and joy they bring me during their short time here on earth. And if you are a person capable of knowing that much pain over the loss of a pet, then the next unwanted soul needs you just as much as the last one you loved with all your heart. Save another life.
Wikipedia contributors. “Kübler-Ross model.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Apr. 2014. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.