Letting a pet die

Pagans like to think that we have a healthy view about death, but it’s still a painful thing to say goodbye to loved ones.  I’ve been confronted with the passing over of animal friends recently, and I think it’s even more difficult when you’re dealing with a pet, companion, or familiar.  Most of us don’t make the decision to end the life of our human loved ones, but doing so for an animal is much more common.

I was talking with a friend of mine about how difficult it can be to help a pet through its end of days.  She was telling me how her cat Nate had stopped eating, and that they decided it was time.

“You did the right thing,” I told her.  “Once they stop eating, it’s time to help them go.”

Tears welled in her eyes as she said, “You think so? . . . because the last day he ate again and was acting better.”

“That happens all the time,” I explained to her.  I told her about my brother’s dog, who had stayed with my parents and I when he moved out of state.  Plato loved his back yard and loathed both cars and vets, and although he adored my brother we decided that asking him to go hundreds of miles in a car to live with him would have been cruel.  When he reached the point where he couldn’t stand up to go outside (another clear indicator that it’s time), we called my brother and he made arrangements to drive up to see his dog one final time. I whispered this information into Plato’s ear, and he struggled to his feet, went for a walk, and ate a meal.

A last-minute burst of energy often accompanies the knowledge that death will be soon; I think the relief that the burden of carrying about one’s body is a big factor in this.

My friend was reassured by my words. It’s not easy to decide to euthanize.  Are you going to cut a life short, betraying this creature which loves and trusts you completely?  Will your hesitation cause undue suffering?  Another friend of mine is wrestling with her dog’s end-stage kidney failure.  She gives him fluids every day, he’s losing weight fast, and it’s tough to tell from the outside if he’s having any fun anymore.

It’s really bloody awful tough to make such a powerful, permanent decision.  In fact, when the late Cleveland Amory wrote the final book about his cat Snowball (who shared a name with my own first family pet), I was moved to tears and wrote him to tell him so.  My own Snowball was the only pet who just up and died on me; in addition to Plato I’ve helped two of my own cats and several friends’ pets pass over.  Plato probably had the best passing, because it happened in his own back yard on a sunny day, no stainless steel tables and no cars to stress him out.  My wife’s cat Gremlin also had a home death on Samhain two years ago, and the vet who shepherded her over always made a practice of saying, “Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again” when the end came.

I even was trusted with making that decision for my father, and I am grateful that he placed that level of trust in me.  In that case, my decision could not be unilateral; if it were I would have allowed him to go two weeks earlier, but my family needed to time to come to terms with his brain injury and I don’t believe he suffered in his coma.  I feel blessed that I have never wavered or doubted when I have needed to make that decision; I have a clarity in that moment and know that it’s time.

I can only hope that my clarity will be passed on to whoever must make the decision to allow me to pass over.

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