My husband has two old text messages he saves. Reading them can feel like that nagging sore on your lip that you keep biting, just to see if it hurts any less than the last time you bit it. But we refer back to them anyway, usually to launch another conversation about “our boys.” When we married two years ago, our big, blended family included Glenn’s 16-year-old Golden Retriever named Dylan and my 14-year-old three-legged black Lab/Shepherd mix, Levi. Even as Levi accompanied me down the aisle with our wedding rings carefully tied to his custom tuxedo shirt, we knew the early part of our marriage would be punctuated with goodbyes. Still, we celebrated and cherished moments and preserved memories. It is the bittersweet reality of life with elderly animals. We were prepared, as much as anyone truly can prepare.
The first keepsake text reads: “He is gone. He was peaceful.” Dylan was a young dog when Glenn and his first wife divorced. They had shared custody ever since, which meant sharing decisions and expenses through Dylan’s two bouts of cancer, pancreatitis, and a complex surgery to repair a freakishly severe spiral fracture after he’d slipped on the kitchen floor. They were practiced at painful discussions and wrenching, emotionally fraught decisions. Their final negotiation was over Dylan’s last day. Just a week shy of his 17th birthday, they decided he’d have one more visit with me and Glenn followed by home euthanasia at Dylan’s other parents’ house. The simple two-line message perfectly expressed the excruciating mix of loss and peace.
Our share of Dylan’s ashes sat in an urn on the dresser for months, waiting for a day that felt just right to take them to his favorite beach. We also waited to feel ready to part with this last physical connection to the boy we called Silly Dyllie. That day came when Levi started having small seizures and we knew our time with him was drawing short too. At 15, he’d already lived years longer than doctors predicted when he lost a leg to aggressive bone cancer at age 10. We had long since stopped taking him to the beach as he struggled to run in the soft sand, but we gathered our resolve, Levi, a sling and Dylan’s ashes for a day at the beach.
With help from the sling, Levi huffed and stumbled through the soft sand. When we reached firm sand, he grabbed his ball and Chuck-It from my hand and pranced proudly – a favorite quirk we hadn’t seen in months. The mood bounced from playful to poignant as Glenn opened Dylan’s urn. Levi gave it a curious sniff and hopped behind Glenn, in a somber way that suggested he understood, as the wind carried Dylan’s ashes.
The beach outing breathed vigor into our fading friend, so several days later I had an unexpected midday break and impulsively lifted Levi into the car for another visit to the beach. This time, he jumped from the car before I could ready the sling and hopped across the beach while I tried to catch up. As he rested near the surf, proudly grinning over his sand-covered tennis ball, I snapped a picture and texted it to Glenn: “Look where our boy is.” A week later, Levi was gone.
Our boys Levi and Dylan shared a family, a love of fetching, and an unhealthy obsession with all things edible. But they were very different from each other, and in dying, as in living, they needed different things from us. Navigating their dying processes, we were reminded of the many pieces that must come together. End-of-life decisions demand that we make excruciating choices, often with little warning, all while our best friends, our bank accounts, and our hearts hang in the balance.
With an old or ailing pet in your care, a careful conversation with your veterinarian can bring invaluable peace of mind. End-of-life policies vary by clinic. You want to know your options — in advance rather than during a crisis. In our case, we learned that Dylan’s veterinarian offers home euthanasia for established patients; Levi’s veterinarian does not. There are home euthanasia services with doctors who specialize in offering compassionate end-of-life service, but you’ll want to know in advance how to reach them, when they’re available, and what it will cost. You’ll also want to think about your pet’s temperament and preferences. If you have a choice of where they spend their last moments, think about how they like the vet’s office, the car, the yard. Are they happy to see visitors come into their home, or does that cause stress?
Ours were two very different boys. Dylan was a typical buttery-soft Golden Retriever. He was happy with almost anything, but definitely more comfortable at home or in the car than at the vet’s. Levi was high octane. Our favorite joke was, “He only has one speed: ON.” He was all about going: rides, walks, runs, errands, strangers’ houses — any adventure. Combined with our vets’ policies, it was clear that our golden boy would be euthanized at home on his own memory-foam bed, while Levi would take a ride around town that ended in his vet’s parking lot where his doctor, “Uncle Chris,” could give him final loves and treats in the backseat of the car.
These decisions — like all human and animal healthcare decisions — can also be influenced by cost and availability. For a large dog like Levi, home euthanasia and cremation would have cost a bit more than $500. An expense like this may be out of reach, especially on the heels of whatever medical care your pet has already had. While home euthanasia often feels like the most appealing choice, if cost is a factor, there are less expensive ways to create a peaceful, loving ending for your friend.
Both of us had been faced with the kind of pet deaths that didn’t require decisions. Years before we met, my elderly black Lab Gabby died in my car en route to the emergency clinic in the middle of the night. Glenn’s German Shepherd Anna had to be euthanized in a doctor’s office during a medical emergency with a painful, untreatable condition, and his cat Beau had simply mysteriously died one day while he was away. These crises can happen, and then we simply do our best. When set in our laps rather than carried away by fate, the decisions are both a weighty burden and a sacred privilege.
The decision of timing can be the hardest. Levi’s vet said some people choose to euthanize old or ailing pets on a good day to avoid the inevitable bad days. As much as I wasn’t willing to let my best buddy suffer, I also couldn’t take any good time away from him. If he had another game of fetch or even one more beach visit in him, I wouldn’t end his life before he had them. I also knew our high-octane guy wouldn’t be happy to stick around if he didn’t have his physical abilities. Sweet, snuggly Dylan was a bit different: when physical activity got harder for him, he was happy with snuggles, back rubs, and assisted potty breaks.
These individual characteristics were important, but we applied the quality of life standards we’d use for any of our cherished friends. There are templates available online that help you rate the overall quality of life, but we also watched for whether our guys still had interest in their favorite things. If they could savor their food, get excited to go in the car, or luxuriate in a belly rub, we wanted them to continue experiencing those things for as long as it made sense.
A wise vet gave some life-changing advice almost 20 years ago when my precious rat Mr. Go was declining from cancer and age. I had gathered my courage and stuffed down the unbearable grief and made an appointment to have him euthanized, but I arrived at the clinic blabbering about my decision process, ticking off uncertainties and doubts. She stopped me. “It isn’t time. When it’s time, you still don’t want to do it, but you’re at peace and ready to accept it. Go home. Give him some peanut butter, bananas, shoulder rubs. You might be back tomorrow, but it will feel different because you’ll be sure.” She was right. Mr. Go and I had another cherished two days. When it was time, my heart was heavy but my thoughts were clear.
Dylan’s final day consisted of his favorite treats, which he didn’t eat, and a massage, which he savored. Levi’s final day included a visit from family, mounds of his favorite cookies, a visit to his favorite drive-through, and a car ride. While we sat in the car at the vet’s office, Levi devoured the ultimate forbidden treat for any dog who shares his home with cats: an entire container of the smelliest, grossest canned cat food, all to himself.
These final moments are surreal and excruciating and sacred. It is a time to listen to your gut and advocate for your beloved friend above all else. I asked Levi’s doctor to give him a sedative first, and when they had difficulty finding his vein during the final injection, I knew why my gut had told me to make that choice for him. Peace and comfort are priceless here. Follow your heart.
Like Dylan’s, Levi’s ashes have now spent a few months in an urn, waiting for a perfect beach day, waiting for us to be ready to watch the wind carry him away from us. That goodbye feels so final, so absolute. As solace, a dear friend has commissioned an artist to make glass beads with a sprinkle of Levi’s ashes preserved inside. Glenn’s bead will hang with his keys, riding in his pocket next to his phone with the treasured text messages. I’ll hang my bead from a necklace, next to my heart.
Services to Help
There are numerous studies and articles that tell us what we already know: losing a pet is as painful as losing a human member of our family. We are fortunate to live in a culture that increasingly understands this. Most people will offer heartfelt support during our bereavement process, but there are support groups and professionals who can offer more structured support when we need it. These local businesses provide end-of-life care that can ease you through the process of planning a loving, peaceful, dignified farewell, and coping with the loss of your beloved companion.
· Ute Luppertz offers animal communication, a hospice care support group, and calming therapies such as TTouch through her Portland-based Pet’s Point of View.
· Portland’s DoveLewis Animal Hospital has an array of grief support services, ranging from support groups to memorial art therapy workshops (all free of charge).
· Photographer Kristin Zabawa offers intimate photo sessions to capture the bond between humans and their pets near the end of life. SoulSessions Photography works on a donation-only basis to make the service available to anyone who wants it.
· In the Portland, Vancouver and the outlying areas of NW Oregon and SW Washington, Compassionate Care Home Pet Euthanasia Service is available 24 hours a day and can arrange after-care such as cremation.
· Dignified Pet Services will conduct memorial services and offers a range of after-care, ranging from caskets for burial to cremation, urns, and memorial jewelry.
Michelle Blake is a Salem, OR-based massage therapist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in national publications. Her husband wants you to know she's a REALLY crazy dog lady too.