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The imminent departure of my two little dogs

Q & A by Bereavement Counselor Marty Tousley 

Question: As I sit here contemplating the imminent departure of my two little dogs, I feel I will never be able to cope without them. Next to my mother, they are the dearest things in my life, and I can't bear when the time comes to ask the vet to put them to sleep. I feel like vomiting just now at the mere thought of it, as they are my children. Marty, where will I ever find the courage? I will take their ashes along with me to the grave. 

Answer: I'm so sorry to learn of the deteriorating condition of your beloved little dogs and your concern with how to cope with their aging and eventual dying. I can only imagine how awful this must be for you. As you look ahead, you may find yourself experiencing all the emotions of grief in anticipation of losing them. This is known as anticipatory grief, and the physical and emotional reactions involved are the same as those experienced in normal grief. It is extremely difficult to watch your cherished animals' health and quality of life deteriorate over time. If you are thinking about euthanasia, you may be struggling with anxiety over separating from your dogs, uncertain how you'll ever bring yourself to say good-bye. Torn between not wanting to see them suffer and not wanting to lose them, you may continue to go to great lengths to postpone or to avoid the decision all together. 

Deciding when and whether to euthanize your cherished dogs is probably one of the most difficult choices you'll ever have to make. But because your dogs are aging may not be reason enough to resort to euthanasia just yet. Exploring all aspects of the decision with your veterinarian and with others whom you trust is very important. Keep in mind, however, that in the end, the decision and the timing belong to you and to you alone. 
I also encourage you to keep in mind that if and when you do decide to choose euthanasia for your dogs, your intention will be to relieve their suffering and to create a dignified and painless death for reasons of mercy and compassion. 

Like most people considering euthanasia, I suspect that you're already wondering, "How will I know when it's time?" As you come to answer that question, here's what you might want to think about:

  • What is each dog's general health and attitude? (Are they still happy with a zest for life? Miserable? In pain?) Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell, so even the fact that an older dog is blind is not in and of itself an indication that the dog is not happy or able to find his or her way around familiar surroundings.
  • What is the quality of their lives? (Are they still living with dignity?)
  • How much care do they require?
  • Can you afford the costs involved, in terms of time, money and emotional strain?
  • What is their prognosis? (Will more tests, treatments or surgery make them any better? Are there any negative side-effects from such tests or treatments?)
  • How do you feel about euthanasia? (Do you consider it an act of compassion?)
  • Are there any signs from your dogs that they are "ready to go"? Oftentimes our beloved animals have a way of letting us know when it is time. Listen to your dogs' spirits, and follow what your heart and mind tell you to do.

Sometimes people keep their pets alive in order to meet their own needs (to not feel guilty, to not let go) rather than to meet the needs of the pet. Hard as it may be, ask yourself if this could be going on with you. 

Most of us find it very difficult to think about planning ahead for the death of our pets. Detaching from a cherished pet is just as difficult whether it happens suddenly or over an extended period of time. But having time to prepare for what lies ahead can be one of the more positive aspects of anticipatory grieving. You can make the most of the time remaining by talking with your veterinarian, family, friends and trusted others about the death of your dogs as a probability (not as a remote possibility). You can also use this time for:

  • Feeling and expressing whatever grief feelings arise.
  • Confronting and sorting out your own basic values and beliefs about death, dying and the afterlife.
  • Thinking about and planning what to do with your dogs' remains after death (keeping in mind what's best for you and your family and what's consistent with your own beliefs).
  • Talking to your veterinarian to clear up any questions or reservations about your dogs' diagnosis, treatment and prognosis.
  • Thinking about and planning a ritual, ceremony or other way of memorializing your dogs.
  • Making your final days with your dogs as special as possible and making treasured memories that will offer you comfort later (e.g. indulging in their favorite activities; taking lots of pictures; taking clippings of their fur; preserving their paw prints).
  • Taking care of yourself while caring for your sick animals (by getting enough nourishment, relaxation, rest and exercise).


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Marty Tousley, MS, RN, CS is a content provider for Self Healing Expressions. She is a hospice bereavement counselor helping people find their way through grief following the death of a loved one. As a volunteer with the Pet Grief Support Service in Phoenix, AZ, she also works with bereaved animal lovers, both individually and in groups, and consults with veterinary clinics to foster greater understanding of pet loss among staff members, thereby building better helping relationships with grieving clients.

A frequent contributor to healthcare journals, newsletters and magazines for the lay public, she has written several articles and book chapters in the professional nursing and medical literature, and has authored three books addressing various aspects of loss and grief. Her award-winning Internet Web site, www.GriefHealing.com offers information, comfort and support to anyone who is anticipating or mourning the loss of a loved one, whether human or animal.

Copyright 2003, 2004 Marty Tousley. All rights reserved. If you wish to publish this article, please email contact@selfhealingexpressions.com



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