What I learned from letting go of my dog

My apologies if this comes off a little macabre. You know how I am about sharing new experiences, and this was definitely a new one.

I promise I’m not going to keep going on about this. Maybe I need to see a nice, stupid movie to talk about…

You’re all aware of what happened with Arrow. I’ve had a lot of dogs in my life, but for whatever reason, this is the first time I actually had to make the hard choice. Sometimes they died unexpectedly, as with Vandal a few years ago. Other times it was my mom who made the decision because I wasn’t around or was too young.

Having now made that impossible choice, there are things I wish I’d known beforehand.

1. It really is for the best

Ever since we learned Arrow had cancer, lots of people told me I’d know what to do when the time came, and I would be glad I made the right choice. While I knew I would do what I needed to do, I was skeptical that it would be so obvious.

Those people knew what they were talking about. There wasn’t really a choice to make — it was either get Arrow to the vet and let him go peacefully with me and Maria next to him, or strap on the denial and let him lie there miserable for as long as he could hold on. Given the state I found him in Thursday morning — unable to stand, barely able to lift his head, struggling to breathe — he might not have lasted the day anyway. (I swear, he hadn’t been like that the night before. He had been on his feet eating as much chicken as I was willing to stuff into him.)

Before the time came, I thought “how could I tell the vet to kill my dog?”  When the time came, it was “how can I let him be this miserable for one more minute?” I understand now, and I apologize for doubting everyone. You were all right.

2. Plan everything out beforehand

Once you’ve made The Choice, there are other choices that come from that. The next big one is whether you are going to stay in the room until the end. Another is what you want to do with his remains; the choices are cremation or taking your pet home. I’d already decided I was going to let them cremate him,  I wasn’t going to ask to keep any ashes, and I would stay with him through the whole thing. I don’t think Maria had thought all that through beforehand. I was able to answer on autopilot, more or less, but she had to decide on the spot.

We could have had Arrow stuffed. In that way, and no other, he would have been just like Balto here. I think we made the right choice.

We could have had Arrow stuffed. In that way, and no other, he would have been just like Balto here. I think we made the right choice.

3. The pet cremation industry is run by soulless knaves

I know they provide a service and everyone deserves to be compensated for their work, but damned if those people aren’t plying the sad and desperate for an extra few bucks.

I know lots of people want to keep ashes from the cremated remains of loved ones, both humans and pets. I’m not one of those people, but I think I understand the desire.

I don’t know how it works with humans, but for pets, they charge $45 for cremation. If you want to keep the ashes, the extra cost depends on how much your pet weighs. There’s a price list. For up to something like 11 pounds it was around $120. For 12-34 it was I think $160. The next block up to 61 pounds was around $180, and so on. That seems a hefty fee to not throw some ashes away. Do you really love your Bull Mastiff? Better save up because a dog like that needs an extra-large amount of fire.

Maria had initially decided to get some ashes — they cunningly ask you before the actual procedure. But 30 minutes after, she had changed her mind and we canceled. (I had long ago decided not to. Remember a year and a half ago when I wasn’t paying attention and put parmesan cheese in my coffee instead of non-dairy creamer?)

Decide about the ashes beforehand, when you’re not actively crying and thinking about how much you’re going to miss your pet. Don’t let your emotions decide for you.

4. Staying in the room is both better and worse than you expect

It was a three-step process. First, they gave him a sedative just to keep him calm.  It worked on Arrow — he went to sleep almost immediately. The little weirdo had starting sleeping with his eyes open, because he was also a creepy dog, but I could tell when he stopped reacting to me being in his face.

Then the vet comes in with a saline solution to make sure the vein in his leg is strong enough to support an injection. Veins can be hard to find on dogs with cancer, apparently. We found one on Arrow right away.

Then she injects the euthanasia drug. It was a deceptively festive pink. She said it should take about 20 seconds to work, but I had my hand on Arrow’s rib cage and could tell that he was gone even before she finished pushing the plunger. There wasn’t much holding him here anyway. I didn’t appreciate how labored his breathing had become until it stopped.

And that was it. Quick, painless, as comfortable as possible, and with his family. The last thing he was aware of was us petting him and telling him we loved him. I would not have wanted to be anywhere else. We should be so kind to our terminally ill fellow humans.

But I will never forget the feeling of that last rattling breath under my hand. I’m glad I stayed, but it’s a hard memory to carry.

Thank you for indulging me

I promise to not do this any more. Thank you for letting me unpack this here. I know some of you are going to be facing this same decision before too long. You certainly have my sympathy, and I promise you won’t regret making the hard choice. In the end, there really isn’t a choice at all.

Also, thank you to everyone who so kindly called, sent email, texted, Tweeted, or posted on Facebook. It really did help get me through a rough day. I’m better now, but I’m still getting used to how empty this house feels. Who knew it could be so completely filled by a grumpy, stubborn 35-pound dog with a weak grasp of property rights?

Not that the place is totally devoid of whimsy. Esme is still with me. I took this photo of her earlier today — we had been in the car, and I had to stop suddenly because of a fire truck cutting through an intersection. She was asleep in the back, and the stop flung her onto her back on the floor. I was three miles from home, so I kept going, and this is what I found when I opened the back door.

Don't be fooled by her expression -- she wasn't hurt, but she wasn't not-pissed at me for laughing at her

Don’t be fooled by her expression — she wasn’t hurt, but she wasn’t not-pissed at me for laughing at her

Thanks again for putting up with all this. I’ll be back with something more entertaining after Dragon*Con!

13 Comments on “What I learned from letting go of my dog

  1. And now I’m crying again. I just (a couple of months ago) had to make the same non-decision with my 20-year-old cat Lucy. With my other cats, I was too chicken to stay with them until the end. I regret that now.

    I’m so sorry for your loss, but happy that Arrow had his family with him at the end. Which of us doesn’t want that for our love ones?

    • Dang, Gary. I had no idea about Lucy. I’m very sorry to hear about that. I know how much that cat meant.

      I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing anyone who makes different choices. I certainly understand why the idea of watching someone deliberately end your pet’s life is off-putting. It’s a hard thing to do in the middle of a day of hard things. Don’t kick yourself for not doing it with your other cats. I forget now where I read it, but I saw a quote that’s always stuck with me: “Death is only the last event in my life, and it’s far from the most important.”

  2. I was there holding my mom’s German Shepherd Daisy when we let her go. That was five years ago now, and I am crying again. The strength and persistence of that memory is a measure of how deeply we are capable of loving those goofy furballs, and I hope that five years from now, you can be happy to have the memory, even while sobbing as if it were yesterday.

    • Thanks, Tom. That’s a terrific way to put it.

      I can’t imagine the memory fading with time. It was a powerful experience, to say the least. I trust the raw edges will sort of smooth out over time, and the sad 30 minutes at the vet will be overbalanced by the happy 15 years before it,

  3. Dang… confirm on #3.

    4 years ago put down mine at almost 17. I figured the very least I owed her was to be there (and miserable) as she fell asleep.

    It sucks Christian and it will be raw for the next couple of weeks.

    But you did the right thing by Arrow all around and he deserved nothing less.

  4. Just went through this yesterday and a friend posted your blogpost on my FB page. You said it all and you said it well and I agree with it all: thank you for sharing.

    Now if I can just get friends and family to recognize that saying they are praying for people who are atheists is annoying. I don’t have the energy to address it now, but seriously: can’t their condolences be about me and not their own religions?

  5. We have had our shepoo bailey 16 years 3 mon. Mostly blind & def. He is my first and only pet , I’m 58 . I know it will be hard to let go , but when it’s time I think it will be the most loving thing I will do for my best friend . I’m glad I came online to read these stories as it helps for me to prepair . Thank you . Michael D

  6. I let my dog go (15 yrs 11 months) last week. A friend was with me and we spent the morning at the beach, my dog mostly lying in the sand with the sea air on his face, happy as could be. He had been falling a lot, unable to sit or stand on his own, and had bad nights where he would get anxious and seemed freaked out. It was heartbreaking to see as he had been such a go-go-go kind of dog :). I had a good friend with me at the vet’s (the vet was wonderful) and my dog was eating liver treats and lying in my lap as he transitioned. Beautiful.

    • My wife,daughter and myself have to put our 11 year golden down at 5:30 today.Bone cancer.God help my family and keep us strong.I love Mulligan and this is so hard,I will miss her so much..

  7. I love my 17 year old Ollie so much and although I have lost 7 other dogs it is different with Ollie. He was given 6 months to live with Liver trouble, at age of 7, and ten years later he is still here. He has heart trouble, being treated, he is deaf, his eyes are failing him, and he has developed a large benign tumour on his bottom which I clean and dress 3 times a day. He still plays with his toys, he eats like a Trojan horse, sleeps like a baby and barks his instructions to us to be put on the sofa, lifted off the sofa, brought a drink of water, bring his food on time, let him out to pee, but the tumour bleeds and although I tape a pad there to stop damage on the carpets, his brother pulls it off. Half of me thinks I am wicked to hold on to my beloved, as my husband thinks it time to say goodbye, but when he is eating so well and playing with his toys I cannot make the decision, as I know it must be my decision alone. I am sorry to sound a wimp and I know every dog lover feels the same, but with this wonderful, funny, beautiful, clever Ollie I cannot make the decision – I tell him he has broken the rainbow bridge. Patti

  8. What an excellent blog. Thank you so much for sharing. I’m coming to the end of the road with my furbaby and it’s so hard. I was searching the Internet for someone who understood. Your post made me both laugh and cry. Thank you. What a beautiful tribute to your dog and how kind of you to help others. God bless.

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