We have pets come into our lives and we know that the odds are very good that we are going to outlive them. They give us so much joy and unconditional love and that is the price that we pay: knowing that the day will come that we have to say goodbye.
I have lost pets before but when it was time to say goodbye to Piper, it hit me harder than I had expected. Knowing that she was not a healthy dog meant that her inevitable passing would come even sooner than would have been expected but that did not make it any easier. Ever since Piper came into my life as a seven-week old puppy, she was an important part of my life. You can read about more about her here.
There are so many articles and books that have been written about grief and coping with the loss of a pet and they all say the same thing so I’m going to throw my own two cents into the mix. This is a no-holds barred description of how everything went down for me and how I’ve been dealing with it.
Piper’s Last Trip to the Vet
When I took Piper to the vet for the last time, one of the vet techs had moved the chair that normally sits next to the examination table and laid a thick blanket out on the floor. Piper went right to the blanket to lay down while Jack and Leo wrestled. The tech gave me a binder of aftercare options and I chose a simple wooden box and to have a clay imprint of her paw with the dates of her birth and death.
Dr. Dan came in and administered a sedative then ten minutes later he came back and gave a second injection that was basically an overdose of painkiller. After some small talk, he and the tech left the room, telling me that I could stay as long as I needed to.
Jack and Leo played almost the whole time. They did stop a few times to sniff Piper but there was no big reaction from them; they just seemed to accept that she was gone. I wrapped her up in the blanket because the thought of her just laying exposed was incredibly distressing for me. I tried to close her eye lids but they stayed open slightly. I’ll never forget how quickly her ears cooled as I sat next to her.
I had several people ask if I wanted them to come with me but I wanted to be by myself with my dogs. I drove home and, not wanting to worry about dinner, I ordered a pizza. When the delivery man came he commented that he couldn’t hear the dogs barking. I told him that I had just put one to sleep and he remarked “Oh. They’re in mourning,” as he left.
So what did I learn from this?
Have a Plan Before You Need One
I totally dropped the ball on this one. I made the decisions for Piper’s aftercare while we were waiting for the vet to perform the euthanasia. Talk about a lousy time to make any kind of decision: you’re standing there staring at a book of urns and memorial items with your sick dog at your feet. Lesson learned. I have made the arrangements for Jack and Leo with my vet so that I don’t have to worry about it when their time comes.
Some vets provide at-home euthanasia and this may be an option if you have a large family that wants to be present for your pet’s passing or if your dog hates going to the vet or riding in the car. I firmly believe that their last moments on earth should be as comfortable as you can make them. This is also a good option if you’re going to bury you pet at home. Bear in mind that some places have rules about burying animals in your yard, although it would be a really heartless person that would issue any fines for that. Also consider any environmental considerations such as a high water table or wild animals to worry about. Ask yourself how you will feel if you move from that property; how do you feel about the thought of leaving the remains behind?
What does “aftercare” mean? Basically it refers to how you want the remains treated. Do you want the body returned to bury or the remains cremated? Do you want the ashes returned to you after cremation? Do you have a vessel for an urn or will you use one they provide? Do you want to scatter their ashes?
As much as I hate the idea that money would be a factor, inevitably it can be a huge consideration. The euthanasia itself is a part of the cost but then there is the cost of aftercare to keep in mind. The service that my vet uses have some simple wooden urns that are free and there were some lovely pewter urns that started at several hundred dollars. They also had some memorial items such as clay paw impressions, jewellery that contains a small portion of their ashes, and shadowboxes. The options available are overwhelming which is another reason to have your plans decided in advance.
We are not a flashy family so I got a simple wooden box for Piper. I had thought that I might scatter some of the ashes in some of our favourite places but then the thought of not having all of her was a hard thing to wrap my head around. When I got her back, her urn had been screwed shut so the last thing I want to do is start digging around with her ashes so I won’t be scattering her after all.
On a related note, what happens to your pets if something happens to you? I’ve been somewhat negligent in not having a will or directions for care if I’m incapacitated and that is something else that I have to take care of.
Grieve in the Way You Want
There is no right or wrong way to feel after the loss of anyone that is important to you. I thought that when it was time to euthanize any of my pets, I would lock myself in the house and not leave for a week. Then the time came and all I wanted was to keep busy. I threw myself into work and picked up extra shifts to keep my mind busy. The hardest times for me was the drive between home and work and there were a few times that I almost pulled over to cry.
You may want to talk about your loved one or you may not. If other people bring it up and you are not comfortable, tell them that now is not the time. That doesn’t mean that the time is never; it’s just not now. You’re the one experiencing grief and you decide how that is done. Just because talking about it helped someone else, that doesn’t mean that it will help you right now.
It took just over a week to get Piper’s remains. When I got her home, I cried more than I had since I found out that she was sick: that soul-sucking cry that leaves you completely empty and numb. But I think that having her back home helped with the healing process and allowed me to move on.
Give Yourself Permission to Grieve
It’s not “just a dog”. Your pet has a special place in your life. As a first responder, I have seen more death than I even want to think about, which may be why losing my dog hit so hard. It became obvious to me that she was a big part of my coping strategy. That’s not to say that Jack and Leo aren’t loved and important parts of my life and I cannot imagine what it would be like if I didn’t have them and the cats in my life. Piper was like a piece of my soul and she was with me through some very difficult times in my life. We had a very unique bond since she picked me out as a seven-week old puppy.
The site was hard for me to work on because everywhere, there was Piper. I’m slowly putting our last big trip together so that will make an appearance soon. At first it was hard to look at photos but now I can rejoice in the life that I have been able to give my dogs. It was incredibly difficult just to write about her passing, which you can read here. It still makes me tear up.
Support is not a Bad Word
I’m a single woman who lives alone with my animals and even though I didn’t want anyone with me when she passed, I still had several people that I leaned on for support including my friend who was like Piper’s second mom, my sister-in-law, and my best friend. They all checked in with me and made sure that I knew they were there if I needed them. It was nice to know that I wasn’t going through this difficult time alone.
I work with some tough alpha males but they were all really sympathetic and told me to take time off if I needed it. Even my supervisor and the supervisor above him checked up on me.
Self-care When you Need it Most
I don’t mean drowning in a bottle of wine or a large pizza every night as tempting as that may be. Make time to do something that helps you in whatever way that may be. Be aware of emotional eating especially since that is a slippery slope to fall down: gorge on pizza and beer, the pounds slowly pile on, you get depressed, and it just compounds the emotional toll.
I found that yoga was a big help for me, specifically Yoga with Adriene. She has several practices but the one titled Yoga for a Broken Heart – Unconditional Love was a huge help. The fact that I could do it in the comfort of my own home and collapse into a blubbering mess if I needed was a huge comfort too.
The boys still need their exercise so we started going for long walks whenever we could. Piper’s arthritis had meant that our walks were shorter than they used to be so it was good to get out for longer hikes. I know some people say they do their best thinking when they run but I always found that walking was my moving mediation.
The Value of Words
There are so many euphemisms for euthanasia: put to sleep, put down, pass away. Part of them are a way that we use to soften the blow I suppose. If there is a term that you prefer then use it. I use euthanasia because it helps to remove some of the emotional aspect to it. I’ve also heard that using “put to sleep” around children can be a hard concept for them to grasp.
When There’s a Problem
I could see how easy it would be to fall into a cycle of grief and engage in self-destructive habits and patterns. If that happens and you feel like you’re in a pit that you can’t climb out of, reach out for help and someone will help pull you out. Anyone who tells you to “snap out of it” or “get over it” are not a healthy influence. There are support groups on Facebook and help lines where you are anonymous if you don’t have anyone close to you. Drop me a line if need be. Whatever it takes to get you on the path to coping, do it. The worst feeling is thinking that you are all alone because you are not. If it gets to the point where you’re thinking of self-harm, call an ambulance. There’s no shame in asking for help if you need it and I will guarantee there will be at least one person that can appreciate how difficult this time is.
Jack and Leo have been coping well. They snuggle with me more which may be because they sense that I am feeling sad or, and this most likely, my lap is no longer monopolized by a 75 lb boxer. They are not the watch dogs that Piper was so it’s funny when people can walk up to the door without being noticed and then the door opens and they come barking as though to say “Hey we’re tough here and we weren’t slacking off!”.
Chase was Piper’s cat from the minute Piper came home. I now catch her sleeping next to Jack when I wake up. Leo tries to engage her in play which is basically him just charging her until she runs away. It’s funny because she used to do the same thing to puppy Piper and when Piper chased after her, I’d scold her because I thought she was tormenting the cat. That was until I saw Chase initiating it so now it seems appropriate. Toby the cat is indifferent to everything.
I get asked a lot if I’m going to get another dog. I think it would be unfair to that dog if I went out in an effort to “replace” Piper, not to mention disrespectful to Piper to even suggest that she can be replaced. I’m glad that I have all the other animals since coming home to an empty house would be unbearable. Having said that, if I happened to meet a dog that needed a home, I’d seriously consider it if I thought it would fit in with the rest of the menagerie.
I thought that I had lost all of her puppy pictures when my ex moved out and took the computer with him. Even though he was supposed to copy all of my photos and send them to me, he didn’t and I just took it as a loss as I suspected that he did it on purpose so that I would have to contact him again. As I was tidying up, I found a few photos that I had printed of baby Piper. That was a very happy day for me.
I still miss her. I will always miss her. What she gave me in her short life can never be forgotten and I cherish the times that we had together. As much as losing her hurts, I would never give it up. Above all else, she is a part of so many wonderful memories and she’ll always be with me.