Euthanasia: How Will I Know When its Time?
Pippin needed assistance from his owner to get to his feet. He slowly walked to the door, then needed help once again to step down onto the back porch. With a slight groan, he squatted to relieve himself and came back towards the house. There was no twinkle in his eye, and this time he needed to be carried all the way back to his bed. He'd used up his energy for that day.
I got a call from Pippin's owner that day asking me, "Do you think it's time for me to put him down?" This wasn't the first time Pippin's owner had asked me this question, nor was it the first time I'd faced this dilemma with others. As the facilitator of a pet loss group, I had sat with many who were grieving and reliving the pain of this situation.
For almost everyone who came to this group who had used euthanasia to assist their animal companions to 'the other side,' there was either the fear that they had waited too long or that they had done it too soon. Each person doubted that they had gotten it right.
Every now and then, I would run across someone who didn't carry this guilt or doubt. I learned from them what had helped them to find clarity and peace with their decision. So, as I spoke to Pippin's owner that day, I was careful in what I chose to say, knowing that this decision would affect the person's grief journey, as well as their confidence and self-esteem.
Here are some helpful reminders for making your decision:
1) YOU ARE THE EXPERT concerning your animal's care. No one knows them better than you. Gather information to the best of your ability to help you in making this decision.
2) Euthanasia may seem unnatural to some. Consider that "nature" is defied every day as sick animals have their lives prolonged by surgeries, medicines and procedures that aren't necessarily "natural."
3) Asking others for input can be helpful, and it can also derail you. Be careful who you ask and what you ask. If you are going to ask your vet their opinion, let them know that you will be making this decision and would like them to give you compassionate feedback, not a lecture or a "you must do this my way" recommendation. Pay particular attention to their knowledge about the signposts that indicate your animal is suffering and what to expect in terms of medical management.
4) Ask your animal. So many people are afraid to do this. They say, "I'm no Dr. Doolittle. I can't talk to them." This is untrue. We all communicate with our animals a lot more than we know. Much of it may not catch our attention because we are so used to it. They put their thoughts into our minds, as we do with our thoughts and words to them. All it takes is some quiet and stillness. Take a pen and some paper and sit quietly with your animal. Do some stretching and deep breathing to relax your body. Shut your eyes and have the intention or say a short prayer to be connected with your animal's mind and heart. Say (silently) what you would like to your pet-perhaps something like, "I can see that your body is losing strength and having a hard time. I sense that your time to let go of your physical body is coming closer. I am so sad about this as I will miss you very much. You have brought such joy and love to my life. And I love you so much that I don't want you to suffer during this transition. Could you tell me, in some way, whether you would like assistance with this process? Are you ready to go?" After you say what is in your heart, you must sit still and keep your mind and heart open. Feel a band of light going from your pet's heart to your own. After a period of time, at least ten minutes, open your eyes and write down thoughts, images or feelings you had during that time. Trust your perceptions as more than a vivid imagination.
5) More and more people will call an animal communicator or pet psychic to speak with the animal. This can be very helpful. Know ahead of time, if you can, whom you will call and that you can trust their perceptions. Ask your veterinarian or friends for recommendations.
6) If you feel you haven't received any useful information, then ask yourself, "Which choice will I have less regrets about when this is over?"
7) Sometimes our pets stay longer because they are worried about us, about whether we will be ok when they are gone. Have a talk with them and let them know that it is ok to go when they are ready, that you will be ok. Tell them that you will grieve their absence, but that you will reach out to others for support. Sometimes, just getting this permission from you allows them to die without the assistance of euthanasia.
8) If you do decide to euthanize, don't do it alone. Have a friend or family member accompany you. If you want to be with your animal at the time of the injection, make sure you do it in a way that minimizes trauma to you both. Dim the lights if you can. Have a favorite blanket with you that your pet is cradled in. Speak to them again and tell them of your love and gratitude for being part of your life and that you will always be connected? that you will see them again? whatever is in your heart in that moment. If s/he is in your arms, you may want to consider holding the animal so that you are not gazing into their eyes. It is a personal choice, but one that can make your grief harder. Many people say they are haunted by what they felt were painful "why?" or other critical questions in the pet's eyes as they died. This is most likely projection of the human's confusion and guilt, rather than the animal's.
9) Decide in advance how to handle the body. Some cities have pet cemeteries that will cremate or bury your pet's body. Having a memorial service for family and close friends can assist the natural process of grief.
Even with these tips to help you, know that grief for an animal companion is still hard work, just as it is for loss of a human companion. Give yourself permission to grieve, to remember the precious times with them, and know that you made the best choice you could in your particular moment. There are no right or wrong choices here. Take comfort knowing that your beloved animal wasn't and isn't judging you. Their love is unconditional and, as the great spiritual teachers that they are, they are holding you in their hearts, wherever they may be, wishing for you a happy, guilt-free and purposeful life.
Marcia Breitenbach is an author, musician, expressive arts grief therapist, and presenter. Her 2nd book, The Winds of Change: A Guided Journey with Healing Music through Grief, Loss & Transformation contains a CD of original healing music.