Grief Talk Tuesday: Saying Goodbye to Our 4-Legged Friends

The grief we feel when a pet dies can sometimes rival (or surpass) the grief we feel when a person dies. It gets more complicated when we must decide whether it’s time to end their life. It tears us in so many directions—Who are we to play God?—and while we struggle with the decision and wish they could tell us how they feel about it, we want nothing more than to ease what we assume is suffering.

Zuzu the Wonder Dog

Grief is the price we pay for love, and it can make us afraid to love again. How much can my heart take? we might ask.

I wrote two pieces several years ago about dying pets. Rereading them in preparation for this post, I was filled with the love and deep pain I felt for each of them. It never goes away, those feelings, and I know one day, my little dog, Zuzu, will no longer be in my life, but the thought of that is just too big. So instead, I love her, in this moment and in this moment.

Please share your pet love and grief stories in the comments. Sharing creates community, and we can feel less lonely and sad in community.

May 31, 2007

Bungee & Mathilda, Christmas 2006

In mindfulness meditation, we’re taught to breathe in the moment, every single moment, and appreciate it for what it is right now, neither the past or the future. Never is this a better thing for me to know how to do than today.

In this moment, I’m watching Bungee sleeping on the kitchen rug in front of the sink. In a few hours, Bungee will be put to sleep, and we will bury him in our backyard under his favorite bird feeder. In this moment, he is breathing, but his small frail body is eating itself up from the inside.

In this moment, I pick him up. I feel every bone on his spine, his ribs, and his hip bones. His fat is gone, his muscles are in atrophy. We sit on the couch next to his friend, Mathilda the dog. He likes how I rub his ears, and he purrs very softly. In this moment, he would normally knead his front paws into my stomach, but he can’t, so he lays against my chest with his eyes closed.

In this moment, Bungee leaves my lap and walks slowly to the kitchen. He can’t get enough to eat or drink, but he tries.

Bungee is not conscious of his consciousness. In this moment, he does not know that in an hour he will no longer be. But in this moment, I’m fully aware of his mortality and the gravity of my decision to have this day be his last on earth.

In this moment I ask myself, Who am I to make such a decision? And then I see him lying on the rug again, sleeping, not chasing the birds in the feeder right outside the back door, and I know in this moment that, while doing what’s right comes with self-doubt and second-guessing, my decision is what’s best for Bungee. I cannot matter.

In this moment, I love and cherish my beautiful Bungee and all his adventures.

September 8, 2010

I know everything that lives eventually dies—people, plants…dogs. But in a perfect world, we’d always get more time with them.

Ten-year-old Mathilda woke up this morning paralyzed in her hind legs. This afternoon she was sedated, x-rayed and examined thoroughly by our vet. She needs to spend the night at the animal hospital, and be fed morphine and steroids in hopes that tomorrow she’ll walk again.

All I can do right now is think about her. She’s a little of this and a little of that, an odd-looking creature with floppy ears and a freakishly strong tail that will leave bruises on your shins when you scratch her back. Her nickname is Princess Rolls in S*it because she’s all about smells. The more disgusting, the better. She even rolled on a frozen dead fish once.

She joined our family when I went to the animal shelter in search of a companion for our Golden Retriever, Jake—a perpetual puppy until his last breath in December. Her original name was Whimsy, and she’d obviously been obtained on a whim by her former owners because their excuse for leaving her at the shelter was, “Didn’t have enough time for her.” Poor thing was shaking in her crate, and it was three months before we heard her bark. When she did, it surprised the heck out of all of us, and we praised her like she’d thrown the winning pass in the Super Bowl.

There is so much I could write about Mathilda, but the words I want are disconnected and free floating in my head and they make no sense. I’m sad and I’m nervous and am pretty sure I will not sleep much tonight. Mathilda’s fate is in the hands of some very powerful drugs, and I can only hope and pray tomorrow morning she will walk.

I know death is part of pet ownership. But death seems like it’s forever and a day away when you’re waiting for baby Rover to pee outside for the first time or when you’re throwing a yarn ball for Kitty. In 8, 10, or 15 years, you might have to play god. God knows I’ve made “that” decision before. But honestly, I make a really lousy Omnipotent. I hate letting go.

“Sometimes losing a pet is more painful than losing a human because in the case of the pet, you were not pretending to love it.” – Amy Sedaris


It’s two days later: Mathilda is gone.

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