Euthanasia (from the Greek meaning "good death") refers to the practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering.
Planning for End of Life
Making the decision to assist in the death of your companion animal may be one of the most difficult decisions you ever make. Some individuals have a spiritual, religious or personal belief system that does not support euthanasia. For others it is considered a thoughtful and humane decision.
It can be helpful to do some planning ahead of time to enable you to focus your energy and love on your animal. Creating plans does not mean you are giving up hope, but rather allows you to finalize the decision making so that your attention to your pet is uninterrupted.
While people often hope for the pet to close their eyes and die peacefully in their sleep, this is rarely the case due to the effects of the pet's disease on the body systems. Instead, a natural death may be prolonged and possibly upsetting to witness. Euthanasia can provide you with some control over the circumstances of your pet's death, control that a natural death may eliminate. Gathering information can be helpful to prepare you for this difficult day.
Questions to ask your veterinarian
- What are the details of the euthanasia procedure?
- What are options for the location of the euthanasia?
- How far in advance should the appointment be scheduled?
- Does the veterinarian you wish to perform the euthanasia have times or days that he or she will not be available?
- What is a back-up plan in case your pet has an emergency? Who should you call or go to?
- What would a natural death look like for your pet, considering the animal's disease process?
Questions to ask yourself and family
- Who will be there?
- Where will the euthanasia occur? At your home, at a veterinary hospital, outside, under a favorite tree?
- Which veterinarian will help?
- What are your wishes for the care of your pet's body? Some options may include private or group cremation, or burial at a cemetery or at home.
- Would you like to have a necropsy, the animal version of an autopsy, performed? This can sometimes provide answers to questions you have about your pet's illness or injury.
- How would you like to say goodbye and memorialize your pet? This is key in helping you grieve, especially for children. Some people will hold a memorial service, read a poem, plant a tree, or write a story of their pet's life. Perhaps you would like to make a clay or ink imprint of your pets paw or cut a clipping of hair to save. These can be placed in a special display box as a memorial.
- The patient will receive a sedative in most cases under the skin. Within approximately 10 minutes the sedative will provide a deep sleep for most patient.
- Following this sedation we will clip a small area over a vein either in the hind or front leg
- An injection of the euthanasia solution will then be administered in the vein of the patient. In some instances the patients veins are very fragile or the patient may move, necessitating the need to replace the needle in another vein. This medication causes the patient to become completely unconscious very rapidly. It then causes the heart and lungs to stop working.
- Your doctor will then use a stethoscope to listen for the absence of a heart beat.
- Sometimes the patient will take a deep breath or loss control of urine or feces. This is normal.
- Animals do not close their eyes when they pass.
The animals in your life are more than just animals. They are family members, friends, sources of support, confidantes, and suppliers of unconditional love. When they are no longer with you, either from death or other circumstances, you grieve just as you would any other significant loss in your life. This is a natural process as you adjust to the changes in your life, creating new routines and patterns to your days.
Grief is one of the most normal and natural occurrences that you can experience after a loss; yet it is one of the most misunderstood. When you grieve, you can experience a myriad of emotions that can affect each area of your life: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual. One moment you may be angry, the next you may cry, and then you may decide to get busy with a task and instead crawl into bed and go to sleep.
This roller coaster effect, which leaves some people wondering if they are normal, is part of the natural process of grieving, with nothing crazy about it. It is a very healthy psychological and physical response that requires expression and acknowledgement. Attempts to suppress feelings of grief can sometimes actually prolong the healing process.
These are some ideas to help as you process your grief for your beloved companion:
Give yourself permission to grieve
You've experienced a tremendous loss. You deserve the opportunity to grieve as you need to. Surround yourself with others who understand the bond you had with your companion animal and who you can openly talk with about your grief without fear of judgment. Try and pay no heed to comments from misunderstanding individuals.
Acknowledge and express your feeling
This can help release some of the energy from within you and allow you to gain perspective. Talk with those you trust. If you have difficulty talking about your feelings with others, journaling or writing a letter may be a helpful way to process your emotions. Some other creative expressions that capture your feelings may include creating artwork with clay, oils, pastels, painting, drawing, designing a shadow box or collage, and writing stories or poetry.
- Identify what has been helpful with past losses
You already have a wealth of coping skills that you've created throughout your life. Regardless of the magnitude of previous losses, from misplacing keys to losing a loved one, you made it through those losses using your strength and skills. Identify what has helped before and call on that now.
- Give yourself permission to backslide
Grief is neither predictable nor unavoidable. It just happens. Grief can overcome you in waves of emotion, ebbing and flowing much like the tides of an ocean. This loss is causing a lot of changes in your life and it will take time for you to adapt.
After a loss, you experience many firsts; the first morning to not fill the food bowl, the first afternoon to not go for a walk, the first time to go to bed without sharing your pillow, the first time you watch television with an empty lap, first birthday after a loss, first anniversary of the death and so on. These events can knock you backwards into strong grief emotions for a while. Be aware and prepared for these events so you can give yourself permission to grieve strongly again. It can help to call in advance on those who support you.
- Be patient with yourself
Grieving a significant relationship takes time, much more time than society sanctions. Go easy on yourself!
- Find a special way to say goodbye to your pet
Society promotes rituals for humans such as funerals and receptions. Create your own ritual for your pet, a loss often as significant as that of a human. You can write an obituary, hold a celebration of your pet's life, donate to a cause in your pet's name, plant a tree or bush, or create something. If the loss was unexpected, you can write a letter or talk to a photo of your pet, telling him all the things you didn't get a chance to say. You can also write a letter from your pet, expressing what he or she would say to you, something only you could know for sure.
- Do something that brings you joy
Allowing yourself to smile doesn't mean you miss your pet any less, only that you are taking care of yourself through your heartache.
Children and Grief
The death of a family pet is often a child's first experience with loss. Children experience grief also, though their age and development levels influence their grief reactions. They express grief differently than adults due to shortened attention spans and varying intellectual levels of understanding death and loss. Each child is unique and overlap occurs across levels of development.
There are several factors that can complicate your grief, so allow yourself some permission for additional grieving time. Some of these factors include:
- No previous experience with significant loss, death, or grief
- Other recent losses
- A personal history involving multiple losses
- Little or no support from friends or family
- Societal norms that trivialize and negate the loss
- Insensitive comments from others about the loss
- Generally poor coping skills
- Feelings of guilt or responsibility for a death
- Untimely deaths like those of children, young adults, or young companion animals
- Deaths that happen suddenly, without warning
- Deaths that occur after long, lingering illnesses
- Deaths that have no known cause or that could have been prevented
- An unexplained disappearance
- Not being present at death
- Not viewing the body after death
- Witnessing a painful or traumatic death
- Deaths that occur in conjunction with other significant life events like birthdays, holidays, or a divorce
- Anniversary dates and holidays after the loss
- Stories in the media that misrepresent or cast doubt on medical treatment procedures
- Advice based on others' negative experiences or on inaccurate information about normal grief
- After any loss, especially one of this magnitude, it may be helpful to seek out the assistance of a grief counselor or other mental health professionals to Support You Through Your Grief.
Should I get another pet?
When to adopt a new pet after, or even before, a much-loved companion has died is a dilemma for many people. It may help to consider the following:
- Try not to rush into decisions until you have time to sort out your feelings. Well-meaning family, friends, and even veterinary professionals may suggest a new animal as a means of comfort and support.
- Examine your motivation to get a new pet. Be mindful of "replacing" the one that died. If you compare your new pet with the memories of your deceased pet, you may be disappointed. Even if animals are the same breed, each is very different. It is important to consider the needs, behaviors, and lifestyle of a new animal and how they may differ from those of the animal who died.
- Another pet may help you heal. For some people, the companionship of a new pet may be comforting during this difficult time.
- Grieve the loss of your beloved pet. Some people are not able to bond with a new pet right away. The desire to adopt a new animal immediately following the death of pet can be driven by the need to avoid the pain of grief. Giving yourself time to first heal from the loss may help you to welcome a new pet with open arms.
- Check in with the entire family. Be sure everyone is ready to commit to the new relationship. The time frame may be different for everyone. Bringing a new pet into the family before all members are ready can hurt or offend someone by implying that the pet's death is relatively insignificant. Children may perceive a message that loved ones are easily replaced.
- Consider becoming a "foster parent." By fostering an animal through a local animal rescue group, you'll provide temporary housing for an orphaned pet that is awaiting permanent adoption. You'll provide a necessary service while testing your own readiness without a long-term commitment. If the fostered animal fits well into your life, permanent adoption could be an option
- If you feel you have grieved and want to open yourself again to a new relationship, your heart is probably telling you that you are ready. For some, there is no better medicine for a hurting heart than the love of another pet, while for others the best medicine is time. Whoever you are, only you know what is best for you