Saying goodbye to our much loved old dog is not something we want to think about, let alone voice out loud. Losing them is an inevitable part of sharing our lives with them.
Whether this is your first old dog, or you’ve said goodbye before, it sucks. Whenever I say goodbye there is one person I call, someone very close and special to me. His response is always “it sucks.” The truth is I love that response, because it sums up the whole heartbreaking event and there’s not much else to say after that.
You never get used to it and it never gets easier. Nothing prepares you for the moment the vet walks in with that euthanasia paper, requiring your signature that will force you apart. I’m tearing up as I write this, because it’s not a moment I can ever forget.
What choice do we have?
We can choose to never welcome another animal into our heart and home, sparing us the pain that comes when we help them gain their wings. I’ve spoken to many people over the years who made the choice because they never wanted to have to say goodbye again. Totally understandable, you can’t fault them.
Our other choice is to, once again, fill our hearts with joy. Save the life of a homeless animal, and focus on how good it is for the soul.
For now let’s talk about how to know when it’s time, how to prepare ourselves, and our options for when that day arrives.
Why it’s important to give this some thought
Many years ago I lived in Jerusalem, and one day on my way home from work I saw a tiny kitten sitting in a pile of garbage. Obviously I couldn’t just leave her there so I took her home, fed her then straight to the vet. She was covered in fleas and half her face was swollen. She was about 3 weeks old, so tiny she fit in my hand…and I have a small hand.
We called her Calypso and we shared 17 years together. We moved from Israel to Montreal where I’m from, then to Toronto, Florida and England. She was very well traveled, flying across ponds when we were snowbirds for a few years.
She died on my birthday many years ago in England. It was my first experience with saying goodbye and I was totally unprepared. It’s not any easier today but at least I know what I’m facing.
Nothing could have prepared me for the vet telling me her kidney tests were bad, and there was nothing we could do. I thought I was going to faint when he handed me a piece of paper with the word euthanasia written across it. I thought I would throw up when he handed me a brochure of urns.
I had never given a moment’s thought to what I wanted to do with her when that dreaded moment came, but luckily I instinctively knew I wanted her with me so I said private cremation. My vet couldn’t have been kinder, he is an amazing soul, but I fell to pieces.
My husband was at work and I remember calling him from outside the office and crying. I was so distraught I stayed in bed for 3 days and cried. I couldn’t even pull myself together to go to work.
My very long winded point is – when you’re getting this kind of news and you’re beyond sad, it’s not the greatest time to be making decisions you have to live with.
When is it time to say goodbye?
Sometimes the answer is clear cut, other times a lot fuzzier.
There are circumstances when you have no choice – your pet is terminally ill, or so badly injured there’s nothing more that can be done. It’s those times when it is morally and ethically the right decision to make.
The less certain times are when it’s quality of life. In my experience, these decisions have been the worst ones. Should I have done it sooner? Did I do it too soon?
While the cut and dried cases were always heart breaking, they never haunted me because the answer was obvious. The quality of life decisions, or those that were a result of negligence on the part of a vet, have never left me.
Your trusted vet is someone to rely on for his knowledge and experience, and so is your love for your animal. It is never about what we want, only about what is right and humane for them.
Explaining it to the kids
As hard as it is for us, at least we’re able to intellectually understand what’s going on, even if we feel differently in our hearts. With children it’s harder, especially young children.
It is about explaining that the pet is ill, everyone has done everything possible to help, and now he’s suffering. A simple injection is all that’s needed to let him go, so they don’t worry it will hurt. Obviously the words will be your own, but it’s not a good idea to lie and say your pet ran away or is lost. Death is a part of life, and although we want to spare children from having to deal with it, sometimes we’re confronted a lot sooner than we’d like.
Compassion is such an important lesson for kids to learn, and this is a perfect opportunity. It’s a chance to teach them how important it is to do what’s right for their pet, to not allow them to suffer, even if it hurts us for a while.
Encourage them to talk about their feelings and show them it’s okay to feel sad, because you do as well.
Cremation or burial
Ideally you want to know the answer to this before you’re faced with the decision, but sometimes that isn’t possible. Think about involving your kids in this decision.
How to cope
A pet is much more than someone that shares our home. They are family members as important as any other, and sometimes even invaluable helpers in everyday life. When they’re no longer around, the void can be massive. When your dog isn’t at the door to greet you every day, or your cat isn’t sleeping on your head, it’s a big adjustment.
My dog Bailey used to follow my other dog Red up and down the hall, then corner her and lick her ear. I don’t know how long it took for me to stop “seeing” him walking down that hallway.
Don’t bottle up or deny your feelings. This is someone who was an important part of your life, who deserves to be missed and mourned. We all have to go through the pain, or we’ll never get to the other side of it.
You’re entitled to your feelings
Don’t be embarrassed or uncomfortable about how you’re feeling, and never, ever allow anyone to belittle you for them. They can say what they like, but we know he or she was not “just a dog/cat/rabbit…”
To tell you the truth, I pity those people for never having known the love and joy animals bring into our lives.
Get support if you need it
If you’re struggling (as we all do at times), speak to someone who can relate. There are an unlimited number of resources both online and in person, where help is available. Type “pet loss grief support” into your search engine, and you will find help immediately.
Create a memorial
Creating a memorial is a great way to honour the life of your pet, and the joy they brought into your home. Don’t be surprised at how much better it can make you feel.
Do it as a family, separately, or both but include your kids as much as possible. Plant a tree, create a photo album with everyone contributing their favourite pictures, make a donation to an animal shelter in your pet’s name…the ways are endless.
Stick to your routine
Your routine has been shaken, but do what you can to maintain the structure. It’s important for everyone, including remaining pets. Don’t forget the loss will affect them too.
Take care of yourself
It’s an emotionally and physically exhausting experience, a shock to the system. When I lost my first pet, a cat named Calypso, I couldn’t do anything but lie in bed for 3 days and cry. I couldn’t move, eat, or go to work.
Do what you have to, but don’t neglect yourself for too long, or you could get stuck in an endless cycle of no energy to get out of bed, not eating, so no energy and around it goes.
Eat healthy, get some rest and keep exercising. At least a walk around the block so you don’t lose complete momentum, and you want to release those endorphins, which will help make you feel better.
Helping seniors cope
As people age and begin to lose friends, and the support system they’ve relied on, the companionship of a pet becomes that much more important, not to mention special. Loss not only brings feelings of emptiness, but reminders of our own mortality as well.
Some of the ways you can help include:
Make sure visitors come around to keep them company
Bring your own pet to visit
Ask if they would consider fostering or adopting an older pet. It would bring some life back into the home, and they would be doing a wonderful thing by saving a life
What about volunteering at a local shelter? Even if they aren’t physically able to walk a dog, they could spend time giving cats and dogs some much needed attention
Recommend a pet loss grief support group. Not only will it give them other people to talk to who can relate, it will get them out of the house and they might even make new friends
Leave them the number of someone to speak with if a group is not an option
Encourage them to get involved in activities or volunteer work, so they aren’t home alone all the time
How long does grief last?
I suppose we would all be comforted if we knew when the pain would end, but grief of any sort doesn’t work that way.
Sometimes it comes in stages, sometimes in waves. Some people feel better in a matter of days or weeks, others months or years. We could be feeling better, and then suddenly something reminds us and we get sad again.
What’s important is to not rush it, but let the process happen naturally.
Be careful that grief doesn’t consume you, and if you are having a hard time coping I recommend you join a pet loss bereavement group as soon as possible. Don’t go through it alone.
The loss of a pet – conclusion
There’s no easy way to get through the grief, so there’s not much choice but to feel the sadness, and the pain, and let time help heal us. Take the alone time you need, but reach out if and when you need help. There’s no shame in needing a shoulder…we all do at times.
The loss of a pet is devastating, but we can get through it, and maybe one day be ready to share our life, love, and home with another animal in need.
Tenacious Little Terrier
Mr. N is my first dog but I’m not looking forward to it when the time comes!
Let’s hope it’s not something you have to worry about for a very long time.
Having gone thru it twice in 2 months time last year, I can say it’s never easy and you’ll never be prepared…. but it is the most selfless thing you can do.
Hi Nichole, twice in 2 months, really sorry to hear that. I lost 2 cats in the space of 6 weeks so I know what it’s like. You are right, you’re never ready but I like the way you refer to it as selfless. Hell for us, but comforting for them knowing we’ere with them. Thanks for that.
I lost my first dog, Rory, when I was in fourth grade. She was a big, 12-year-old dog and her cancer diagnosis was terminal so my parents decided to end her suffering. We bought her a gourmet hamburger and spoiled the heck out of her the night before. The day of, my sister and I went to lunch with family friends while my parents went to the vet. After, we helped bury her and I made a memorial plaque for her. I’ll never forget those days. She had always been in my life, and it was the first time really processing death. It’s amazing how it sticks with you. Although I’ve said goodbye to another family dog since then (Tux the border collie mix lived to 17, but I no longer lived at home), I know that saying goodbye to Henry will be incredibly difficult. He’s my first “very own” dog, and we have amazingly similar personalities and a very tight bond. I don’t know how I lucked out with him, and I’m going to cherish our time together.
Hi Rochelle, our bond with our animals really is unbreakable. You remember so vividly what happened with Rory, and I’m sure making the memorial plaque for her helped you deal with your grief. It sucks saying goodbye, I don’t know how else to put it, that’s why my cousin and I always say anyway. You are right about cherishing your time together, that’s a lesson we should all learn, in every area of our lives.
Such great advice for anyone dealing with grief and end of life issues for their pet. Thanks for this post!
Thanks very much, I’m always happy to hear when people find my posts helpful. Dealing with pet loss is so tough, I only hope some of my words bring comfort.
Been through all this when i lost my Prince 4 years ago he passed away because of cancer in his sleep. I still miss him heaps it does take its time, when that stitch in your chest doesnt hurt that much. There isnt a day that i havent thought of him
Hi Malaika, we can’t help but miss them and it’s the sorrow that gets us isn’t it. As hard as it is to say goodbye, how lucky we love someone so much there isn’t a day that we don’t think of them.
I’ve always loved the Rainbow Bridge poem, so beautiful. These are great suggestions. I was devastated when I lost my childhood dog. She was ill and suffering greatly so my family put her to sleep. It took many years to want another dog.
I’ve always loved it too, just not when someone sends it to you after your pet dies. Thanks I’m glad you like the suggestions. Of course it’s devastating, and the humane and kind thing is always to do what’s best for them, no matter how much it hurts us. I’ve met many people who waited years to get another pet, or never did because they couldn’t face having to say goodbye again.
We’ve had our dog for over 13 years now, but he’s still going strong. But having a senior dog, of course sometimes we think about how hard it will be to lose him. Hopefully that won’t be for a long time to come. Very nice article and I’m sure it will help many pet parents.
Hi Rachel, how wonderful you’ve been able to share so many years with him, and of course many more to come! I’m so glad you liked the article, and I do hope it will help others trying to cope with the loss of a pet.
When Baby passed at the age of 6 I was lost without her, waited 3 months and then adopted Layla but I do have friends who refuse to adopt another and I respect that. My Mom just lost her dog at the age of 12 and she told me no more and I understand her. I think everyone must choose what is best for them.
Hi Ruth, how sad Baby was so young, and for quite some time you do feel lost without them. It’s wonderful you were able to give another needy dog a home, Layla’s a lucky girl! You’re absolutely right, everyone has to do what’s best for them, and many people are not able to handle saying goodbye again, and that’s not hard to understand.
Marjorie and the Dash Kitten Crew
Grief can last a long time, and you should never bottle it up. I can imagine keeping a cap on grief and it would either turn in or explode out when you can’t cope any more.
It took me three years to even stop grieving for Dash. I still cry far too easily, but thanks to Dash and the blog – we at Dash Kitten do our best to help others. We would never turn an animal in need away – because of that we have our senior (14) Dusty he is awesome and we took him on merely a week after we lost Peanut our cat of 19.5 years.
I agree about not bottling up your grief, no good can come of trying to avoid going through the process. Of course I miss all my animals who are no longer with me, but I know what you mean about crying easily. Three years and I can barely look at a picture of Saffy. She was a puppy mill rescue we took home, saved after spending 8 years in a chicken coop breeding. I can’t even explain the terror she felt when you looked at her. After 7 months she trusted me enough to sit and let me pet her. I still cry when I remember the joy I felt at that moment. Two months later she was dead at the hands of a vet who panicked during dental surgery. I can’t help but cry when I think of the life she was denied. It’s great to hear how much good you do, and how lucky you had Peanut such a long time.
Golden Daily Scoop
What a helpful post. My first dog and oldest golden just turned 8 this summer and this is something I think about every now and then. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks! It’s hard not to have a stray thought about it every now and again. My oldest dog is around 15 and has issues, and I think about it as well. Although I’d rather not!
This is a great post on a really tough topic. I don’t even want to think about it, but I know it’s necessary!
Thanks Maureen. I shed a few tears writing it believe me.
Thanks for the thoughtful post. I’m working on the same topic. It’s such an important topic to discuss. It’s not a time to be alone. <3
Hi Tonya, we don’t want to think about it, but it is important. It’s definitely not a time to be alone, and it’s good to know what resources are available, especially if you are surrounded by people who wouldn’t understand what the big deal is. You definitely don’t want them to be the only source of comfort, because you know they won’t be.
It’s such a heavy sadness losing a daily companion no matter their species. My heart still hurts for the beautiful friends I have loved and lost over the years. This is such an important article for every pet owner.
So true Amber. Losing anyone you spend each day with is so traumatic, no matter how many legs they have. As much as we don’t want to think about it, it’s an inevitable consequence of loving others, but at least we were lucky enough to experience love like that.
This is such a powerful and vulnerable post. I so appreciate your words of wisdom as my senior girl, Zora is really starting to show the signs of aging. Zora, a yellow lab, is 13.5 and I am seeing her slow down. I know that her hips are really hurting despite medication and she struggles with balance on occasion. She is still alert, excited to see friends, has her appetite and her “eternally optimistic” lab personality is still shining. but I do know that we are in her golden years. I am so hopeful that it will be clear to us both when she’s ready to move on and I want to enjoy every minute of her sweet spirit before it’s time to say goodbye.
Thank you, that’s very kind of you. Despite the obvious signs of aging you’re starting to see in Zora, how wonderful that she’s still enthusiastic, is eating and still loving life. I hope you’ll be sharing your life with her for quite some time to come. Have you ever considered acupuncture for Zora? Lots of people have found it very helpful.
This is a very tough subject. I just lost my cat, Cinco, to cancer back in April. It was sudden and shocking. I knew I had to have him euthanized because of the place the cancer was at when we found it that day. He was in too much pain and the treatments would not offer much value. As hard as it is to say goodbye, I had to put him first. I don’t think you ever do get over it. You just have more good days than bad ones eventually. The trick is to use the pain to propel you to do good things for others. Sometimes you can’t save this one, but there is someone you help change for the better!
Hi Robin, I’m so sorry to hear about Cinco, it must have been a shock, being it was so sudden. As awful as it is to say goodbye, you know you did the right thing because it’s only ever about what’s best for our animals. I like what you say about using the pain to propel you to do good. So true! It’s important to remember we gave them the best life we could, and there’s always something else we can do to help.
I said goodbye to one of my dogs two years ago. The pain is still here. I miss her every, single day. She wasn’t a senior yet, but she had a heart attack. I found her dead in our yard. I wish we never had to say goodbye to our fur friends :(..
I’m so sorry to hear that Valerie, I can’t imagine the shock you must have felt. We all wish that…saying goodbye is the worst, and as awful as it is, I can’t imagine my life without them.
It is so very hard to lose a loved one. I always hope that when someone makes the decision to not get another pet, that they will honor the one they loved by donating to an animal shelter.
Hi Beth, it is awful, no two ways about it. You make such a great point. If someone is not able or willing to go through the grief of losing a pet again, how wonderful if they would honour the memory of the one they lost in some way. Donating money, supplies or their time to a local shelter is the perfect way to do that.
We have a pet graveyard on my parents’ property. We have always buried our pets. The death of a pet is never easy. I still miss my cat of 16 years.
Hi Katie, I know a few people who bury their pets on their property, liking the comfort they get being close by. Saying goodbye is horrendous, no question, and we still miss them, years later. As hard as it is, how fortunate we are to have experienced such love for another being.
Losing my previous Persian five years ago was one of the hardest things I went through.
I know what you mean.
Yup. That made me cry ❤️❤️❤️
Made me cry too!!
Such a tough topic, but thanks for covering it so thoroughly. I will be sharing & recommending.
Thank you Annette. It is not a topic I like to think about, and I do have tears rolling down my face as I write about it, remembering the furry friends I’ve lost. I write anyway because I hope the posts will help others going through this sadness.
Reading this column lifted me up. So many folks who love, care for, have fun with and are just grateful for the blessing of an animal’s unconditional love. I have been honored to share love with dogs, canaries, turtles and hamsters when I was a youngster. When I married and had children, we took them to pick out our first dog. RUN was a rescue lab mix and shared our home for 11 years. Next came SAM and MAX rescues and we loved them for 8 and 10 years. When we moved to a farm we welcomed DUKE who was 16 years old. The owner said he didn’t want him. He had been kept outside in a fenced kennel with a doghouse. The kennel floor was covered with feces and detritus of all sorts. We gave him a soft bed in the laundry room with his feeding bowls and of course welcomed into the whole house. He never messed up in our home. We daily walked him all around on the grassy fields and gave him anything that we thought he would enjoy. After about 8 months, he became ill and couldn’t walk, so we had to make the difficult decision. The last two dogs both AMERICAN STAFFORDHIRE/TERRIER mixes and both were called Bobo. I spent the last night with Bobo #1giving him ice cubes whenever he woke. Tomorrow my second Bobo is going over the Rainbow Bridge. He has been my soulmate of all that I have loved. We finish each others thoughts. I will be devasted for a long time, but I know that his love will surround me forever, and the pain will eventually end. I am 88 now and still hope to foster/adopt another dog. No matter how many times you say goodbye to a loved one, the pain is the same. I find it is healing to write down your story of the animals you have shared love with. God Bless you all.
Hi Joan. How wonderful to have shared your life with so many special dogs. Thanks for sharing your story.