After seven years of being followed around the house, I’m having trouble adjusting to the absence of our beloved yellow lab. I still hear him snoring behind me in the office, or rattling his crate in a rabbit-chasing dream sequence, because that’s what my brain is accustomed to hearing in that quiet sanctuary. I search the house to see what kind of trouble he’s getting into, because if he isn’t right behind me, he must be rooting around a trash can hoping to score a stray morsel, or poking his nose deep into my briefcase to chew up a check that had the bad fortune of lying between him and a half-eaten candy bar.
Dave and I made the difficult decision to say goodbye to Elvis on June 5th
. He was 13 years old, and had lived just over half his life with us. We suspect that his first 6 years were tumultuous at best, based on the way he cowered when we raised a hand to signal “down,” and his deep mistrust of large men with (or without) beards.
He was exceedingly handsome, and never lost his good looks. He went on his daily walks, still interested in sniffing every leaf, tree, weed or blade of grass along the route. His appetite rivaled Michael Phelps’s, and he drank water from every dish, puddle, or mushroom anchor (don’t ask) he passed.
We read the signs the best we could.
I know that our sadness would be no less intense had we picked another date, a future date, for the inevitable grief to tumble down like a rockslide.
I continue to justify the decision, never quite shaking the feeling of guilt, and wonder how anyone can go about ending a pet’s life without second-guessing the timing.
We shared our decision with a few close friends in the days before we let him go. They came to say their goodbyes. Our veterinarian came to the house, and a deeply compassionate neighbor was there to assist. His passing was gentle—a textbook process of sedation and sleep, then quiet release.
I haven’t felt anything quite like this grief. I’ve consoled others who have lost dear pets, but I didn’t understand the depth of their sorrow until now. I’m not sure I ever thought through what a grieving pet owner might appreciate, but now I have, and I can tell you what felt good to me, and what didn’t. Perhaps it will help you prepare for the inevitable moment in an aging pet’s life.
. Come a day or two before to say farewell. It gives me a chance to begin the process of letting go, and it soothes my heart to see others loving my sweet boy and saying goodbye. If it’s your pet, invite a few loved ones to say their goodbyes.
. If the pet will be euthanized at home, there is a practical task that needs to be done—either a backyard burial or carrying the pet to the vet’s truck to be taken to the office for cremation. I can’t bear to pick him up and carry him out, so if you’ve got the strength to (pardon the pun) dead-lift 75 pounds, please come over and help. I will be forever grateful for Tyler’s kindness when he offered to do this.
If you’re the pet owner, accept this offer, or ask for it.
. Please, for God’s sake, don’t ask “Was something wrong with him?” No mentally healthy human makes a decision to euthanize a beloved pet unless it was in distress. And please don’t ask me to make a list of the problems, which feels too much like a request for justification. Instead, say “I am so sorry for your loss, and I understand the pain you must be feeling.” And let me cry a little. It’s okay if that makes you
cry, too. Tell me I was brave to prevent him from suffering.
Pet owners: assume everyone means well and is showing up with the best of intentions. They will say things without realizing how it sounds to you.
. Once Elvis was gone, we felt bereft. Everything was a first: first sunset without Elvis. First bedtime without Elvis. First wakeup without Elvis. We were grateful for those who stopped by, or called, or sent a note, so that we didn’t feel so alone.
. Talk about what you loved about our boy. Tell us what great dog parents we were. Tell us you know how much he was loved. It’s ok if it makes me cry. I’d rather cry it all out with people who loved my pet than try to avoid the subject. There’s no statute of limitations on memories.
. We didn’t feel like cooking. We distracted ourselves the best we could, but didn’t have a shred of energy after crying all day. Bring a little prepared food or invite us to dinner—we don’t feel like cooking and may or may not want to be alone in the house without our dear boy waiting for us to finish so he could “Hoover” the area.
I still cry when I find stray yellow tumbleweeds under the furniture, and I have a few more things to give away to those who cared for our boy. His collar and leash still hang in the hallway. I don’t know how long it will take for me to say goodbye to those last reminders of Elvis’s life with us, but as long as they hang there, you’ll know I’m still grieving. And you’ll know exactly what to do.