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'Til Death Do Us Part

We talked about cancer last month. Now seems the time to consider death. Death is a topic no one cares to discuss, and who can blame us? With a great accountant, we might avoid taxes. No one avoids death.

In a just world, our pets would live exactly as long as we do and we would all die together – peacefully and comfortably at an extremely advanced age. Instead (who voted for this?) we are too often forced to make end-of-life decisions for our aging or ailing pets. If we are lucky, we have time enough to come to terms with the inevitable loss of a beloved pet. If not, we find ourselves forced to make a rapid decision in extreme circumstances. Neither of these options are pleasant.

During 31 years of veterinary practice, I have known my share of death. These are a few things that help me cope when Death comes a-knocking.

Always Do Your Very Best: All too often, Death comes hand in hand with Regret. How may it not? It is natural for us to look back in our grief with painfully clear hindsight and see every bad choice we have ever made. “I should have taken Rover for walks more often,” or “I wish I hadn’t fed Pork Chop so much sausage.”

In any veterinary practice, some of the patients are going to die. Though I knew this was simply the nature of things, I once felt bad about it, looking back and wondering if there was anything that I might have done differently. I finally realized that because I made my absolute best effort for every patient at all times, I had nothing to regret when an animal died. Do your absolute best always and there is nothing more you can ask of yourself. This doesn’t eliminate my sadness, but I am free from guilt and regret.

The same is true for every pet owner. Love your pet fully; be generous in spirit and true to your responsibilities during your pet’s all-too-brief lifetime. They will all leave us too soon. Let us cherish them while we may.

If you hang on to the bitter end, the end WILL be bitter. Let’s admit it: some battles cannot be won. When faced with a pet whose death is approaching, sometimes it’s necessary to ask oneself the most difficult question of all: How do I want my pet to die?

Do I want to see my beloved pet undergo prolonged and painful medical procedures – and THEN die? Do I want to see my pet diminished and unable to enjoy life? Most animals are so devoted to their owners that they will endure ANYTHING rather than choose to leave. There is no pain they will not suffer, no infirmity they will not bear, in order to stay with us. But can we allow them to make that choice? It is we, after all, who have been responsible for our pets enjoying a good life. Are we not equally responsible for ensuring they have a good death? When all of life’s quality and joy have gone, Death comes as a friend. When we eliminate pain and prevent our pets from suffering, death is a gift. We are responsible to the animals we love and must hold ourselves accountable. It is for us to remain strong and resolute, for their sakes.

The only way to control death is to embrace it. When I attend an animal with a terminal disease, I imagine that animal as Nell Fenwick (our fair heroine) who lies tied by Snidely Whiplash (the dastardly disease) upon the railroad track. On the horizon, a roaring train (inevitable pain and suffering) approaches inexorably. The owner of this pet is Dudley Do-Right (our hero) whose difficult-but-not-impossible task is to provide Nell every minute of quality that her little life can hold before snatching her up and delivering her gently into the arms of peaceful, painless Death - with the aid of Dudley’s loyal side-kick, Horse (the veterinarian).

It’s tough playing Dudley Do-Right, but who can possibly do right, if not you, the person whom Nell loves most?

Some people will say that they do not feel comfortable playing god in these situations, and I am sympathetic. Unfortunately, once you’ve taken a pet into your life it’s too late to abdicate your responsibility. Insofar as your pet is concerned, you are god, all knowing and all-powerful. It’s to you that your pet looks for nurturing and sustenance, and you who must marshal the wisdom and self-control necessary to make the choices that your pet cannot make for itself – regardless of the pain such decisions bring you.

Death is something I can live with, but a bad death, a death that is slow and uncomfortable, is another matter. It is the pet owner’s responsibility to ensure that death comes as a friend to the animals we love and cherish, and the veterinarian’s responsibility to offer the benefits of experience and training to help you when that terrible time comes – as it must come, eventually, for all of our pets.

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