When your dog is coming to the end of their life

Tomorrow, Tommy will have been gone for a month. And I wanted to share some things that might be helpful for other dog owners as they approach their loved one’s later years, and this has turned into my personal story too.

But first, let me offer some advice as to what to say (or not) to someone who is about to lose or has just lost their pet … don’t say “Think of all the good times” because the owner is right in the middle of a really horrible time and those good memories will feel unbearably painful for a while. We live in a world now where pain is to be avoided and really, sometimes we just need to cry and be angry and sad and FEEL pain, before we can move on to the next stage. Secondly, don’t say “they’re in a better place now” because to a dog owner the best place that a dog can possibly be is snuggled right up next to them, with their nose pushed into the collar of your dressing gown.

But what you can say that does actually help is share a memory you have of that person’s pet, or tell a story about losing your own pet. These kinds of words help the grieving owner feel connected to others who understand your grief. And if you’re not a doggy person then just send them love, or say you’re thinking about them, or that you’re sorry. One of the nicest things someone (a very non-dog person) said to me about Tommy was “I have never known a dog that was so loved.” These words continue to touch me, a month on.

Back to the advice for dog owners … I can’t stress enough the role your vet will play in this. The last thing you’re thinking of when you choose a vet for that cute little puppy you just got, is the moment when that puppy leaves you. But it’s important. I realized after the fact that my vet actually has something on their website about being there for you at the end, and I think that says a lot. Vets are not just there to help your pet through life, but also to help your pet through death. And a good one will be there to help you through that too. They will take the time to answer all your questions (and you’ll have many if your pet has a terminal condition), and never make you feel like you’re bothering them. Choose your vet carefully.

Secondly, you won’t know how you’ll feel, at any stage … at that moment when your vet tells you it’s terminal and there’s nothing they can do, at that moment when you know their quality of life has gone, and at that moment when they die. Just go with how you feel. Be prepared for all sorts of feelings and thoughts to come up, perhaps not even related to your pet. I was surprised to find myself flooded with memories of all sorts of unpleasant things that had happened in my life during the past ten years … years when Tommy had been such a comfort. My neighbour told me how she found herself taken back to the time when her son was little, remembering how this excited puppy pulled on the pram. There could be all sorts of memories that arise while you are preparing for your companion to go.

I decided to put much of life on hold during Tommy’s final days, which turned out to be weeks. And I’m sure this is something that has made the past month without him so much easier than I had possibly imagined. I have no regrets because I was there for him in every way possible, feeding him the kinds of things I’d never allowed him to eat before, shooting out of bed to be by his side if he got up in the night, and watching his every move for signs of him being in pain. Some people are different, but for me, I didn’t want to keep him around just for my sake.

The other thing that I believe has made losing him just that bit less painful, is that I didn’t even let him get to the stage where he was in pain. Trying to work out when it was time for him to go was so difficult and consumed my every thought … there are online questionnaires that help you work out whether it’s time for you to say goodbye and I found that a bit helpful. But I still didn’t really know. But when it came down to it, one day I woke up and looked at him, and knew his quality of life had gone. He wasn’t in pain, but he wasn’t enjoying life anymore. And I knew.

I would recommend having your vet come to your home. I couldn’t bear the thought of taking Tommy to the surgery and walking out without him. I didn’t want to have to hide my emotions for the sake of the surgery staff or other clients, and when my vet offered to come to my home it was a huge relief for me. So you know what to expect, this is what happened …

Patrick arrived with a big box of “stuff,” containing syringes and other things. Immediately my heart started racing and in my head I’m going over and over again “Oh fuck oh fuck this is really it now. I can’t believe this is happening” but on the outside staying calm and strong for Tommy. Patrick shaved Tommy’s two front paws, which is where the euthanasia injection was to go, then gave him an injection behind his neck, which was the sedative. Pretty soon Tommy was snuggled in my arms, snoring away, sounding so peaceful and happy. I sat on the floor in the living room, and Sandie wandered around sniffing at the big box. I had heard many times that if you have other pets, it is best that they are in the room when one passes, and Patrick reiterated that. When I was ready, Patrick put a syringe full of pink liquid into Tommy’s front leg, and again after asking me if I was ready, Patrick then pushed the liquid into Tommy’s leg, telling me what he was doing at every moment.

I had thought at that moment I would say something to Tommy, but I didn’t feel the need. I was completely unaware of anybody else in the room and felt totally and utterly focused on and connected to Tommy. The only thing I can liken it to is when you say your wedding vows, when there is nothing else that exists except that you and the other person and that moment. I was vaguely aware of Sandie suddenly stopping her wandering and lying down next to me and Tommy. I realized afterwards that I hadn’t needed to say anything to Tommy because I had spent every night before going to bed telling him how much I loved him and thanking him for being such a wonderful friend. I had said everything I needed to say to him already.

I didn’t even know Tommy had gone until Patrick said something. There had been no dramatic moment, no exhaling, no wee or poo, which I know sometimes happens. There was nothing distressing or traumatic for him. It was like he went to sleep in my arms and I realized that his little body wasn’t moving with the rhythm of his breathing anymore. I smiled at how peaceful and beautiful it was. When I was ready Patrick used his stethoscope to confirm Tommy had passed. And I sat with Tommy in my arms for as long as I wanted, although truly, I could have sat there for days. I didn’t want to let him go. And I still feel like I would do anything just to hold him in my arms again. Just one more time.

But I laid him down on a thick plastic green sheet, which Patrick gently zipped him up in — watching Tommy being zipped up was really the only horrid moment of the whole thing. And then Patrick carried him respectfully out of the house, with his arms out straight in front of him and Tommy resting on top. It’s funny the details you remember. I watched them go before closing the door, and even though tears had been running down my face for the entire time, as soon as I closed the door this huge half-sobbing half-choking noise came out of me. I have never cried like that in my life. It didn’t even sound like crying.

And while all of the above may sound absolutely awful, I am so glad I did it. I was there for Tommy during his very last moments. He spent his last moments right there in my arms, in his home. And if I hadn’t done that, I think it would have been so much more difficult to deal with. I would urge anyone facing this, to be with your loved pet if you feel you can. Yes it will be horrid, but it will be beautiful too.

And I’ve let the tears flow during the past month. Whenever they’ve come. Wherever I am. Market customers who knew Tommy was ill have asked how he is and I’ve told them, and just let the tears run down my face as I tell them. I don’t care. Tommy deserves my tears and I don’t really want people around me who aren’t comfortable with others’ emotions anyway. I can recall four customers in the past month who have stood sobbing in front of my stall as I’ve told them that he’s gone, and I love them for sharing my grief. In his life Tommy gave me so much, and I feel like in his death, he has continued to give … whether it is people I don’t know very well who read my Facebook updates on him with tears running down their faces, or market customers snuffling away with me … I feel like he has given us permission to be sad together, to cry together, to comfort each other.

Tommy’s final gift to me was making me face a fear I have had since he was a puppy … that fear of the day when he would leave me. Not a lot scares me but I’ve always had two real fears … losing Tommy and losing my mum. Both inevitable things … if life follows its natural course then logically I expected Tommy to go before me, and I expect my mum to go before me. Yet I still had so much fear about these two inevitabilities. But when it came to it, I faced Tommy’s death. I did it. I did right by him. And I did it on my own. No partner by my side, no kids, no friends. I faced that fear and I’m no longer afraid of one day doing the same for my mum. Tommy has given me the strength to face grief. And I feel so strong because of that.

And now is the time when I can look back at the good times and the memories of Tommy. Mum and two of my closest friends (Tommy’s “uncles”) spent Easter weekend here with me and Sandie, and Tommy was a major topic of conversation. We laughed at all the terribly naughty things he used to do … one story after another had us in stitches. He was such a bad boy, leaving bits of shredded toilet paper, little pebbles, and chewed up fabric all over the house.

Cleaning the house for the first time after he went was hard … I felt like I was removing all traces of Tommy from my home as the vaccum quickly filled up with dog hair and I wiped the spot on the bathroom floor where he always seemed to slobber. I found the little bit of fur that Patrick had shaved off and put it in a little Japanese dish. I talk to the beautiful wooden box that Tommy’s ashes are in, and know that he is still part of my home. And somehow I doubt that I’ll ever wash my dressing gown again, I sit down every night in it and breathe deeply … there’s a spot on the collar that smells just like him.

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