Because of Bruiser's prognosis, in-home hospice and euthanasia was very much a part of the initial dialogue with his vet, Dr. Cathy Theisen, who proved to be a great source of guidance and support throughout his illness. We knew that being at home would be best to allow him to transition more peacefully, though we had to stay open to the idea that there was the off-chance that things may become unexpectedly difficult and taking him to an emergency facility may have been a mindful thing to do.
That final decision did not come easily, of course. It was made after a lot of dialogue, listening, looking clearly.
The point of diagnosis to death is not a straight line.
Bruiser was able to have an enriching and comfortable final weeks, doing most of the things that he did prior to his diagnosis, and it also enabled our family to reap the benefits of sharing that time with him.
At a time fraught with so many changes — at some points, daily — adapting to Bruiser's needs as they evolved was something that could not be shied away from. It was a matter of being present; assessing what was happening on a given day and under the guidance of his clinician, adjusting things in his diet or medication or simply living with the changes.
He was comfortable for the majority of his illness with the help of medication, thankfully. But managing Bruiser's disease took diligence and care, and when it was obvious that the resources that we had previously tapped into to help him were not going to be enough, we had to muster the courage to reach out for the help that, ultimately, only his veterinarian could offer was. This decision was reached mixed emotions, to say the least. But even now, we know for sure that we made the right decision, for the right reasons, at the right time.
Having the balance of life and death in our laps is a daunting, emotional and complicated matter when life is shared with a pet. It's unlike any other.
As it turned out, Bruiser was able to make that final transition on his own, just an hour after I had contact with his vet.
We were glad that any suffering that he had was over. Not having to go through the process of euthanasia has, for us, made his death easier to manage; we realize that our grief would be compounded had we needed to follow through.
The transition after an event like this proves to be something to be done slowly. It's a recalibration of sorts: after tending to a terminally ill pet who has died, you go from 60 to zero, so to speak, in a short period of time. Waking up that first morning after a dog dies is horrendous. In terms of the pets in our household, things are an unsettling one-third quieter.
The anticipatory grief is something that builds through the process, and then there's the grief hangover.
It's interesting, traversing life with a pet into old age. Some liken having a pet to having a child, but I disagree: we're simply caregivers. We share life with a living, breathing being who has needs that require help in having met, we look out for them in order to ensure their safety and we act as their advocate, their voice. In advanced age and at end-of-life, that doesn't change, though their needs certainly do.
After slowly emerging into regular schedule in the days after he died, we became more engaged in things after hunkering down at home to tend to ourselves and the four-legged members of the tribe. As far as the pets go, the dynamics have changed there, too.
We needed that time to allow everyone the space and time to process everything unencumbered by outside influences: the misguided comments, the awkward questions and statements. A few loved ones, friends and colleagues were keenly aware of the intensity of what we had been experiencing, and we've continued to feel supported and encouraged by them.
Interestingly during this transition, a lot of people have reached out and shared their own experiences.
One thing that has resonated with me is the angst that people feel when presented with a grim diagnosis or issues associated with advanced age, and then faced with the complicated choice of euthanasia. These situations raise emotions, brings up fears and reminds us that we're never really in full control of things.
The feelings can be complicated: some have said to me that they know it was the right choice at the right time and for the right reasons, but there's a mental wrestling match that can ensue long after the process is over. There are others who express regret about waiting too long.
Both of these are certainly understandable and have places at either end of the spectrum.
The feeling that I get is that people could use more support when it comes to navigating the really difficult situations like old age, or at any age, illness and end of life for their pets.
I find that many people aren't aware of effective care plans that can be put into place in any of these scenarios, and it starts with a conversation with the veterinarian. I suggest not being afraid to ask about the next steps, and what a care plan might look like: medication, diet, extra help — maybe even alternative therapies — to aid in a pet's comfort. I made sure to ask the questions that mattered in Bruiser's situation, some of which meant getting hard-to-hear answers, but in the end, we felt better able to manage things.
Another avenue to consider is reach out to friends or loved ones who have experience in these areas. They're a wealth of support and information.
Old age, illness and death are not viewed as favorable topics to approach. In fact, they're seen as ugly, distorted, too difficult: distinctly different than what we see when we think of new life and resiliency, and that's unfortunate.
Death is as important an time of life as birth for a family and deserves the same attention and mindfulness.
After all, doulas are seen as a beneficial source of support at the beginning of a life, so why not have that same sense of everyone involved being tended to when a pet — a valued and beloved member of the family — is coming to the end of their life?
The tide is turning, thankfully. The idea of pet hospice is garnering a lot of attention, and there are more options for comfort and support than one might think. Additionally, many vets these days are willing to come to a client's home to intervene, rather than doing so in a traditional clinical setting.
Pet loss support groups, like the one the meets at the Humane Society of Huron Valley is another valuable resource to tap in to.
Our family was grateful to have had such an active part in helping Bruiser traverse the final weeks of his life with comfort and dignity. In the end, the feeling that we have come away with is an empowered one, though it might seem to be in stark contrast to the inevitable outcome.
Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.