Monday, February 15, 2021

Pet Loss: Finding Peace After Euthanasia

[Reviewed and updated March 23, 2023]   

Not the least hard thing to bear when they go from us, these quiet friends, is that they carry away with them so many years of our own lives.  
~ John Galsworthy

A reader writes: I need help. I am an 87 yr old woman and last year, after a long illness and in and out of hospitals, home, and nursing home, my husband passed away before I could get there even though he asked for me and it was a mere 5 minute trip, he was gone before I got there.

A few days ago I sent my beloved cat to be euthanized. He was my companion for 10 years. I adopted him when he was 7; no one wanted a 7yr old cat and so he was scheduled to be euthanized until I adopted him. He was my good and beautiful friend and helped ease the pain of the loss of my husband. Several months ago he became ill. Our vet tried very hard to care for him but he was declining.

The hardest part of his death that I am dealing with now is that the day I sent him to his end is burned into my heart and soul. I was waiting for the clinic to pick up my cat and he had hidden under my furniture in my room, which he did when he was feeling poorly. The surprise was that he uncharacteriscally came out, walked towards me and cried. I lifted him in my arms and he let me hold him (he doesn't like to be held). Instead of sitting with him I betrayed him by putting him in the cat carrier because I knew the clinic was sending someone to bring him there to release him. He coughed and tried to get out; I felt like I was dying myself. The young tech came in about 1/2hr and cried as he took him away. The image of what I did to my cat to get him euthanized is tormenting me; his last exchange with his "mom" was harsh. I have no peace because I cannot tell him how I loved him. Now with my apartment dead silent, and no fur companion to care for and love I am bereft. I cannot justify the poor way I handled my cat.

I don't know if you can find words that might ease my soul but I would appreciate any help I can get to find peace. Thank you.

My response: I am so sorry to learn of the death of your beloved cat ~ and the death of your husband as well ~ and my heart reaches out to you in your pain. Unfortunately, when we decide to end the suffering of our beloved pets, in exchange we're often left with a truckload of guilt, so that while their suffering has ended, ours has just begun. (See Guilt in The Wake of The EuthanasiaDecision.) In that sense, euthanasia is a selfless act of love, because you're putting the needs of your beloved animal ahead of your own, and now you are the one left to suffer in his absence. I have no doubt that throughout his life with you, your fur baby knew how much he was loved, and I do believe he trusted you enough to understand that ending his suffering was your final act of love for him. How he lived all those years with you matters so much more than the last few minutes of his life.

You say that you have no peace because you cannot tell your cat how you loved him ~ but I respectfullydisagree. Thanks to the power of ritual, there are many ways that we can convey our love to someonewe have loved and lost, even after death. You could write a letter to your cat's spirit, saying all you need to say ~ then set the letter ablaze, letting the smoke carry your message heavenward. You could make a special place in your home or yard that acknowledges and honors his life ~ a place where you can go (or be) to remember him and talk to him. More ideas are listed here: Memorializing Pets We Have Lost.

In hopes that it will speak to you in a helpful way, I want to share with you a lovely piece by Martin Scot Kosins entitled The Fourth Day. It appears in the book Angel Pawprints: Reflections on Loving and Losing a Canine Companion and is reprinted with permission on my website's Comfort for Grieving Animal Loverss page:

The Fourth Day 
by Martin Scot Kosins

If you ever love an animal, there are three days in your life you will always remember.

The first is a day, blessed with happiness,when you bring home your young new friend. You may have spent weeks deciding on a breed. You may have asked numerous opinions of many vets, or done long research in finding a breeder. Or, perhaps in a fleeting moment, you may have just chosen that silly looking mutt in a shelter — simply because something in its eyes reached your heart. But when you bring that chosen pet home, and watch it explore, and claim its special place in your hall or front room — and when you feel it brush against you for the first time — it instills a feeling of pure love you will carry with you through the many years to come.
The second day will occur eight or nine or ten years later. It will be a day like any other. Routine and unexceptional. But, for a surprising instant, you will look at your longtime friend and see age where you once saw youth. You will see slow deliberate steps where you once saw energy. And you will see sleep where you once saw activity. So you will begin to adjust your friend's diet — and you may add a pill or two to her food. And you may feel a growing fear deep within yourself, which bodes of a coming emptiness. And you will feel this uneasy feeling, on and off,until the third day finally arrives.
And on this day — if your friend and God have not decided for you, then you will be faced with making a decision of your own — on behalf of your lifelong friend, and with the guidance of your own deepest Spirit. But whichever way your friend eventually leaves you — you will feel as alone as a single star in the dark night sky. If you are wise, you will let the tears flow as freely and as often as they must. And if you are typical,you will find that not many in your circle of family or human friends will be able to understand your grief, or comfort you. 
But if you are true to the love of the pet you cherished through the many joy-filled years, you may find that a soul — a bit smaller in size than your own —seems to walk with you, at times, during the lonely days to come. And at moments when you least expect anything out of the ordinary to happen, you may feel something brush against your leg — very, very lightly. And looking down at the place where your dear, perhaps dearest, friend used to lie — you will remember those three significant days. The memory will most likely be painful, and leave an ache in your heart — As time passes the ache will come and go as if it has a life of its own. You will both reject it and embrace it, and it may confuse you. If you reject it, it will depress you. If you embrace it, it will deepen you. Either way, it will still be an ache.
But there will be, I assure you, a fourth day when — along with the memory of your pet — and piercing through the heaviness in your heart — there will come a realization that belongs only to you. It will be as unique and strong as our relationship with each animal we have loved, and lost. This realization takes the form of a Living Love — Like the heavenly scent of a rose that remains after the petals have wilted, this Love will remain and grow — and be there for us to remember. It is a love we have earned. It is the legacy our pets leave us when they go — And it is a gift we may keep with us as long as we live. It is a Love which is ours alone — And until we ourselves leave, perhaps to join our Beloved Pets — It is a Love that we will always possess.

I wish for peace and healing to your broken heart, dear one ~ and when you remember your precious cat, may love be what you remember most.

Afterword: I am eternally grateful to you for your more than kind and comforting response to my plea for help. Your words; the writing you forwarded me will be treasured forever. It will be read more than once. If my cat is anywhere around I know he is grateful too; you have eased my pain although the tears still come. My granddaughter is an artist and has made a picture of my cat for me with a halo over his head; it has a place of honor on my wall where I can easily see it. Bless you.

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