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Time to Say Goodbye

It’s probably the saddest thing we face as pet parents, saying goodbye. What makes it even worse is often, the controls are in our hands—we decide when the dog we love with our whole heart will breathe her last breath.
Written by Sarah Sypniewski | Photography by Kim Rodgers
We prolong and delay it and we despair over doing the right thing at the right time. We look for and then ignore the signs until we can’t anymore. We fight so our baby doesn’t feel abandoned or given up on, but still, the moment arrives.

The day eventually comes where the deterioration is too great…the shine is too dim…the spirit is but a thread of loyalty to you…and the pain? Well, the pain is everywhere. And that’s when we have to let go—often amidst panic, guilt, and desperation.

But what if it didn’t have to be like that? What if there was a different way? What if you and your dog could actually enjoy those final moments—even days—together? What if you could do it on your own terms, free from desperate Hail Marys, medical procedures and gripping stress?

Pet loss grief counselor Claire Chew, MA and her dog Casey did. And I was lucky enough to witness this extraordinary moment in their lifetime together.

In July 2011, Casey, a 17-year-old rat terrier, was diagnosed with kidney failure. Casey responded well to her sub-cutaneous fluid therapy at first, but after about a month, it all shifted. That’s when Claire called me, since—in my other life—I co-own Bark Pet Photography. Claire was having a goodbye party for Casey the next day and wanted to know if we would photograph it. She sounded sad, but peace and resolve stood out above it as she told me that all of Casey’s favorite people were coming to enjoy a final day at her home to tell stories and celebrate her life—with her—while everyone could enjoy the experience. What a lovely idea—it sounded like a canine version of a living funeral, like in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie. This would be “Sunday with Casey.”

The next morning, Claire welcomed us inside her home. Casey and her doggie sister Lulu came bounding over to us and I was confused. Wasn’t Casey sick? Hadn’t she reached the end of her battle? I expected a weak, failing Casey crumpled in a heap on a dog bed or maybe in her crate, looking defeated and tired as everyone took turns stroking her sleek head one last time. But instead, Casey was the perfect hostess, flitting around to all of her guests.

I couldn’t grasp what was happening. How could it be Casey’s time? This little dog was full of life! But, as we’d learn later, this was an unusually good day for Casey.

Casey had been on fluid treatment for four weeks when during one of her injections, Claire said Casey stared at her with weary eyes as though to say, “Really? I’ve had enough, Mom.” This followed a few days when Casey wasn’t her normal social self; she was aloof, tired and quiet. Claire suspected something was changing and Casey’s look that day confirmed it.

Claire consulted her vet and an animal communicator to help sort through options. When in the throes of impending pain, it can be nearly impossible to think clearly, let alone make decisions. Seeking out support and resources is key. With their guidance, Claire accepted that though Casey could have probably lasted awhile longer, it would likely be filled with increasing suffering.

Dogs are so noble, aren’t they? They never let on about their suffering. They never ask for one thing, despite all they give. Claire understood that this little dog she had loved for seventeen years was asking for the only thing she had ever asked for in her entire lifetime: To be let go.

Although Claire specializes in pet loss grief counseling, it wasn’t easy. She still struggled with grief and anticipated loss, but knew letting herself experience these feelings and process through them was important--and she recommends that we all give ourselves permission to grieve.

With the help of the animal communicator, Claire heard Casey’s request for a goodbye party—a last chance to say “Thank you” and “I love you” to the humans she cared about—and Claire granted it. Regardless of anyone’s beliefs, one thing was certain: Casey radiated unmistakable joy every minute of her party. Claire said Casey had been faltering the past days and was sleeping up until the party, but as soon as the gathering began, no one could argue—this sick dog was obviously ecstatic. And though she fought tears, Claire beamed as much as Casey did. As Claire reminds, “I think there’s a lot of healing that can occur before the transition of the pet—both for the human and canine.”

It was all so striking. Claire had taken a few days to prepare for Casey’s transition and it was all going according to plan. She wasn’t frantic or frazzled. She was sad, but she wasn’t out of her mind with desperation, like so many of us are in those final moments. Claire had been able to create space for Casey to live her final days in incredible tranquility—not to mention provide that for herself. She had time to enjoy Casey as she had her entire life…and to say goodbye as she needed. This was their day to create the most special and lasting of all memories.

For me, who had only ever experienced euthanasia at a vet’s office under major duress (both the dog’s and mine), this was revolutionary. Claire agreed to let Casey go when she asked. And she did it with peace, dignity, and respect. It was grief without suffering—what a remarkable idea. Claire said, “we often wait until they are in pain and then by that time, the pet and human aren’t able to have that time and reflection with each other. And you often feel a lot of guilt that you couldn’t do more. A party helps ease that.”

I know not all of us have days to plan something. Sometimes we have only minutes—and sometimes, we have nothing. But making time for final shared peace seems helpful to both human and canine. Even if it’s just a short minute…and even if it has to happen after the transition, actually saying goodbye in peace is an integral part of the grieving and healing process.

“Being able to take our walk together as a family for the last time while Casey still could, didn’t diminish how hard it was the next day, but it brought a lot of peace to me. If people can experience that, they will feel a lot more grounded in their decisions to follow.”

The next day, Claire and Casey recorded and posted a final video message on her blog, and that evening, a vet performed in-home euthanasia—a significantly more peaceful option than going to a vet’s office. Casey’s final moments were spent amongst her family, smelling her home and feeling her blankets and bed. She saw Claire’s eyes and felt her hand on her tiny chest as she transitioned quietly, peacefully, and surrounded by love and light.

Claire did what we all have the power to do: She did her beloved companion of nearly two decades the honor of letting her go on Casey’s terms, before her dignity dissolved along with her bodily functions. It was Claire’s final—and most important—gift to Casey. One I hope I can provide to my own dogs when the time comes.

I asked Claire how she copes with her loss and how others can cope with theirs. “It’s important to create new routines. If you walked your dog at a certain time every day, go for a walk by yourself or with friends at a different time. Or try a new route that you don’t associate with your pet.” And then there’s the question of your beloved’s remains. Claire incorporated Casey’s cremated remains into her favorite spot, the garden. From her blog: “I returned Casey to Mother Earth, commemorating one of her favorite spots to sniff by planting a lavender bush.” In this way, Casey will always have a living, physical presence in Claire’s life.

And of course, there are times when the grief is too deep to handle by yourself. You can seek out support from dog-loving friends or professionals like Claire. The loss of a pet is just as real as (if not more than) any other loss, and specialists can help you process your emotions.

Seeing Casey and Claire’s journey taught me that I don’t have to wait until there’s nothing left. I know I will struggle—I want my dogs to live forever—but I hope that when I’m faced with indications they are ready, I can listen like and have the foresight Claire did. I hope I can recognize the pain they don’t let on about. I hope that, when staring at the paths of choice in front of us, I remember my Sunday with Casey and I am brave enough to follow the huge legacy left by such a tiny dog.

For Pet Loss resources, click here.
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