Having a pet can be one of the most fulfilling experiences in life. But the unspoken understanding when you get one is that there will likely come a day when you have to say goodbye for the last time. Whether it be by complete surprise or something that you saw coming in advance, it’s never easy and there’s no universal way to get through it. Especially if you’re the one who has to make the final decision because your pet is suffering.
But as someone who’s had to say goodbye to a loving companion who improved my quality of life for the entirety of our time together, here are some insights that you may find helpful when the time comes. Feel free to take what you can from this list and apply it to your own life as you see fit.
“Acceptance is the hardest part” is a cliché for a reason. When I first found out that my dog Ryder had a genetic condition that would never be cured, I braced myself for the long haul. I spent the next two years rushing home after work every day to make sure he was okay, taking him to doggie daycare whenever I could so he’d be watched by qualified professionals, and going into credit card debt for medications and treatments that never seemed to really help much.
It got to the point where the people who were closest to me and also loved him started to ask me how long this highly stressful lifestyle would be sustainable. Taking care of a pet who quickly went from having one short seizure a couple of times a year to one who was having an average of one a day with long-lasting effects was admittedly taking a toll on me. It was having an impact on my relationships, personal health, and even the quality of my work.
But I was still willing to do anything I could to try and help him live as close to a normal, happy, and fulfilled life as possible. It wasn’t until he was on the highest possible dosage of more than three separate anti-seizure medications and still having clusters of seizures that I had to have a hard conversation with myself.
This wasn’t going to get any better and it was only getting a lot worse…
Also, when it comes to acceptance, it’s important to cut yourself some slack if you can. Accidents happen. Unexpected illnesses occur. Father Time is still undefeated. If you know you did all that you reasonably could to give your pet a happy life full of love, don’t blame yourself if the day comes that you have to part ways, even if it’s heartbreaking.
Having a strong support system is a valuable asset in all aspects of life. Facing the harsh reality of saying goodbye to a loved one — even a non-human one — is as good of a reason to lean on it as any. In my case, this support system involved family, friends, and the long list of veterinary professionals I’d seen over the years who tried to help me come up with an effective treatment plan for Ryder.
Some of them saw the writing on the wall long before I did, but didn’t want to rush me to make a decision sooner than I was ready to. Then, when I came to the conclusion that it was much more humane to peacefully put Ryder to rest surrounded by loved ones than to selfishly hold on until he fell victim to a series of seizures, they understood. They even came and stood by my side in his final moments. And I’ll always appreciate that.
So don’t hesitate to turn to people you trust for help, even if it’s just talking your way through the process. And do your best to make sure that the group includes a professional who can give you an objective opinion as well.
If there isn’t anyone in your daily life that you feel comfortable talking to about the situation, there are also other options, such as online support groups specifically designed around grieving the loss of a pet. Everyone grieves in different ways and hearing from other people who have gone through something similar can make you feel more supported, especially if you’re struggling with the absence of your friend.
Some of us are fortunate enough to see the end before it comes. In those instances, it’s important that you make the best of the time you have left with your pet by doing things you enjoy together.
On the days leading up to Ryder’s last appointment, we took longer walks than we ever had before — he could walk for hours if I let him. I let him sniff everything he could before I brought him home and gave him all of the treats he wanted. We took pictures together, visited family and friends, and played fetch in the backyard.
In the instances where you weren’t able to anticipate those final days, be sure to remind yourself of all of the happy memories you shared and know that you did all you could to give your pet the happiest life you could. Sharing stories and pictures with other people who knew your pet could also be a huge help.
Don’t rush into getting a new pet. A new pet won’t be the same as the one you lost and, no matter how hard you try, can’t replace them or your relationship with them. It might even be unfair to your new pet!
Think about it in terms of a relationship with another person. If your last one ended suddenly, you’re probably better served to take some time for yourself to grieve, reflect, and move on before diving into another one or you risk carrying over extra baggage that honestly has no real correlation.
That’s one more friend who will be able to experience your love and compassion so that they live a happy life. But it wouldn’t be fair to your new one if the only reason you got it is to replace your last one. You should have a new, independent relationship with them so that you can have a fresh start.
I said goodbye to Ryder just over a year ago and have just recently started to imagine myself being happy with another dog in my life. We all heal on different schedules, so only you can know when you’re really ready.