Friday, July 1, 2011

Surviving the Decision to Euthanize

     In our work, we talk many, many people who have made the decision to euthanize their companion animal in the past.  Because we are a hospice, people wonder where we "stand" on euthanasia and often assume we oppose it.  We routinely hear people say things such as:

"There was nothing else we could do."
"My vet told me it was time."
"She was in pain."
"He was so old."
"I just couldn't care for her anymore."
"He was going to die soon anyway; I didn't want him to suffer."
"I wish there had been another option."
"That was the hardest day of my life.  It was awful.  I will never forget it."
"I could never go through that again; I won't get another animal."

     Sometimes the person is confident and secure in their decision.  But often the conversation is about justification.  The person believes we, like everyone else, is questioning and judging the decision - and judging them for making it.

     But even more important, the words are laced with justification to the person him or herself.  There is guilt, doubt, regret.  There is a need for reassurance that the decision was correct, good, and honorable because the person still isn't sure if it was.  The person may have mentally convinced him or herself, but something nags in the gut or heart.

     Is this you?  If you are being well and truly honest with yourself, do you still have doubt, regret and guilt?  Do you wonder, "what if"?

     It doesn't matter how long ago the decision was made, these feelings can be destructive and painful for a very long time.  Now is the time to face them, come to terms, and prevent them from interfering with your life and future relationships with animals.

     The very best answer to, "Where does New England Pet Hospice stand on euthanasia?" is: we don't stand; we move.  We move as the situation evolves, as the animal progresses, as the family's needs require.

     Every animal, every person, every family is unique and different.  There is no ONE right answer for every condition, for every ailment, for every situation.  While we support those who wish a natural death at home and know that doing so can be very fulfilling, we also know that it is not possible in every situation, for every animal or for every person.  The decision of when and whether to euthanize your animal is a uniquely personal one. 

     If you are living with regret, doubt or guilt, now is the time to work through it.  You don't have to let it lurk in your heart forever.  You don't have to "learn to live with it".  You don't have to continue to feel this way. 

      =>> If your feelings are overwhelming to you, interfere with your daily activities, make you want to stay in bed for days at a time, cause you to drown them out with alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, or other risky or dangerous behavior, seek professional assistance from a counselor, social worker, psychologist or clergy member NOWTodayThis very momentThere is help available and you need to get it right away before you hurt yourself or someone else.  You are a good and worthy personYou deserve to be happy.

     If your grief, regret, doubt or guilt does not rise to that level, but still nags at you, here are some things you can do to work through them:

     1.  Talk.  Talk to someone who is empathetic, has time and will listen.  This could be a friend, family member, counselor, clergy member.  If you are in our service area (currently, Massachusetts), call us and we would be happy to meet with you.  Avoid co-workers (particularly while you are working).  Avoid those with their own bias or needs.  Talk until there are no more words. It is an incredible release.

     2.  Write a letter to your animal.  Write how you really feel.  However it comes out.  No one else will ever read it; this is just for you.  Don't edit, don't ponder, don't question.  Just write.  Ask for forgiveness if you feel you need it.  Express your love and gratitude for the time you had together.  Make sure you have time, space and privacy.  When you are done, choose what you want to do with the letter.  See what feels right to you.  Maybe you would like to bury it with or near your animal.  Burn it and send the words to the universe.  Attach it to a latex balloon and release it to the heavens (use only latex which shatters at high altitudes into safe articles and no string or ribbon which could harm birds or the environment).  Put it in a glass bottle and release it to the ocean.  Fashion it into a boat and float it down a river or stream.  Just don't hold on to it.  Letting it go is important, even (especially) when that is hard to do.

     3.  Explore the emotions.  Find a quiet time and place and invite these emotions in.  They are demanding your attention; so give it to them.  What do you want from me?  Why do I feel this way?  Give them colors, shapes, sounds, voices.  Explore why they exist and go to the depths of the emotion.  What is at the root?  Why does it eat you up?  Then thank them for the wisdom they have imparted and let them go.

     4.  Have a good cry or rage or scream (or all of the above).  When we bottle emotions up and don't express them, they grow.  They don't dissipate.  The work of burying emotions, covering them up, hiding from them is exhausting.  Let the emotion out.  Climb a hill or mountain and scream (it's wonderful!).  Crank the music up in your house or car and sing.  Put on the sappiest movie you can find and cry your heart out.  Punch a pillow.  Get on your bed and throw a good, old fashioned, toddler themed temper tantrum: kick and pound and scream and cry.

     The most important thing you can do is forgive yourself.  You may struggle with your decision.  You may doubt it.  You may regret it.  But know that you made the best decision you could at the time, with love in your heart, based on the situation at hand and the information and resources available to you.  It doesn't matter whether you would have done things differently if you could go back.  It doesn't matter if others doubted you.  It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks.

     What matters is what you do next.  Can you open your home and your heart to another animal?  Can you trust that when the time comes you will make the right decision for this new animal?

     Whether you believe it or not, I know you made the best decision you could and that it came from a place of deep love.  I know you are a good person and that you gave everything you could to your animal.  I don't judge you, second guess your decision or question your motives.  I trust you and the choice you made.

     How do I know?  How can I trust?  Because you wouldn't be here, reading and thinking about this lengthy post if all of those things weren't true.


  1. thank you... the tears keep flowing, but I know they need to.

  2. Nicole,

    I am so sorry for your loss. Tears are therapeutic - as is talking and working through the emotions. These are extremely tough decisions, especially because of the depth of love we have for our animals.

    Wishing you Peace,

    Founder and Team Leader
    New England Pet Hospice

  3. on wed aug 17 we had to put our german shepard Madison down she was going to be 8 oct 5 this was and allways will be my little girl not only is my heart broken but it feels like my soul has been ripped from me thank you for the post it sounds like good advise

  4. Mike,

    I'm so sorry for your loss. Madison was clearly well-loved and will be with you always in your heart. Be gentle with yourself and allow yourself the time and space to mourn her passing.

    Take care,

  5. To have this huge burden of doubt and guilt on top of an already shattered heart is brutal and unbearable. Thank you for helping me take the first step in recovery. My beautiful girl was not even 5 years old.

  6. I am so sorry for your loss and glad that we could help in some small way. Please be gentle with yourself. This is such a hard thing and I have no doubt you acted with love and the intention of doing the very best thing for your sweet girl.


  7. All I can say is,

    Thank you. The suffering needs to end at some point. Today is a good time to start.


  8. WE chose to let our Border Collie Sioux go yesterday morning and I now feel so guilty and regrets just keep flooding me. She was 12 and couldn't walk very well any more, but it appeared she'd had a stroke when I came home. The Vet said it was one of those vestibular diseases and said we could wait and see. We didn't, we chose to have her put to sleep and we were with her the whole time. I have cried more in the last day and a half than I ever did for my two-legged family members. I cannot believe how awful I feel and the guilt is just terrible. I am so glad I found this site.

    1. I'm so sorry you faced such had choices. I know you made them with compassion and love and hope in time you can find that knowledge inside yourself also well. We love our animals as the special individuals they are - family members friends, companions, helpers, comic relief. The one who is ALWAYS happy to see us. It is a huge loss. Be gentle with yourself.

      Warmly and with deep condolences,

  9. Thank you for this site and for this guidance: "You may struggle with your decision. You may doubt it. You may regret it. But know that you made the best decision you could at the time, with love in your heart, based on the situation at hand and the information and resources available to you."

    This was very helpful to me.

    Yesterday I had to put my 12 year old majestic German Shepherd (rescue) down. While he struggled for most of his adult life with spondylosis (and was on pain meds, etc.), the past few weeks were tough. I should also note that he had a vestibular attack about 6 months ago, from which he mostly recovered--just a bit unbalanced occasionally. I'm still grateful I was able to nurse him during the 2-week attack to pull through. Because of his unsteadiness, I put non-slip area rugs all over the house to cover my hardwood floors for him. I had a ramp built for him off of my deck so he wouldn't have to navigate steps. Over the past few weeks, he was increasingly struggling getting up on his own, but would manage. If I was home, I'd help him. He couldn't go down the ramp due to his weakening legs. While he never soiled in the house earlier in life, he became incontinent because of the illness. It didn't matter, I cleaned it up. I'd take him out in the front yard at 3am so he didn't have to go down the ramp in the backyard. I would leave work early to come home to check on him, and clean him up if necessary. The last two weeks he took a turn for the worse--it was harder for him to get up. By the weekend, he lost all ability to stand on his own. I'd lift him gently to help him, and then he'd manage to take a few steps, slowly, wobbly, but he'd make it out front. Finally, despite my help, when he stood up, he just plopped down, unable to stand. So I called the home vet. I knew he wasn't happy, but his appetite was still ravenous, and he was alert and engaged. I was torn up. But, having had dogs all of my life, I recognized the wasting that was going on for some time, and was mindful of his age and his medical history. (I would add, that he got regular veterinary care, and was even seen by a veterinary neurologist for a consult. I later had a home vet to confirm his vestibular attack since transporting him was not an option for me.) The same home vet who recommended continued nursing for the vestibular attack (very grateful for that), now recommended euthanasia. She just looked at him and said it was time. I knew it in my gut too. He was in so much pain and clearly the pain meds weren't working. I made the decision with the heaviest of hearts--like all of us who go through this. My vet recommended taking 1 more day to say our goodbyes. We got to spend quality time to say good-bye (he got 8 cheesburgers over a 24 hr. period and icecream, and lots of love and time with mom--sleeping on the floor next to him for comfort). I am grateful for that. The procedure was peaceful. But, now I'm racked with guilt--should I have tried an alternative procedure--water therapy, etc. (no rehab facility within 40 miles; not recommended by the vets--but I was still aware of this as an option). I wish I had done more for my gentle giant. Maybe I simply did the best I could, as your post suggests.

    Thank you.

    1. I'm so sorry for your loss. It sounds like you did everything possible - and then some! Be gentle with yourself. You made the very best decision you could and I have no doubt your boy knew how hard you tried and how much you loved him. I can hear it from your words and he got to witness it in every interaction you had with him.

      Grief is hard work and when you are no longer caring for a special needs loved one, you have time to doubt and question yourself. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. Find peace knowing that you did your very best - and it was enough. Really, it was.

      Wishing you peace,

    2. Dear Heather,

      Thank you so much for your reply. It brought tears to my eyes and touched my heart. I printed out your note to have it handy to re-read during forthcoming waves of grief. Thank you so much for your time and support through this site.

      Very Sincerely,

    3. I'm so glad we can be helpful.

      Sending you warm wishes,

  10. Thank you so much for this post. Yesterday, I had to put my 18 year old Shih Tzu Maggie down. It was the hardest decision I have ever made. That dog meant everything - I loved her completely. We were constant companions every day, even at work. Anonymous's post really sounded familiar: The rugs, the soiling, the lifting and carrying of the dog.

    There was definitely something wrong with her and I was in and out of the vets for a week. On the night before i had to put her down, she had some kind of seizure and I rushed her to the emergency vet at 2am. They performed (another) ultrasound and drained a bunch of fluid from her abdomen. All they could was she had a very enlarged liver. They gave me 3 options: More tests, do nothing for now, euthanasia. I decided to bring her home and see how she was doing. When we got home, she frantically walked in circles, falling over and screaming. I knew what i had to do.

    I have read your post which has been helpful. I seem to be pretty good at the crying and screaming part. I am working through my grief, which seems to come in waves. I don't know for sure that I made the right decision and there really is no way to ever know (The what-if). But I do know that I never wanted to make that decision and was afraid I'd have to. When the moment came, I knew what I had to do and decided with only her best interest in mind. That gives me some comfort.

  11. I am very sad after having made this decision. I loved my dog so much. She had a special personality. We were very strongly bonded. Because of our bond, I feel so much regret. I didn't anticipate I would feel this way.

  12. I am so sorry, Hyena. Please be gentle with yourself. You acted from a place of love and made the very best decision you could at the time with the information and resources available to you.

    Love never ends. He will be with you always and I bet if you watch for him, you will see his energy in many small ways around you.

    Give yourself time. You are grieving a huge loss - the lass of your baby and soulmate. That doesn't feel better in a day or a week. It is normal to feel sad, confused, frustrated, angry.

    Wishing you Peace,

    Founder and Director
    New England Pet Hospice & Home Care