Monday, February 22, 2010

A Few Thoughts After the Death of a Pet

Our beloved dog died last November. We had about a week with him after the initial diagnosis, during which time he took Prednisone and perked up to the point where he had a few moments of near-normalcy during his last days. We were grateful for the time we had to tell him how much we loved him and mentally say goodbye to him many times before doing it for real. Afterward, I wondered about a few things. It's taken me a while to put them down here.

One of the things we struggled with afterward was what to say about it. It didn't seem right to say that he "died", because he didn't, really - he was euthanized. It was an active process rather than a passive one, done on our terms rather than on nature's. The closest I could come to something that reflected how I felt about it was, "We had to say goodbye to our dog." Because the alternatives just didn't seem to fit.

One alternative was, "We put our dog down." This struck me as too harsh for the kind of relationship we had with him. We made him stay "down" when we punished him; making him stay down was an act of dominance. But euthanizing him had nothing to do with punishing him and nothing to do with dominance. Instead, giving him a relatively painless, dignified death, with minimal anxiety and before uncontrollable pain set in, was specifically an act of respect. This made me wonder if you would talk about "putting your dog down" if you respected him or her, and whether I was strange to respect our dog. I was certainly proud of the fact that he, a Welsh Corgi with short, stubby legs, could leave the ground, twist in the air, and catch a Frisbee in flight. That, while many Corgis become overweight, he was mostly muscle, stayed within his ideal weight most of his life, and played recklessly into his twelfth year. That he was so patient with us and so gentle with others, and so undemanding. And that he connected so well, making direct eye contact in a way that seems rare in dogs.

Another was, "We had to put him to sleep." More respectful of the dog, maybe, but less respectful of the event. This was not an event to minimize, and this phrasing seemed to do just that. Our dog couldn't avoid what happened to him - why should our language attempt to do so?

I'm not sure I ever found the right words, but that might have been appropriate, because there was little that was, ultimately, right about losing him. He, our relationship with him, and the process of losing him were too complex for a simple description to do justice to, and in the end I stopped trying. But that was okay, because most people had been through a similar event, and most understood even without the right words.

Which brings me to the next thought, that how people reacted to the event or to the news became, for me, almost a test of character. I found myself being disappointed by people who I thought were closer or better friends when they failed to express the right amount of sorrow, and being surprised by the comfort and support that came from unexpected sources, people who hadn't been that close lately for one reason or another. When I've been in that situation, hearing of bad news and being in a position to react, I've often failed to speak or reach out, believing that nothing I could say could adequately respect the situation, that an inadequate attempt would be worse than no attempt at all, and that silence was more respectful than platitudes. Now I know I was wrong, and I hope I'll handle those kinds of situations better in the future. Sincerity and sensitivity matter more than eloquence.

My final thought comes from sitting in the vet's office during that final week, knowing that it wasn't his last day yet, but that that day was pretty close. A neighbor, an evangelical Christian, happened to be there with his dog, and he asked what we were in for. We gave him the story, and he blithely assured us that he'd put down four dogs in his time and we'd be fine. On a personal level, his general affect and mode of operation is friendly, loud, relentlessly upbeat, and more broadcast than receive, so I don't blame him for his relative insensitivity. What I do blame him for, though, is the notion that we can give our pets a painless, dignified death, with minimal anxiety and on our terms rather than waiting for the biological crisis of natural death, but we can't do the same for ourselves or for the human members of our families.