In our family we’ve always had a dog. And we were fortunate that most of our dogs lived into old age - in fact they outlived many others. One dismal trade off of a dog’s long life is that difficult time where we, the caretakers, have to make a decision to put a dog to rest. For me, it was a Thursday evening when I decided to make that call.
I spoke quietly and slowly as the mobile vet confirmed my appointment for a home euthanasia Tuesday of the following week for my beloved 16- year old dog Lucy. By the end of the call, my voice was strangled in my throat as I struggled to utter "goodbye". That call was by far the most painful part of the process. Next, I had to tell my family.
My husband and I want our kids to identify and experience emotions rather than hide them, so we decided early on that we’d show our emotions around Lucy’s passing when the time came. As I approached the dinner table with tears in my eyes, I explained to everyone that the appointment had been made and we had exactly 5 more days to love Lucy.
When children experience the death of a beloved pet, they go through all kinds of emotions. Understanding how your children view your pets and their passing can help with the grieving process, as explained in Julia Fraga in her article from the NY Times, When a Pet Dies, Helping Children through the "Worst Day of Their Lives".
Based on my personal experience, losing a pet unexpectedly is much harder to cope with than planning euthanasia for an old dog, but on the other hand, being the decider is the pits.
And then, over a sink of dirty dishes and feeling sorry for myself, I thought, “Heather, snap out of it. 16 years for a dog is outstanding! Especially a sizable lab like Lucy. You are going to make this the BEST week ever possible for Lucy, and we’re going to have a Party!”
I told my husband I wanted to plan a Living Wake for Lucy. Was this a dumb idea? Maybe. But I knew it was right for us. We had tons of friends and neighbors that had known Lucy for 10 or more years. People that loved her, ran with her and threw sticks and Frisbees ad nauseam for her. She didn’t need us to feel sorry for her, she needed a celebration of life!.
We titled the Evite “Lucy’s Living Wake” and within 3 days over 20 people were on the guestlist. We invited all our friends that had dogs or that spent significant time with Lucy over the years.
The day of the party I made a special trip to the butcher shop for meat ends and chopped 2 pounds of bright red raw beef into 1” chunks. Each guest gave Lucy a bite of meat when they said their goodbyes. We even had neighbors asking to join us! She ate the treats without hesitation and then glumly turned her head, dismissing the attention that followed.
We snacked on vegetable hors d'oeuvres, chips, guacamole, beer, wine and homemade orange marshmallow s'mores. We lit a comforting campfire and shared stories of dog adventures and foibles. Lucy got as much attention as she would tolerate with flowers and adorning head scratches.
Parents were impressed with how Lucy’s wake opened conversations with their kids about death and dying. Since we don’t get many chances to talk about it, we realized how valuable this experience was not just for our own closure, but for everyone that came.
Where do pets go when they die? Where do people go? What would people say about me when I die? What do I want to have happen to my body when I die? What does it mean to die? “I’m sad because I know I’ll never see Lucy again,” said my daughter, “but I have 3 days left with her, so I’m going to sit with her now and love her and pet her and be with her.”
Some people said they now wanted a Living Wake. After all, what is the sense in having everyone share wonderful stories about you after you’re gone? In retrospect, the Living Wake was the most gracious way to appreciate the value and love Lucy brought to all of our lives. Plus, everyone that came had a chance to see Lucy one last time, which was meaningful for them.
The day of the party I waffled on my decision, considered cancelling the procedure, and poured through mental lists of pros and cons of waiting another week or month. But after Lucy’s wake, we realized she really wasn’t herself. She wasn’t up in everyone’s business like usual, or even scavenging for scraps under the table. Lucy was ready to go.
I kept my appointment and I continued taking Lucy to the river for our 20 minute walks in the woods each morning. We took her to the beach, we laid on the grass and smelled the salt air. We took her to a lake for swimming on her last day and fed her the remaining bits of steak from her party. It was such a blessing to have those final days basking in memories and just being together in time.
Lucy helped us feel good about our decision. She became more unaware, more unable to walk by herself, and more distant and despondent. As many dogs do, Lucy gave of herself until the very, very end.
On Tuesday the vet arrived on time. Lucy was lying peacefully in the shade in the cool grass. Our family sat around Lucy as close as we could and we cried and held each other. Our 7 year old and 4 year old sat patiently as we described what was happening to Lucy’s body and we each said our final goodbyes as her soul painlessly left her body.
We picked a special place for Lucy’s burial and each carried a memento to add to her grave as we placed her body in a hole in the ground. I thanked her for her enthusiasm, affection and unwavering love, and we buried her once and for all in one of her favorite places on earth.
The fulfilling last week of Lucy’s life was a unique gift that I actually treasure, now that I can look back on it. Having the opportunity to plan and express gratitude for a full, well-lived life is something we can all look forward to. Yes, making the choice to euthanize a pet is hard, but I am so grateful we crossed the finish line with glory.