Ashes to Ashes – navigating the death of a pet

eol care Jul 19, 2022

At the beginning of May I wrote a blog that my beloved dog Puffle was dying, and how she reminded me that dying happens on dying’s time, no one else’s.  I also wrote about how she took me back to lessons I learned as my father was dying. Over the past weeks the palliative medication the vet gave her created a fragile and slow unwinding for her. Good days slowly shrank to good moments. The balance of good and bad started tipping out of favour and eventually, last week, the vet was called.

Our animal companions have a huge and special place in our hearts. The love we share runs deep. They become the star around which family life orbits. They make a house a home. Grief for the loss of a pet is as wild and savage as the grief for the passing of a person we love. Love is love afterall.

The most difficult question we face with our beloved animals is, ‘how will I know when it is time?’ Being granted the right to end their suffering is both the rose and the thorn. A decision to end suffering of another being presents a deeper dilemma of when and how to make that decision. And it is that decision that can haunt us after the deed is done.

The most difficult question we face with our beloved animals is, ‘how will I know when it is time?’

I work with end of life in the human sphere and the deaths I have encountered there have been natural conclusions to a life. But in having to make a decision for another being, I found myself endlessly scouring the internet for clues about how to make this decision for my beloved dog. I searched for reassurance and for enlightenment, but ultimately it was Puffle herself who told me everything I needed to know. However, in the way the everything is connected, it was the decline and death of my father that lit the way for me.

Puffle had been with me, with him in those last few days of his life, and now it seemed he was helping me navigate the last days of her life. The experience of being present for his dying helped me understand what was happening for Puffle. People who love their animal companions will know that this comparison between human and animal is all about love.

How do we know how to make such an enormous decision for the animals we love? Because we live in such a death-phobic culture, no one really gives us a roadmap for this. It was hard to find information on the web, and so I offer this as an insight, Puffle helping others be there for their animal companions as they reach the end of the road. Puffle showing us that ultimately our animals will tell us, if we let them.

Over time Puffle began resting a lot more and her mobility was declining, but her pain was managed with medication. She had good days and not so good days but never lost the love for her toy, or for her breakfast and dinner.

The first sign that things were changing for Puffle was her breathing. In the last few days before her death her breath became more laboured, like a deep panting. This would become worse with anything that surprised her. She had periods of calm, periods of joy and periods of anxiety. My father had been like this too and for many hours I had helped him calm and slow his breathing by gently counting breath in and out and doing some simple energy work (see breathwork below). These methods worked well for Puffle too, but like him it became harder to hold her in a steady state.

She started wandering around and then stopping and staring off into the distance, this alternated with becoming increasingly clingy, or despondent.  She began craning her neck as she breathed and licked her lips and swallowed frequently. At times she looked lost. It broke my heart. yet the Labrador in her meant she always revived at the mention of breakfast.

the Labrador in her meant she always revived at the mention of breakfast.

Then gradually it was as if she was starting to move between worlds. She started looking around the room at things unseen and then she would look back at me with a strange expression. My father had done this too. It is as if one could see the soul starting to break its bonds with physical form, hovering and then returning, flexing but not quite breaking free. Like the metamorphosis of dragonfly nymph to dragonfly. There did not seem to be any pain in it, more of a hovering.

On the night before she died, she was in her bed, her breath varied from panting to Cheyne-stoking which is when long gaps start to emerge randomly between outbreath and inbreath. She was looking around the room and then into my eyes. Deeply into my eyes. We gazed at each other with so much love. I asked her if it was time, and it was if every part of her said, yes.

Calling the vet is so hard. We know the time has come and yet we can try to second guess ourselves. What if is not time? What if she rallies? But then I thought of my father and realised that he was helping me see the signs. It gets to a point in the road where there is no turning back. I had been here before. The vet came. He and the nurse who accompanied him were so gentle and compassionate. Puffle died in my arms on the sofa in a sunbeam. I howled.

My father died three days after a stroke, running the natural course of things until that last breath and his soul broke free. I am so glad that I was able to be there for him and so grateful for what he taught me on that journey. In that grief there was also a lightness of being, because when he was ready, he went. By contrast, in these first few days since Puffle’s passing I have felt the weight of that decision I had made for her, only slightly lightened by the sense of making it with her. This in itself is a lesson about the light and shadow of our influence over others.

So much of grief is tangled up in our lived experience of another’s passing. Guilt, anger, love, loss, remorse, relief, numbness, heartbreak, these can all find themselves swirling in our tears. Decisions we make are folded into that grief.

Here is what I have learnt that helps with the making of those decisions, and the aftermath they leave.

Try to find inner calm so you can truly be present for them. One way to do this is to picture breathing in love and then breathing out that love into the heart of the animal you are losing. Breathing in love, breathing out love. Feeling that connection like a chord from your heart to theirs. This can calm their breathing and state of being as well as your own. 

Be present with Beginner’s Mind. Don’t show up for them with predetermined answers. Find that loving connection. Be in the moment and then ask them for guidance, hold that loving thought and wait and be aware for answers. You and your animal have built up your own language over the time you have been together, so trust in that. Give them time to give you the signs you need, after all you are asking the most important question you will ever ask them.

You and your animal have built up your own language over the time you have been together, so trust in that.

Our animals give us so much, and in their living and dying they bring us face to face with Deep Love that embodies the love we have for all whom we hold precious.  And so it is that the grief for the loss of a pet is as visceral and meaningful as the loss of a person and so can take one back to other griefs carried. So be kind to yourself. Give yourself time and permission to grieve. This is a love that need not be diminished.

Buddhism speaks of making a shrine for someone you have lost and return to it each day for two weeks to reflect on their being, stories, connections, love and this is said to help their soul adjust to its free form. Doing this for a beloved pet is also beautiful.

All the places you have experienced with your animal can become shrines, places that remind us of the sacred in everyday things. The first day I walked along the forest paths I used to walk with Puffle, I cried. By the third day I could smile because I could feel her, and I am finding her, in all the places that gave our life together meaning. This is helping my heart heal.

In this dance of love and tears I woke up one morning and felt an immense sense of peace. It was as if she were with me in the room saying, it was time and you loved me enough to see that. You made the decision I was asking for.

She was a fabulous dog and a wonderful companion and in the end am just so glad that I got to experience her love. So much love. So. Much. Love.

Afterword:
The receptionist at the Vet rang me to tell me they expect to have her ashes for me to collect around 25 July, which in all the extraordinary connectivity of life, is the anniversary of my father’s passing.

Meditation for a dying pet:
This is a meditation I recorded based on work I did with a couple whose dog was dying. It may be helpful.

 

 

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