After months of medical intervention and prayer, a friend made the agonizing decision to euthanize her very old, very loyal dog. I am an animal lover who has been in her shoes, so I could appreciate what she was going through. Making the call to “put them to sleep” is merciful, but not easy, and can leave feelings of guilt and doubt for quite some time. Did I give up too soon? Should the call have been sooner? Did I end their suffering, or mine?
So many of us find love and companionship in later life from faithful canines. If you’re lucky enough to know the steadfast love of a good dog, you know they can be relied upon to never judge and to always comfort. Often, our dogs outlast loved ones, who leave us for a variety of reasons. When they come after the parting, dogs fill holes in our hearts. I got my bulldog, Maisy, after my oldest daughter left for college. Maisy’s at my desk now and by my side whenever I’m home. I know she won’t live forever, but I can’t imagine my life without her, and I’ve lost friends, parents and my husband.
Why is it so hard to lose a cherished pet? When I lost a human partner, there were the usual funeral rituals and sharing of memories and support for weeks afterward. Being an emotional basket case seemed understandable. But our culture treats the death of a pet more like the loss of an automobile. When it wears out, you should just go buy another one. When I lost my dog, well-meaning friends and family members had advised this in their attempts to help me feel better. What they didn’t get was that I had lost a soul mate—an irreplaceable relationship—not a piece of property.
We’ve learned that pets can help us maintain our health by reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, imparting a sense of purpose and bringing us companionship and joy. As an older adult myself, having a dog gets me out of the house—a little walk each day, moderate exercise and often a chance to meet new people.
So I’m asking you to understand, if you don’t already, the very real grief that someone can feel when they lose a furry friend, especially if they had to make the choice to end their companion’s life.
Pepper Evans works as an independent-living consultant, helping older adults age in place. She is the empty-nest mother of two adult daughters and has extensive personal and professional experience as a caregiver. She has worked as a researcher and editor for authors and filmmakers. She also puts her time and resources to use in the nonprofit sector and serves on the Board of Education in Lawrence Township, NJ.