How do we choose on behalf of another being and make sound decisions when we’re emotionally bereft?
While our preference may be that our companion animals gently pass from this world in their sleep, unfortunately, many will not. And so, pet parents find themselves considering palliative care options or facing a decision about whether to engage in euthanasia (the act of intentionally ending a life in hopes of relieving pain and suffering).
Enter heartbreak, frustration, and sadness! How do we make decisions when we are emotionally bereft? How do we choose on behalf of another being? With mindfulness and plenty of support.
Making the Decision
Step 1: Understand the medical details
When receiving news about an animal’s situation, it is common to experience some shock or disassociation. Words often go “in one ear and out the other.” So, whenever you speak with a member of your veterinary team, take notes with a pen and paper.
Recording information has a few benefits. First, it provides an accurate history to which you can return throughout the process of decision-making. Second, research suggests writing helps you integrate and retain information longer. Finally, when you write by hand, you will likely move more slowly and mindfully.
It’s okay to ask your vet to repeat details you don’t understand. Likewise, ask about alternatives to anything that feels intuitively “off.” And if the vet recommends euthanasia, ask specifics about the process they use, who can be present, and what might happen to the animal’s body after death.
Step 2: Talk through the options with a trusted friend, animal chaplain, therapist, or member of your support community
We often rely upon veterinarians to help us decide when “it’s time.” And yet, while your vet is an expert on medical issues, she may not be the best person to delve into your ethical quandaries or religious questions. Furthermore, she may not have enough time available to stay with you through your decision-making process.
For these reasons, pet parents who have religious or spiritual questions about death may find it most helpful to talk with an animal chaplain or member of their spiritual community. Some religious groups have people dedicated to animal-human topics. Or, if you are atheist or solidly secular, talk with a therapist or social worker.
To be clear: this is not a slight in any way on veterinarians! Instead, I am acknowledging that because we tend to avoid talking about death until the potential moment arrives, we can feel rushed to come to decisions quickly in their offices, pushing the decision onto them. Not being involved in the choice can leave us open to regret later.
Step 3: Explain the details to the animal
Sit with the animal gently. Share the information you have received. Talk about how it feels to be facing a difficult decision about their wellbeing. Be honest and sense into any messages you might receive from either your intuition or the animal. Jot down any thoughts that arise next to your medical notes.
Step 4: Invite divinity into the process with you
Whether your spiritual language includes God, Goddess, Adonai, Jesus, Allah, Inner Self, the Force, or some other touchstone for support, invite that being-ness into this process with you and the animal. Ask for guidance. Then listen for answers. Write down anything that feels meaningful. You may not hear clear direction but rather a word or phrase. Or a memory might resurface. Scribble it down. Reflect on what the remembrance might enlighten in this context.
Providing End-of-life Support
If you are guided to reject euthanasia, turn your efforts towards best supporting the animal in their critical illness or injury. Some tips include the following:
- Ask your veterinary team for recommendations based on the animal’s unique situation. What does she think will be most helpful for keeping the animal as comfortable as possible? You might ask about pain management, wound care, nutritional needs, or needed home modifications such as installing bed ramps. Complementary practices, including acupuncture, massage, or physical therapy, are also worth asking about.
- Understand what future symptoms might signal your animal is in crisis and what to do.
- Consider getting first aid training. The Red Cross offers a 35-minute online course to help you learn the basics. You should also consider purchasing a pet first aid kit if you do not already have one.
- Find out whether your veterinary team will be able to assist you with the animal’s body after their death or whether you will need separate arrangements for burial, cremation, or aquamation.
- Create a cozy, private sleeping spot for the animal to rest in, away from loud sounds, slamming doors, and high-traffic hallways. Consider placing a plastic sheet underneath fuzzy blankets, as loss of bladder control is common in older or ill animals.
- Be careful not to expect the animal to soothe your emotional despair. Instead, get support from an animal chaplain, mental health practitioner, or understanding friend so that you can support the animal—not vice versa.
If you decide to proceed with euthanasia, know that while it is common to have this procedure at an animal hospital or veterinary office, traveling services are becoming more widely available. So, rather than subjecting your sick cat to a stressful car ride, euthanasia can happen within your home.
Regardless of location, it is possible to bring mindfulness into the medical procedure. Consider creating a short sacred ritual to mark the animal’s transition. Thought-starters include:
- Lighting a candle (or bringing a battery-powered one to the vet office)
- Laying a prayer shawl over the animal or wrapping them in a favorite blanket
- Reading a poem from Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs or Elizabeth Bishop’s Cat Poems
- Offering a prayer or blessing
A Non-Denominational Prayer for Euthanasia
To the mystery that creates us,
laughs with us,
weeps with us, and
who walks with us
each step of our journey,
when our strength fails.
Today our hearts break with grief,
our voices crying out words of lament.
And so we ask you to please
flow in and around us today
as we send off [animal’s given name].
Help us to see through the veil of tears
that there is hope for ongoing connection,
that death of the body cannot sever
the energy of love.
Please ensure that [name] knows our love always.
Please help [name] be free from pain, fear, and suffering.
We wish him/her/them a most auspicious What’s Next.
May it be so.
Allowing Time for Transition
While you may be tempted to jump up and carry on after the animal’s last breath, I urge you to spend some time with their body. Speak any words which feel meaningful. Feel the warmth of their body. Notice the saltiness of any tears present.
Then consider this: The Buddhist tradition suggests that for seven weeks after an animal’s bodily death, they may have some sense of you while they are transitioning “in bardo.” In my experience, that connection lasts even longer, as we may have continuing bonds with the dear souls we have loved.
Notice the moments you feel their presence around you. Or you sense pawsteps on the bed and wake to see nothing. Or you see a flash of something around a corner. Speak out in these moments: Hey, little one. I miss you. I hope you are well. I still love you.
Getting Support for Grieving
After the animal’s transition, it’s perfectly natural to feel emotional, sense an energetic shift in your home, or have disruptions in performing the normal activities of your life. The experience of loss is real—regardless of whether you have lost a human animal, cat, dog, horse, or other being. Self-care is critical for healing loss.
Consider these additional tips for surviving the pain of pet loss, and check out Sarah Bowen’s forthcoming book “Sacred Sendoffs: An Animal Chaplain’s Advice for Surviving Animal Loss, Making Life Meaningful, & Trying to Heal the Planet.”