Grieving Spot

For The Tennessean

When Liz Champlin had to put down her beloved dog Lucky about a year ago, it was one of the worst days of her life.

The large, scrappy, mixed breed she had taken in a few years earlier had licked antifreeze off the ground and had to be euthanized. It was also the same day Champlin had to take a radioactive iodine pill for a thyroid condition,rendering her body too toxic to be touched for days by humans or her other dog, Logan.

“Putting Lucky down was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Champlin said. “Returning home alone with no comfort from other humans or dogs was almost too much to bear.”

It’s something we tend to forget when we first pick up that cute, wriggling puppy or kitten. Pets die . . . usually before their owners.

For some, a relationship with their pet may be one of their longest. Others say it’s one of their most meaningful, as pets fulfill a core human need for unconditional love. Consequently, the prospect of putting a beloved aging or ailing cat or dog to sleep can be excruciating.

A personal decision

Though most pet owners have an intuitive sense about when the time has come, others wait too long because they’re unable to face the prospect. Some diseases, such as cancer and arthritis, can make holding on until the bitter end unfair to the suffering animal. The pet’s quality of life has to be considered.

“I think most people know when it’s time, so I just let them make the decision,” said Linda Taylor, a veterinarian at McCormick Animal Clinic in Nashville. “A lot of people know when the line is about to be crossed, that this is it, this isn’t good anymore.”

If a pet owner is unclear as to where that line is, a vet understands what is generally considered acceptable. A good vet and staff are also sensitive to the emotions involved in making such a difficult choice. Breaking down in tears is common — and understandable.

“At the least, most will tear up, even the most stoic,” Taylor said. “You know, a lot of times they’ve had these dogs and cats into their teenage years from when they were babies.”

Animal clinics should be able to schedule clients at the very beginning or end of their day so fewer people are around. Clinics say pet owners should be certain the front desk knows the reason for the visit so they can act accordingly.

Whether to be in the room is a grueling decision and, ultimately, the most personal. It’s OK to say goodbye before leaving home and leave the pet at the vet’s office or wait elsewhere during the procedure and return to the room to bid a final farewell.

“Everyone is different,” Taylor said. “Some people want to be there. Some people don’t. Some people want to bury them at home and some want then cremated. I go with what the pet owner wants, because I think it’s a personal decision.”

The grieving process

Grief is grief, no matter for whom or what the person is grieving, says Michael Murphy, a Brentwood therapist.

“The death of a pet can trigger a grief response that is as deeply felt as when a friend or family member dies,” Murphy said.

If there is no support system, if the sadness becomes too much to bear or begins to interfere with daily activities, people should consider getting counseling. “I have had several clients whose cat or dog died and they felt they had no one to talk with about it other than me because the response they typically got from others was, ‘It’s just a dog!’ ”  Murphy said. “A person’s grief response is unique to them, so the decision to seek therapy or to replace the pet differs widely from person to person.”

A funeral, particularly if children are involved, can be helpful, since ritual helps honor the pet and bring closure. Choosing to make a donation to an animal charity in the pet’s name is an option, as is posting a photo of the pet on a “virtual cemetery” Web site.

Sometimes, getting a new pet is the most healing balm of all.

Champlin, a teacher at Pope John Paul II High School, went to PetSmart at Rivergate immediately following Lucky’s death just to look around. It was one of the days when the store brings in abandoned dogs for adoption, and fate intervened with Lily.

“She put one paw up on the cage and stretched her neck toward me, and I was sucked in immediately,” Champlin said. “Needless to say, I adopted her, but I had to wait to take her home since I still had two more days of no contact with people or animals. The rest is history. I still miss Lucky terribly, but I am grateful to have another great dog to love.”  o

Understanding euthanization

Euthanizing a pet is never an easy decision, but it helps to understand the process.

A veterinarian can offer the owner a mild tranquilizer to be given to the pet at home to ease the anxiety some animals feel while in the vet’s office; it’s especially good for cats, who don’t travel as well as dogs. If the pet is ambulatory, she can be brought in on a leash or in a carrier.

A private room is usually set aside for the procedure. The vet and an assistant will be in attendance. A vet’s clinic staff is trained in gentle restraint that allows the vet to administer what is a lethal dose of barbiturate, hence the term, “put to sleep.” The vet finds a vein in a leg and injects the solution directly into the pet’s bloodstream. Only a small prick is felt. Unconsciousness and then death occur within seconds of the injection.

Sometimes, as the pet loses consciousness, it will take a deep breath. This does not mean they are in pain. Occasionally, there may be some involuntary twitching or spasm of muscles for a few moments after the pet has been euthanized, but this is considered normal and should not be mistaken for signs of life or, again, that the pet is feeling any pain.

Following is a list of Web sites and books that can be of support following the death of a pet. Some Web sites, such as The Association for Pet Loss And Bereavement, offer extensive general information, counselors, chat rooms, online “Web cemeteries” and local listings.

Web sites (The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement) (Animal Love and Loss Network) (the Humane Society of the United States) (Pet Loss Bereavement Center)


Grieving the Death of a Pet, by Betty J. Carmack

Saying Goodbye to the Pet You Love: A Complete Resource to Help You Heal, by Lorri A Greene and Jackuelyn Landis

When Your Pet Dies, by Diane Pomerance and Vanessa Mier

Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping, by Marty Tousley

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen

The Tenth Good Thing About Barney: By Judith Viorst


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