Saying goodbye to a beloved pet after 16 years is a journey that I have been blessed with. The question of letting her die naturally or putting her down came up more than once for me. I share this story with you in the hope it will tell some of our journey should you be at the same crossroads with your beloved pet and assist you in making an informed choice. Whatever choice you make, will be perfect for you and your pet.
Just a week ago my Golden Retriever Bella woke up like we always do. Only on this day, when I called her to come outside she couldn’t get up. Bella had nerve degeneration that began many years ago. I first noticed it because one day I asked her to “pick up her feet”. I laughed at myself, yet the next time I visited the Vet, I mentioned it to him. He did a simple test of picking up a hind leg and placing the top of the foot on the ground. Most dogs would just immediately lift their foot and put it paw down – Bella didn’t. The vet mentioned that this process was usually slow, taking 3 or 4 years before enough nerves degenerated that she wouldn’t be able to walk or control her internal organs. She lived for 6 years after this diagnoses. The good news, is that with nerve degeneration there is no pain. In Bella’s brain she was still firing the muscles, the body just didn’t respond. Throwing the tennis ball and long hikes became a thing of the past. She enjoyed riding in the car with me, walking around our acre and as the years went by she seemed to will her back legs to work. At the end, I would help her up and once she got going the rear legs would follow along somewhat clumsily.
On Friday morning she needed more assistance than usual to get up. I ushered her out the door and when she squatted to pee, she simply rocked back and sat down. She couldn’t get up on her own. I helped her up, yet she was wobbling side to side. With a lot of effort, I got her over to the spot where I was going to bury her under a growing tree, next to her old kitty-buddy Skeeter. She layed down on the ground and spent the day outside with me as I dug the hole. She was never able to get up again. I talked to her and told her this was where she was going to be and that we would all be able to visit her. She had stopped eating and drinking about a week and a half earlier and using the turkey baster to put water in her mouth had outworn it’s welcome. It was clear that she was on her way out.
I panicked a bit when she didn’t rally. I called the Vet and asked about euthanasia and it was $200 for him to come to me. Bella was a large goldie – about 85 pounds. I felt the fear rise up in me and then I just stopped. I didn’t want to act out of fear. Bella was in her process. Breathing slowly, being visited by the kitties, birds chirping, enjoying a sweet wind coming off the mountains and letting go. I really wanted to honor her process. She had been with me for so long. I figured when I could act without fear, I was on the correct path for us. I called a good friend, Aimee, and connected with my daughter so I would have friends and family to assist me in this journey and to share my thoughts and feelings with over the next couple of days.
In the afternoon, I brought Bella some of her toys from the house. One that smelled like my daughter Corinne, one that I had given her, one that was her favorite and the ever-present tennis ball. I put them under her head and we continued to be together outside. This was how we usually spent our spring, me working in the garden and her hanging out with me. By noon, she had lost her bowels and urinated. Since she had never done this before (I could count on one hand the number of times Bella had an accident in the house), it was yet another sign that we were at the end. As animals die they emit a ‘death smell’ that is intended to keep other animals (and people too) away . I noticed that Majellan (our boy kitty who thinks he is a dog) would walk by her, but not sniff and cuddle her under the chin the way he always did. Instead, he settled down under the old dump trailer about 15 feet from Bella, and he slept there all afternoon. Sissy (Majellan’s Sister) walked by Bella several times that day. Our family was saying goodbye. As evening came, I realized that Bella was so far into her process of dying that she would be spending the night outside. I covered her with a blanket – it was a beautiful comfortable night outside and tucked her in for the night, expecting she would be gone the next day.
The next morning when I went out, she was still breathing. I was shocked since I had been woken up at 3 am and clearly felt her leave her body. The fear rose in me again, and when I got to a place of calm and peace, I promised her I would be with her as she passed. I felt clear that it was ok for her to go and reminded her of that. I disturbed her less and less as the day went on…she was clearly exiting her body. She was not in pain – simply in the process of dying. It was uncomfortable and inconvenient for me, yet it was her process and it meant a lot to me to honor that.
She grew quieter that day and I tucked her in for the night. The following morning her breathing was open-mouthed and more effort on the exhale. I worked in parts of the garden that were close to her, yet left her alone as much as I could. I was careful when I checked on her to do it from a vantage point that didn’t disturb her. Majellan did the same that day, skirting her from a distance. Sissy visited only once or twice.
During the day, I heard the first hummingbird come by. It was so exciting. I looked it up in Animal Speaks and they represent the playful, independent, freedom of tireless joy and the sweet nectar of life. They are a symbol for accomplishing that which seems impossible. This seemed to speak volumes to the journey we were sharing with Bella – she had accomplished the seemingly impossible of a big dog living a long life. She loved to bound and even at the end of her life was bounding just weeks before she died. She embodied joy and love to all her met her.
Finally Sunday evening about 8:30 pm when I went to check she was no longer breathing. Bella was gone. I covered her and left her body resting where it was overnight. Majellan went outside several times that night to check on Bella and make sure she hadn’t come back. There was a soft quiet that permeated us that night. The next morning, I rose and made a cup of tea and took it outside to sit with Bella. I was grateful she was no longer laboring and her body was so beautiful – her hair still shiney and golden. I carefully pulled her to the hole and placed her toys with her along with the doggie bowl I had made her during my pottery class many years ago (I wanted to be sure she had something to eat out of in doggie heaven). I talked to her about all the doggie friends she had waiting for her and that they would have a great party. After burying her, I placed a pear cactus from a spot close by, ringed by rocks and tennis balls as her headstone. A few days later I scattered some native grass seed and a dusting of spring snow seem to say that all was put to rest.
In sharing the story of Bella passing and the journey we shared, I hope it will help others to honor the parts of the journey they can with their beloved pet. Remembering to act from a place of peace and love kept the fear at bay and allowed the grieving and joy to share the space we were creating. Animals are not afraid to die, humans are. I am forever grateful to have had Bella in our family, to watch her share the love with all she met, and she will always be remembered with the deepest of love. Ciao, Bella!!