Our beloved Bella (golden lab/retriever) died peacefully at home on November 20, 2020, in her sleep. She was 9-1/2 years old and had been diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma only four months prior.
It was a blessing to be with her as she was going through the dying process.
We are deeply saddened by her passing, and, at the same time, grateful that she had a gentle natural death at home, after a beautiful, vibrant life.
The caring support offered to us by the Spirits in Transition helpline made all the difference in the world for Bella and for us.
Bella had always been healthy and active so the diagnosis of such an aggressive form of cancer in July 2020 was a shock. We made the decision to opt for surgery to remove the tumor without making her go through chemo (they told us that chemo would only extend her life by a few months).
Bella healed quickly and had three wonderful, active months with us. Our sons, age 20 and 23, were sheltering in place (due to COVID regulations) with us, so she was really happy to have the whole family together. We all had so much fun with Bella.
By November, the cancer had returned and my husband and I knew that her time with us was winding down. We hired a local pet hospice care service for support and guidance to help us manage her care. The hospice staff were very kind and thoughtful. We purchased what they called a “Comfort Care” set of medications to have on hand in case Bella’s pain increased: Gabapentin, Oxycodone and, lastly, Methadone injections, in case of severe pain. I felt relieved to have these on hand in case Bella needed strong pain meds and yet I was open to alternative options as well.
To my surprise, when we met with one of their hospice care vets (online) for our in-take call, I experienced a strong push from her towards euthanasia. Over time, the pet hospice’s push toward euthanasia became stronger. We were given charts to fill out to measure Bella’s pain, and breathing, just as Dr. Bittel mentioned in her videos. The message from the hospice care service was that after three “bad days,” based primarily on chart measurements, we should euthanize Bella. There did not seem to be support to even consider a natural dying process. When I asked the hospice vet if she had ever been through a natural dying process with an animal she said yes, just once. Apparently few of the nurses had witnessed a natural dying process either. Their fear of death and dying was palpable.
I am trained in holistic health and bodywork, so I am comfortable being with people who are in ill, in pain and/or in the dying process. I knew there had to be a way to listen deeply to Bella’s needs and desires, just as I have done with beloved human beings in their dying process. That’s when I found the wonderful website for Spirits in Transition. My husband and I watched the videos, including Dr. Bittel’s talk “Walking our Talk in Animal End-of LIfe Care” (you can find here: https://spiritsintransition.org/video-audio/), which moved me to tears. Finally we had found animal lovers willing to support a real choice—including a natural death—instead of pushing euthanasia as the only option. I am so immensely grateful for all the support we received from Spirits in Transition, including a late night phone call to Bunny, who was incredibly kind and helpful.
Bella’s final days were a bittersweet mix of ups and downs. We paid very close attention to her signals and responses to help guide our choices moment to moment. Bella did not seem to be experiencing much pain—just discomfort and fatigue that came and went. It was not easy but it felt doable, particularly when we discovered Chinese herbs, acupuncture and CBD dog treats with mushrooms that took the edge off of her discomfort. We only used a strong medication once and it didn’t seem to help as much as the alternative treatments.
Bella had some high energy days, great walks in her favorite park nearby and some truly delicious meals, including a new rare treat that my husband devised to entice her to walk back up the steps when she felt too tired: tortilla chips! She seemed very happy to be close to us and vice versa. During those final days with Bella, we were lucky to be able to spend time hanging out with her, touching her gently, taking short walks when she had the energy and just sitting together. Bella loved being close to us. One night we heard her clip clop up the stairs for the first time in weeks; she was determined to sleep next to us one more time! Somehow she found the energy to get up those stairs!
We both felt deeply committed to Bella and to being present with her on this journey. Our sons agreed with our decision, they were no longer home and consulted with us by phone. We let Bella take the lead and followed her cues as best we could. She gave so much to us and our family; this was our way of giving back. Part of what helped was knowing that we had strong medications on hand and a vet on call just in case her pain became too much. But it turned out none of that was necessary. The day before she died, Bella got a home treatment from her acupuncturist which put her into a very quiet, peaceful place. That night she ate an unusually big dinner. She had more trouble walking than ever and we could tell something had shifted. When we carried her out to pee, she fell down and peed lying down which had never happened before. We brought her in, sat with her…and then she gradually dropped into a quiet, internal place, that very deep stillness I have seen in human beings towards the end of their dying process. She did not open her eyes; in fact she had turned her head away from us at some point, which was unusual for her. My husband, Andrew, sensed that she needed that inner focus and quiet so we were careful not to disturb her as we checked in on her frequently. We were not by her side when she took her last breath but our sense is that it must have early the next morning because her body was still quite warm when we got up and sat with her. She was lying in her bed, stretched out. I kept my hand on her body for a long time as her body began to cool down and grow stiffer. We sat with her, sang to her spirit and stayed with her all morning.
Bella is still with us in spirit. She showed me that her love will always be with us and ours with her, across time and space.
May her spirit be at peace.