Embracing Death’s Journey with Our Animals
by Ella Bittel
It only looked like a slight nosebleed, when I picked up my dog Momo from the sitter. Somehow though, the red fluid slowly collecting until it was licked off appeared like precious ink being used to give me notice that our blessed time together was running out, drop by drop.
I observed my panic kick in, recognized the mind’s struggle to, in its educated way, locate anything of value regarding this situation—after all, I am a holistic veterinarian. And yes, that had contributed greatly to Momo having lived for 17 good years in this German Shepherd-sized body—enough of a blessing. Enough?
The days following were filled with attempts to stop the merciless countdown of life force trickling out of Momo’s body. Certainly I was grateful for having had all this time with her, and no, I was not going to be one to try holding my loved one back when her time comes. But had it come? What was it she wanted?
In my mind I laid out the situation to Momo, wanting to know her take on whether it was too bothersome to stay in this body, or if she wanted me to help her get well one more time. I received no message that felt like she wanted to be euthanized, my signal to pull the strings of modern and alternative veterinary medicine. Momo died a month later, shortly after her third blood transfusion.
I was left with knowing intellectually I had tried everything I could. There was no guilt, just a vague sense that in spite of all my actions I may have missed something …
It took more than a year, then it struck me one day—I had overlooked the obvious. In the options I had laid out to Momo, between trying to get her well or to put her down, I did not give her a third choice: Simply just to die in the pace she would on her own, without much interference. In this instant, I knew that was what she had wanted.
How could that happen to ME? Way before it had become fashionable, already as a student of veterinary medicine, I had focused on looking at the WHOLE picture. How could I have missed thinking outside the conventional box here, in my own life, with my own companion animal? Why had only the two choices—to treat the animal, or else euthanize it “to relieve its suffering”—occurred to me?
It was staggering to fathom the extent of my well-educated ignorance. Nothing in my extensive training had ever covered how to provide for the special needs of animals dying naturally. Worse, in all those years of education, I had failed to notice this gap in the curriculum. There was no excuse nor comfort in the next moment’s realization that clearly, even inside my profession, I was not the only one unprepared to provide for an animal what hospice provides for people.
Given that our companion animals have become family members to us, surely there would be books out there, and tons of easily accessible information on the internet. Yes?
Well no, not really. Our focus has been to come up with a thousand different ways to try to keep our animals well and have them live a happy life. Death does not fit in that picture.
But is death that unacceptable? Is it really something we need to “protect” our animals from by euthanizing them (unless our animal happens to be one of the few who indeed dies in its sleep, as everyone hopes for)? Isn’t dying a way to get ready for the great change for all involved—the one transitioning into the realm beyond the physical, and the ones caring for this beloved traveler?
My experience with Momo’s passing was a wake up call for me. Since her passing, Animal Hospice has become the passion of my life. Most of the reasons we have for utilizing euthanasia would crumble and vanish if exposed to a more encompassing investigation.
How many dogs are put down because of trouble getting up and walking? Would that be the case if people knew how well acupuncture can help that condition? A dog may even be paralyzed behind, yet happy to use a doggie wheel chair to get around.
The animal may refuse food. How often have I heard that sentence “I KNOW it is time (to euthanize, but we skip that word, don’t we), when my animal stops eating.” Fasting is a natural preparation inside the transition process. From the human field we know that the dying just don’t feel hungry anymore. It’s the wise way of nature—the body knows it can no longer properly digest, plus it won’t be using that fuel provided by nutrition anymore.
The bottom line is this: the physical condition of an animal isn’t all decisive, but rather its internal state.
Does the animal still want to live? Animals are blessed in a way. They don’t compare their current condition to the strength and vitality that was available to them in the past. They don’t look into this gloomy future of never again being able to run around as they used to. They tend to go with the flow of things without questioning them. In fact, they even deal with pain often quite casually. My neighbor’s dog still chases trucks with the same vigor, whether or not his one knee gives him pain to the point that he can’t put weight on it anymore. Even at the end of an animal’s life, being in pain does not automatically equate to no longer wanting to live.
In this as in so many areas, we tend to get lost in our own experience. It often is painful for us to witness our animal friend’s health decline.
Because we are unfamiliar with the natural dying process, we’re not good at prioritizing in the end time of life. Sensing that the essence of our loved one will survive may lessen our grief, but it barely reduces the helplessness we feel in dealing with practical challenges. Too often, driven by our concerns about letting the animal suffer, our final decisions are made from a state of fear—the least wise of our guides.
Though our society tends to separate the act and fact of dying from everyday reality whenever possible, that is not the case in many of the great traditions, including Zen, Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanism. In these, life is seen as an opportunity to prepare for the great transition called dying. When viewed this way, daily life provides us with many chances to practice letting go. We can learn from such wisdom and not confuse our willingness to let our animal go with having to let it be necessarily euthanized.
If we can just let go of all of our preconceived notions of what a life still worth living ought to look like, of how much time we can afford attending to the dying animal, of how quickly dying ought to be happening—if we can let go of all of that and more, in recognition that all of these concepts have nothing to do with what is best for our animal, THEN we are ready, or at least close to ready to perceiving where the animal is at for itself. And isn’t that what counts?
Caring for the dying is an art, and unless we prepare for it ahead of time, chances are we won’t be up for the task when it is upon us. The experience will seem daunting to us rather than sacred. Whether the care taker is aware of it or not, much happens in the last days and hours for a dying human or animal in terms of getting ready internally for the great “change of address”. A privilege indeed it is to wave our loved one off, neither holding it back, nor trying to rush it.
Coming to peace with the “real life” process of dying, versus some theoretical concept of it or its distorted TV mask, can let us discover its incredibly life enriching value. Animals can teach us about this if we let them, giving us a last priceless gift from that relationship of person and companion animal.