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Grieving the Loss of a Beloved Pet

It wasn’t my idea to let the dog sleep in our bed. I went away one weekend when he was a puppy, and by the time I got home, it was a done deal. For the next thirteen years, my “furry firstborn” slept every night tucked between us, sometimes on top of us, always close by.

When the vet told me that my old boy’s blood work showed that his kidneys were failing him, I did all the research.

I put together a spreadsheet of food he could and couldn’t have. I looked up phosphorous levels and contemplated vitamin deficiencies and weighed the value of prescription dog food over fresh food. None of it mattered. Madison wouldn’t eat anything, let alone the ‘right’ things.

He was a skeleton. It was upsetting to pet him and feel his protruding rib cage, his sharp shoulder blades, and his stick-thin legs. While napping was always his favorite pastime, he now spent full days and nights hardly lifting his head up. Some days I came home and stood in the doorway to my room, waiting with bated breath, hoping desperately to see the slight rise and fall of his tiny body.

There were glimpses of hope — a few scattered days when Madison hungrily snatched deli ham from my fingers. I went back to my lists and spreadsheets. If we could get him eating again, we could slowly make the shift to the renal diet that would extend the function of his kidneys. I kept repeating the words, “I’m not getting my hopes up, but…” until I realized how good it felt to get my hopes up. Hope was so much better than the alternative. When my hopes were high, I could smile and laugh and enjoy my time with him. I could, at the very least, stop crying, stop blaming myself, continually thinking about what I could have done differently to prevent this from happening to my boy.

Hope soon faded into doubt, and doubt quickly turned into despair. Despair brought me to my knees, weeping on the bathroom floor, just barely scratching at the surface of a pain that was on its way.

There are undoubtedly good, humane reasons to end your pet’s suffering, but we weren’t there yet.

Madison was lethargic and had no appetite, but he wasn’t in pain. Other than the initial cost for several overnights in the vet’s office, we weren’t dealing with oppressively expensive medical bills. But mostly, I couldn’t bear the thought of being without him for one day, one hour, one moment longer than I had to.

I recognize that there are far bigger tragedies in the world than an old dog dying of an old dog’s disease. He wasn’t my parent or grandparent or my brother. He wasn’t my son. But I loved him with my whole heart. 

For nearly thirteen years, he was a part of our family. He belonged with us.

Madison was the quintessential lap dog, positioning himself on top of us whenever he had the chance. He liked carrots, cheese, and licking babies. He had a murderous animosity for squirrels. When he was in his prime, he managed to catch a couple mice. He loved to be held. He loved his family.

As the days went by, the only food he was getting was the baby puree I forced into his mouth through a medicine syringe. He would pee and then thirstily lap up water and then immediately have to pee again. His legs were weak, and sometimes he could only stumble sideways like a crab when he tried to walk. There was no quality to his life; there was no joy in his life.

I went to bed one night, considering CBD oil to improve his appetite. When I woke in the morning, I saw him curled in a ball, motionless, alive but too frail to lift his head, and I knew that it was time to let him go. I took off from work and then called the vet to make an appointment for later in the day, so my son could say goodbye after school. For the next six hours, I sat with my pup on my lap, and I stroked his head, trying not to cry as I assured him that he was a good boy and that I loved him very much.

I tried to figure out what I would tell my son when he got home.

How could I explain that the vet was going to give Madison an injection that would end his life? I could hardly wrap my own head around it; how would I help a five-year-old to understand it was the kindest thing we could do for the dog we loved so much?

In the end, I didn’t have to. Twenty minutes before the bus came, stretched out on my legs, bathed in the warmth of the afternoon sun, Madison quietly passed away.

After I called my husband, after I got my son off the bus, after my mom came over to be with us, I wrapped my pup in his blankets and sat with him alone in my bedroom. I held him tightly to my chest, knowing it was the last time I’d ever be with him. 

Grieving is that much harder having to experience it with a young child.

My five-year-old has been accepting the permanence of Madison’s absence with stuttered progress. His understanding of death is fleshed out with each question he asks. I try to be honest, but that means admitting I don’t have all of the answers. When my son says he misses our pup, I reassure him that I do too. When he cries, I cry with him. The pain is excruciating and relentless, and we feel it together. We will get through this together.

I sometimes wake up during the night and look for my pup, not wanting to accidentally roll onto him. I have to remind myself that Madison isn’t here anymore. But as I told my son, he’ll always be in our hearts.

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One Response to Grieving the Loss of a Beloved Pet

  1. Avatar
    Cheryl Craig March 16, 2020 at 7:22 AM #

    You couldn’t have summarized the grief any better. I still mourn the loss of sweet Ginger and know even though it was her time to go I was never going to be ok with the great void in my heart without her. It was hard to decide to get a new pup but my heart knew that I would never be complete without puppy love. Belle is a different type of love and a different dog but a love just the same. I was told you will never replace the love you had for your first dog which is so true, but Belle has been working on filling that void and for that I am so grateful! #mustlovedogs

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