As Americans, we don’t deal with the deaths of our animal companions any better than we do our human friends and family. We don’t deal with death well in general. Either we fetishize death in the realms of the imagination, or segregate the dying when confronted with reality.
One of my jobs is working with the elderly to help them pay their bills on time. To date, two clients of mine have died (it’s something of a hazard in this profession). When my first client, K, was dying, I tried to spend as little time with her as possible. Simultaneously scared and ashamed, I tried to visit when I knew she would be at lunch so I wouldn’t have to face that undeniable mortality. I’m not proud of that. And I still couldn’t escape the trappings of death–a carpet so soaked by urine and rug shampoo that it never dried, the unrelenting beeping of monitors, and her ever weakening handwriting in the notes we left each other. We left notes because I wasn’t there. Because I was too scared to be compassionate and hold her hand when I could have.
I’d like to think I learned from that shame. When another client, E, and her family decided on home hospice care, I resolved to do better, be more present than I had been with K. And watching E die, seeing her skin become more and more translucent, be unable to chew, to be beset by vertigo such that her only comfort was if someone was holding her hand–somehow E made it oddly graceful. And humorous (she decided the perfect April Fool’s joke to play on the hospice nurse was to stop breathing). E was 97 when she died, only a few days after her big birthday bash. She died with her family around her, and if there is such a thing, I would say she died well.
We’re scared of death, both for ourselves and our animals. In many ways, saying goodbye to a beloved pet is an even harder decision. A dog can’t tell you it wants a DNR; a cat can’t opt out of chemo. Human companions are faced with decisions that are emotionally and financially exhausting, often times for very little change in quality of life. A neighbor just had plates put into their dog’s spine, to try to give him a year or two more despite ongoing vertebral degeneration. The dog’s feet bleed because he can no longer lift them. He has trouble defecating. He’s afraid to walk outside. Is this now a life worth living?
Death is probably never going to be a big topic of national conversation, not the way abortion or voting rights are. Amongst the elderly there are some whispers about hospice, resuscitation orders, sometimes euthanasia. Those who have spoken with their families and made their wishes known have a much better chance of getting to stay at home. Advocacy and communication is so important, and it’s something very few of us ever want to think about. In my opinion, everyone should have a chance to be a “bride” when they die, to have their perfect deathbed day. Meanwhile, pets depend on us to make that decision for them and we must ensure that when we make that choice, it is in their best interest, not ours.
When it comes down to it, love is love. And death is death. Greet death with love and help our families of flesh, feather, and fur face their dying days with open arms and overflowing hearts. It’s hard work and it’s important work. You won’t regret it.