DOT’S BEAT: Saying Goodbye to a Canine or Feline Family Member

by Dot Helling

The dreaded time has come—time to say goodbye to my dog, Sophie. Every time I’ve lost a pet, I’ve said, “Never again.”

“Never again” will I adopt a cat or dog.

“Never again” will I let a canine or feline become a part of my family.

“Never again” will I allow myself to bond with a creature whose loss will break my heart.

But then one of them finds me. Such was the case with Smoochie, an English Springer Spaniel I adopted in 1995. For 16 years, we were glued at the hip, and she accompanied me on many long-distance runs and competed with me in the New England Trail Runners Circuit and a portion of the Vermont 100-Mile Endurance Race. We even did the entire Colorado Trail together with Susan Arbogast and Smoochie’s best friend Kato. It was only during her last year that she was compromised by a heart condition. Luckily, one pill a day allowed her a quality life even though we could no longer run together.

When Smoochie crossed the proverbial Rainbow Bridge to the great beyond I was devastated.

A year later, an Airedale Terrier/Beagle mix named Sophie found me and came into my life. She was nine and loved to run and ski, and most of all, she loved being with me. One of her owners had passed and the other left town to grieve, never moving back to Vermont. Sophie took the space in my heart left empty by the loss of Smoochie.

Almost seven years later, it was once again time to say goodbye. She started to slow down about two years ago, and this past winter suffered some transient ischemic attacks and struggled with our winter life in the Colorado mountains in a condo on the third floor with no elevator. The stairs became her daily exercise, up and down numerous times.

Sophie

When we returned home to the lower altitude of Vermont, Sophie was clearly invigorated. But then she had more strokes and started having “accidents,” and got easily confused and lost in corners of closets and rooms. Sophie could not get comfortable and would pace in circles endlessly. She continued to eat and follow me around the garden, sniffing and licking the backs of my knees and bare feet. She especially loved the salt on my skin after workouts. She continued to walk about a mile with me some mornings to get the paper and the mail, a very slow walk but sometimes still spirited.

How does one know it is an animal’s time? With Smoochie it was decisive. She collapsed one day and gave me “the look.” Dog and cat owners know “the look.” It’s an intimate moment when our best buddy communicates that she or he is tired of the pain and struggle, and we have to set our own emotional needs aside and make the dreaded decision.

Sophie was stubborn, but she recently gave me “the look,” forcing those difficult questions: Will this pet of mine experience any better quality of life? What is her quality of life? How do we balance the pain an animal feels with that quality of life?

The truth is we never know for sure if the time is right unless something decisive happens. We need to focus on not making the decision too late, on making it while our beloved pet is still present and can say goodbye. Nothing is more sweet and painful as holding your beloved dog or cat while she slowly falls away into a forever sleep, looking into your eyes and feeling the love of your arms around her.

I have a pet cemetery in my backyard where many of my cats lie at rest and some of Smoochie’s ashes. Some of Sophie’s ashes will also rest there. As with Smoochie, I will spread Sophie’s ashes in special places around the world, such as our winter home in the Colorado mountains and in the green spaces of Brooklyn where her first mom lives and around which she would romp when we visited. Euthanasia was a torturous decision for me, but it was a “good death” for Sophie.

We will all meet again someday across the Rainbow Bridge.

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