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As some of you know from my Instagram and Facebook posts the other day, our sweet little dog, Burton, passed away on Friday (you can see that post here if you want to read it). We had to make the incredibly hard decision to help him pass as gently as possible. This was by far the hardest thing we have ever had to do. But, as with every difficult situation in life, there were beautiful lessons gleaned from the experience.
This started out as a simple Instagram post, but quickly turned into something much larger. It ended up being far more than I could post on Instagram, so I wrote a full blog post about the experience we just went through. I wanted to write about this whole experience because it is important that we honor and celebrate the loved ones who leave us, regardless of whether they are human or animal. Every day that we have on this earth is a gift and whether your loved one is two-legged or four-legged, our time with them is short, sacred, and should be cherished.
Talking About Death and Dying
I feel that it is important to talk about death. It’s important to not sweep death under the rug or keep it locked up deep in our closets. In the U.S. death is still taboo. We don’t like to talk about it. We like to ignore it. We get uneasy when we are faced with it. This is a great article about Why We Need to Talk About Death and Dying.
I’ve stated several times in online discussions the importance of talking about death. I think we need death and dying education in our lives. Children need to be educated about death and dying in a non-scary way so that they are prepared to deal with it when it happens in their life. Death is going to affect all of us…and many are unprepared for it. When we are unprepared or don’t know how to handle or process it, that’s when damage happens. That’s when unhealthy, sometimes harmful, behaviors develop.
I strongly believe that learning to feel and work through difficult emotions and challenging life events in a healthy, supported way is one of the top things we can do to prepare our children for success in the world. Death is quite honestly the only thing that is 100% certain in our lives. As much as it hurts and is scary, we have to talk about it. Talking about it helps us understand it. It helps with the grieving process. It helps us come to terms with what happened. It helps us heal. It helps us remember the good times. It helps us move forward into the next chapter.
Even though I am writing this after the loss of a pet, everything I write applies to the loss of a human loved one as well. Grief is not specific to species. If you love someone or something and then you lose it, grief is going to ensue. I find it interesting how much I have learned from my sweet Burt’s passing. We often learn the most important lessons during times of grief.
I am no stranger to death recently, as my brother passed away suddenly in 2017 and that experience gave me a rapid crash course in all things life and death. While I had gone through deaths in the family before, it had never been a direct family member like that. You can read about that here if you like. I am praying that God spares us from any further loss for a little while. Two deaths in less than 18 months sure has taken a toll on my poor heart…
I must say that writing my tribute to our sweet Burtman on Instagram (as well as writing this post and creating the video below) has allowed me to feel a deep sense of healing. To be honest I have read my tribute to him from the other day (click here if you haven’t read it) about 100 times. I’ve scrolled through the photos over and over and over. Each time, I feel a little more at peace.
The Final Days
Our sweet old man went downhill very quickly over the course of two weeks. He really started to show his age about 6 months ago, but the last few weeks have been hectic and stressful as we prepare to sell our house and move. Lots of chaos, strangers in and out, getting shipped off to my parents for almost a week, and just a general disruption in his otherwise quiet world.
We feel pretty confident that the environmental stress is what caused his rapid decline. We saw the spark go out of his eyes. It’s almost like we saw his lifeforce leave him. In many ways, the dog that remained was not the same dog we knew. We felt in our heart of hearts that it would be selfish and inhumane to keep him with us (even though neither one of us were truly ready to let him go).
The thing that keeps us moving forward is that we constantly remind ourselves that this is not about us. It’s about him. It’s about the fact that he couldn’t walk. He stopped eating and drinking. He had no interest in treats or toys. He didn’t want to play. He just wanted to lay in his bed. His quality of life was gone and we knew it was time.
On Thursday he declined rapidly. He had a really good day the day before (on Wednesday) so I think my brain thought we might be on the upswing. But, by late Thursday night, we knew that we had a hard decision to make. We saw how much he was suffering. While he was an incredibly stoic dog and never once indicated physical pain, we knew that even if he wasn’t in actual pain, he was very uncomfortable. His breathing was labored and his belly had distended. He just looked miserable as he laid in his bed.
It may be hard to understand, but when he looked at me, his eyes felt hollow. He went into hiding behind the couch where I laid with him most of the evening. He perked up for a second when my husband came home from work but struggled to get up and walk to greet him. He really did love his pack members and was ALWAYS happy to see us when we came through that door.
I slept downstairs with him that night. I wanted to be near him in case he needed anything. I was honestly praying that he might pass quietly in his sleep in the middle of the night. I kept waking up to listen for his breathing. One part of me was relieved when I heard it, the other part sad because I knew it really was time for him to take his leave.
The Hardest Decision
We knew without a doubt that we didn’t want to take him to the vet for the standard end of life “procedure”. He hated the vet office and would have been so unbelievably stressed out. Our hearts could not bear the thought of taking him someplace where he would be stressed beyond belief only to have him pass away in a sterile, brightly lit, cold environment. I read that some vets don’t even allow you to stay with him during the procedure. You’re only allowed to see him after he’s passed.
We knew that there were options that would allow him to stay in the comfort of his own home, in his own bed, surrounded by his loved ones. No stress, no fear, no cold exam tables, no bright fluorescent lights. One of our family friends had utilized a service like this for her sweet pup and said that she would never do it any other way. When I remembered how she described the event and how peaceful it was, I knew that is what we needed to do.
I had done some research that night on in-home end of life services and found several in the area. I bookmarked them, silently praying that I wouldn’t have to make a decision on which one to go with. When I awoke the next morning (after pretty much no sleep), I decided to make the call.
The. Hardest. Call. I’ve. Ever. Made.
I dialed the first 9 digits of the number and then stopped. It took what felt like forever to hit that 10th digit. And when it started ringing, I had the immediate urge to hang up. Donna answered the phone and I burst into tears. She was so kind on the other end and that really helped me calm down.
She scheduled us that morning with an amazing vet, Dr. Kim Bruce, here in Denver whose specialty is end of life care for pets. Dr. Kim came to our home and made an incredibly difficult situation beautiful and peaceful. We were reassured that we were making the right decision when Burton didn’t even acknowledge her when she came in. He LOVED people and immediately paid attention to new folks because he was certain they would offer him attention and love.
She took time to introduce herself and talk to Burton. She petted him gently and walked me and my husband through every step of the process. She told us how it would work and what to expect. She made sure our questions were answered and that we were as comfortable as possible. Burton was allowed to stay snuggled in his bed and my husband and I were allowed to be with him the whole time.
She was kind, gentle, loving, and deeply compassionate towards Burton and us. I stroked his face and head through the entire process. Our other dog (who can be rather neurotic and weird) was so docile, quiet, and gentle. She leaned into both of us and tolerated hugs from my husband (and she is not fond of hugs, let me tell you). It was a totally different side of her that we had never seen. I know she knew something very serious was happening. She carefully inched closer to Burton in order to give him a few kisses on his nose. It was so incredibly sweet.
Burton passed quickly, gently, and peacefully. There was no sign of struggle or pain. Just peace. It was surreal in the moment because it was hard to realize that he was no longer with us. He didn’t close his eyes (which Dr. Kim said was normal) and I couldn’t stop petting him. I honestly didn’t even realize he was gone at first. That’s how calm it was.
Understanding Death on a Deeper Level
After he passed, I helped Dr. Kim carefully move his little body to a tiny stretcher. It was so strange to hold his lifeless body in my hands, but I am oddly thankful for the experience. It helped me understand death on a deeper level. It wasn’t scary at all, though if you had told me earlier that morning that I would be doing this, I would have likely told you it sounded scary and impossible.
Holding his body gave me an appreciation for life. It also comforted me to know that he was cared for so lovingly and gently in his last moments on earth. He was wrapped in a super soft blanket and carefully strapped to the stretcher. I can’t express just how much tenderness and care Dr. Kim showed through the whole thing. How she does this work on a daily basis is beyond me…My heart just couldn’t take it. But I am thankful that she does.
My husband and I were his pallbearers as we took him to Dr. Kim’s car. We both said our final goodbyes with me covering his cheek in kisses. My husband said that I, myself, was rather stoic during the whole thing. Calm, collected, and present. It almost felt like an out of body experience for me. But, that final moment with him in her car was one of incredible heartbreak. I didn’t want him to go. I so wanted to scoop him up and snuggle with him one last time. I think that is the moment that things really sunk in for me.
Anyone who met Burton immediately fell in love. Strangers would comment on how cute he was whenever we’re be out walking. Burton stole the hearts of young and old alike. Even non-dog lovers took a liking to him. His personality was one of joy and happiness and that radiated out from him every day. When I think of his good nature, I can’t help but smile. And I can’t help but want to be happier and more joyful every day.
We went on many adventures together. We shared countless snuggles, and cuddles, and hugs. Burton and I played this game where he would “help” me up the stairs by standing at the top and waving his paw to me as I walked closer. Then I’d give him a hug and thank him and he would trot away with his head held high. It almost seemed like he was saying “Go me. I just did a good deed.”. He was very proud. I always called him a “Helpie Helperton”. Silly, I know. 😉 Here’s a video I took late last year and I am SOOOOOO thankful I did so that I can watch it when I am missing his sweet face.
Burt never, ever let me forget what time it was. Every day, like clockwork, he would start gently woofing at me as the clock approached 5:30pm. It was dinnertime and he wanted to ensure that I did not forget to feed him.
Every morning we had a little ritual. I’d walk down the stairs and he’d be waiting for me. He would raise up on his hind legs and give me a hug. Then he’d run into our dining room and body slam our other dog…which annoyed the heck out of her, but Burton didn’t care.
The routines and habits we had are one of the things that makes this so hard. Things like what I just described. Feeding our other dog and not him. Letting her outside and not him. Putting her leash on for a walk and not him.
I just keep remembering happy memories and that makes things a little easier…Burton was extra special to me because he was the first dog that was really MINE. My childhood dogs had started out as mine, but they all gravitated towards my father and became more of his dogs than my dogs. Burton was all mine and that made him extra special. And, 14 years is a long time…he was part of a very large chunk of my adult life.
It felt like a gift and a blessing that we could show him as much compassion and love at the end of his life as we did during his nearly 14 years in our family. We like to think we rescue these dogs, but in many ways they rescue us. They come into our lives and fill them with so much love. They always, always, always love us. They are THRILLED to see us walk through the door, even if we’ve only been gone for 10 minutes.
Our pets give us far more than we could ever give them. They are totally content with food, water, walks, and naps. They don’t need much except those things and lots of love. It was an honor to be able to care for Burton for nearly 14 years. He filled our lives with so much joy and happiness. We have millions of memories and photos to remember him by. And we have the comfort of knowing he’s no longer suffering and left his home surrounded by love and compassion.
Lap of Love
As I type this I am in tears, but I wanted to publicly thank Dr. Kim for doing this work and helping pet parents make tough decisions about end of life care. We will forever be grateful for the care and attention she provided us and Burton and for being there to make this transition as easy as possible for him (and us). This whole event came quickly and unexpectedly so having that extra support is so appreciated.
Dr. Kim sent us the kindest follow-up email and let us know that she was available if we needed anything or just needed an ear to listen. She even shared about him on social media (you can see that post here if you like). The company she works for is called Lap of Love. If you ever find yourself in this difficult situation and want to show compassion on your pet and give them a peaceful, calm exit from this world, I would recommend no other. They have a network of vets around the country with an interactive map on thier site if I remember correctly. There were several other companies that offered these same services in our area, but something about these specific vets made my soul feel at ease. Everything was explained clearly on their site. No guessing, nothing hidden or complicated. It just felt right.
The house definitely feels quieter and more empty now that he’s gone. Our other dog is also feeling the loss. She keeps looking for him and is more needy than normal. Her pack has been disrupted. It’s important to remember that pets grieve right alongside us. We will all adjust to this new “normal” with time. He may not be here in physical form, but his happy face is forever branded in our hearts and he’ll never be forgotten.
The whole experience has left me changed in many ways. I have a new appreciation for life and for death. I have a new understanding of unconditional love and compassion. I have a new appreciation for those professionals who choose to take a sad and scary event and turn it into something gentle and calm.
It has brought my husband and I closer together. We had to make a very difficult, adult decision and one that was not entered into lightly. We had to weigh the pros and cons and put another life’s welfare above our own selfish desires to not let go. We have each grieved in our own ways, but are thankful that we can do so in the comfort of one another’s arms.
Thank you for reading this post. Writing this was so therapeutic for me. I hope that it was helpful, or at least interesting, for you. I think I am going to write some separate posts about grief and loss since this post has gotten so long. I have learned a lot about this subject in the last 15 months so perhaps what I have learned might be helpful to others. Again, while this was focused on the loss of a pet, I feel that it applies to the loss of any loved one.
And lastly, let’s start talking about death. Let’s help take the taboo out of it. Let’s help ourselves and our loved ones understand it more. Let’s not be fearful but respectful of this certainty of life. The more we speak about it and understand it, the better we will be able to handle and heal from any losses that we may experience.