Because I'm the Mom

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My Dog Was Ready To Die—I Couldn't Let Go

How do you know when it's time to let your pet go?

A dog's life: How could I let him go? Bernie and his heroic schnozz celebrated every triumph, grieved every loss, galumphed beside us on every hike through every literal and emotional terrain, slept at our feet, napped on our laps, accompanied us on every vacation, drove across the country seven times with us. He was there when I despaired there would be no baby. He placed himself on bed rest with me at the end of my pregnancy. He was there when brought our baby home and we all cried that first night. He kept us company through all those long, colicky nights.

Kept us safe from (cat) burglars: He stood stoic guard against all intruders. "If it wasn't for me, we'd all be speakin' cat," my husband swears he once heard him say. He hated thunder and would hide in the closet. He howled (exactly) like a moose when he wanted a treat. He spent a lot of time, a lot of time, wearing our daughter's tutus and sitting beside stuffed animals for tea parties. He was a wildly enthusiastic audience to all of her living room performances. He was unspeakably patient and endured all our household quirks except for one: He simply could not abide loud sneezes. He would lurch up and leave the room with an unusual air of indignity. When he went up on two legs and put his front paws on the table (not that he ever did that but if he did, is what I meant) he looked just like a bear at a picnic table.

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My greatest comfort: He outlived

A Dog's Life

How do you know when it's time to let him go?

our marriage. He bore all my secrets. His is the face and fur I sobbed into when my brother died. We'd be on the floor for hours. He would lie so still and let me weep. How could I let him go?

Kept us safe from cats burglars: He kept guard against all intruders. "If it wasn't for me, we'd all be speakin' cat," my husband swears he once heard him say. He hated thunder and would hide in the closet. He howled (exactly) like a moose when he wanted a treat. He spent a lot of time, a lot of time, wearing our daughter's tutus and sitting beside stuffed animals for tea parties. He was a wildly enthusiastic audience to all of her living room performances. He was unspeakably patient and endured all our household quirks except for one: He simply could not abide loud sneezes. He would lurch up and leave the room with an unusual air of indignity. When he went up on two legs and put his front paws on the table (not that he ever did that but if he did, is what I meant) he looked just like a bear at a picnic table.

Bernie was the best company ever. He was the handsomest dog anybody ever saw. We'd get stopped all day long when we took him out with us. "What kind of dog is that?"

"Chowbrador," we'd say proudly.

He was the sweetest, kindest, bear-dog you can ever imagine. He had the biggest, most beautiful face with these soulful eyes. He outlived our marriage. He bore silent, non-judgmental witness to the entire arc of 14 years of our lives. Six months ago he got sick but was okay. We knew it was coming.

When a dog is dying: Then a few weeks ago he didn't want to go on walks anymore. He hated getting up. His breathing was labored. The vet did a few more things and made him "comfortable."
Then last week he stopped eating. And wouldn't get up. At all. And the vet said it was bad.

And so we faced that horrifying question so many of us with family pets do. Is this the time? How can we decide? What if we're wrong? The vet said only we could decide. So we said how? How do we decide when we don't know for sure? When we don't want to know for sure.
Was our dog telling us to let go?

And it turns out there are good questions to ask. Questions like: Is he eating? Drinking water? Is he getting up to walk? Is he engaging with you? Is he breathing heavily? Does he seem to enjoy anything he usually enjoys, or anything at all?
The truth was he was shutting down. He was letting go. He was in pain.
The vet said in his experience, many families feel confused and uncertain and second-guess themselves about this decision until a little while after.
"Once you get a little distance," he said, "you'll find comfort; you'll see more clearly."

My Dog Was Ready to Die - I Couldn't Let Him Go

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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