Nearly two-thirds of American households own a pet--mostly dogs and cats, but also fish, birds, horses, and reptiles. Given the relatively short lifespans of pets and the prevalence of households owning multiple pets, it is safe to say that most Americans will experience pet loss at least once, if not many times, over the course of a lifetime. What can we learn from the end-of-life experiences of pets that might be applicable to our own experiences?
When my dog died of cancer last summer, I learned three lessons about what a "good death" looks like:
A good death is curated. Put somewhat differently, there is nothing particularly "natural" about a good death. When my family decided to euthanize our dog, we knew that he would likely survive another few days and perhaps as long as a week if we did nothing, but this borrowed time would be torturous. Our culture prizes the idea of "letting nature take its course", but a good death may well mean seizing the initiative from nature.
A good death is not necessarily an "easy" death. When my dog became very sick, it would have been easiest for us to take him to the vet to be euthanized. But like most pets, my dog hated the vet. My family decided to euthanize him at home. It was not a particularly easy choice. There were only a few vets in our town who provided at-home euthanasia and they needed advance notice. Given our dog's unstable condition, it was difficult to know when it would be the right time to place that call. The vets also did not provide for cremation; we would have to arrange for this separately. In our case, the cremation van arrived three hours after the vet and, for that long, our dog's body remained on the family room floor. A good death is not easy, not least for caregivers, but it eliminates cause for regret.
A good death is the coda to a good life. Death is not a departure from life, but its culmination. If you want to understand what makes for a good death, understand what makes for a good life. Most of us have a hard time thinking deeply and clearly about what we love and what makes our lives worthwhile. But once we understand this, for ourselves or for others, it is not too hard to imagine what a good death might look like. My dog didn't die in a clinic, surrounded by strangers and frightened animals, because that wasn't what his life was about. He died in the home he loved, with the people he loved around him, a country breeze wafting in from the backyard that was his kingdom for ten years.
At the end of life, we are not so different from the pets we have loved and lost. Understanding what a good death looks like for the animals we care for can help us reimagine our own end-of-life experiences.