It's a philosophical question, and for humans who love animals, it's also practical.
We have the ability to decide what death will be like for our animal family. We can choose the date and time. We can choose the place. That is a weighty decision.
So what makes a good death? Is euthanasia "better" than a natural death? How do I know? What does it look like? Better yet, what does it feel like?
I can't answer a single one of these questions for you. I can tell you about my experience. I can share stories based on what I have observed and conversations I've had with veterinarians and hospice caregivers.
This is what I know to be true.
Every death is different. Every animal is different. Every relationship is different. Every human's set of values is different. Every decline is different. Every financial situation is different. Every human's skills in making decisions are different.
There is no right answer.
The deaths in my own animal family have been drastically different. Two were euthanasia choices after medical emergencies. One was a peaceful euthanasia at home (and may have been deemed "too early" by many). One was a natural death overnight without anyone present. One was a natural, intense death under our bed (she didn't want help dying and didn't want anyone touching or looking at her). One was a natural, intense death after a three-day vigil.
Each one of these deaths impacted me (and my family) in different ways. Each one was just as it should have been, and I am grateful that we've developed the trust in each other to appreciate that there is no single "good death."
I recently learned of a canine hospice nonprofit that has a rule that no animal suffers. The caregivers know the medical possibilities for each animal and observe them closely. When one begins to exhibit signs of irreversible decline, the compassionate humans there have a going away party and assist that animal with death.
I've also talked with families about their choices for a natural death. Sometimes they love someone who is terrified of people outside the family or turns into a nervous wreck at the vet clinic. Euthanasia feels anything but peaceful because the process of getting there would be so traumatic. Sometimes they strongly believe in the natural order of things or feel they would be uncomfortable making the decision for an assisted death. Sometimes they absolutely know the companion does not want any kind of help with death because she'll do it all by herself just fine, thank you very much (that was my Moira, by the way).
There are the people in between, and that's most of us, who measure the good days against the really hard days and make the best decision they can make with regard to quality of life.
There isn't a sign that drops out of the sky that tells you what to do, and the people who say "you'll just know" may have a different experience when it's time for them to make a decision. Maybe you will know. Maybe you won't.
You do the best you can with the information and resources you have. You make the decision that reflects your values and honors your relationship. Your companion is with you 100% and is grateful for the life and love you have shared.
This was Arden in October 2017. The wounds on her face are from a blackberry bramble that for years she couldn't resist crawling into. We suspect someone interesting lived there. She hasn't been in the bramble this year. As much as I lamented that she hurt herself so much, I'm glad she went with her gut and did what she loved doing. I'm especially glad I have a photograph of the outcome.
It struck me yesterday as I texted my husband.
Arden may be down to weeks or days rather than months.
He replied that she is such a sweet spirit. Indeed, she is, and we've both noticed how she has cherished contact and connection even more in the last few months.
In March, Arden began to lose weight. Her appetite seemed the same, and she was glad to eat. In late April and early May we began to be aware of her bones because she continued to lose weight. Now when I pick her up and hold her, I am terrified I will break her because I feel her spine, hips, and shoulder blades through her thick fur. She works harder to move her body, and I often carry her to and from her favorite places when she's ready for a change of scenery.
Arden is 17 years old and has been an enthusiastically loving presence in our family since we adopted her from The Humane Society in 2001. As we reflect on our time with her, we see how much love she has freely given to us, and how concentrated that love feels in these last days. The cat we know and love has become a more intense version of the cat we have known and love.
I'm thinking back to our other family members to find a pattern. I recall conversations I've had with families about their companions and how they've changed over the years.
This is my conclusion.
The end of life is a magnifier.
People say that having a lot of money or having no money doesn't influence or change personality - it simply works with what is there. A philanthropist will be a philanthropist with any amount of resources. A miser will be a miser with any amount of resources. Money is a magnifier.
I see how the end of life is like that.
In the intensity of the series of lasts, something stirs in the soul. We turn to what we know best, the essence of who we really are, as we work through the end of life.
Those of us who have freely given and received love will continue to do so. Those of us who prefer to withdraw or withhold will do that. My guess is that this is one of the qualities of companion animals we find so endearing - they can't help but be who they are, and because they aren't as affected by social pressures they remain truer to themselves. While I might be thinking about my regrets and feeling betrayed by my body because I didn't do everything I wanted it to do, Arden opens her already enormous heart even wider and shares more of herself. Because I am aware her body is preparing to stop working, I in turn cherish her love more.
I see how much her example has become of a part of me, and I can carry that piece of her spirit with mine for the rest of my days. She has shown me how to love with tenderness and patience, even when that love or simple appreciation is slow to return. She has also shown me how to establish and defend boundaries for myself, because sometimes she didn't want to be touched that way.
Animals have always been teachers and mentors in my life, and as I sit here thinking about this magnification idea, I am more and more grateful they choose to share parts of their lives with me. I'm betting you feel the same way.
And so we look forward to these days with Arden, however they unfold. We know they will be full of love and wholeheartedness, just as she has been and will forever be.
I'm Shannon, and I love and am loved by four Great Danes, four cats, and one horse (four Danes, one cat, and one horse are no longer walking this earth). Here I'll share stories of my adventures in grief photography for companion animals, my own grief journey, and thoughts on caregiving.