Losing your beloved pet is an excruciating moment in time. In ‘The Last Goodbye’ writer Michael Groetsch provides helpful insights to pet owners who must face the troubling decisions of when and how to let go.

by Michael Groetsch

In life with your pets, it is likely that you will be faced with two critically important decisions. First and foremost is whether you remain by the side of your pet as they are being euthanized at the vet’s office. Many people cannot endure the loss and choose to leave. Both decisions are extremely personal and profoundly significant. The second is to know when to let go. While knowing when it is time is somewhat subjective, we must NEVER keep a pet alive for ourselves.

I will be the first to admit that earlier in my life with our loving dog Esmeralda and our precious cat Bright Eyes, the decisions I made regarding their passing left me with perpetual regret. It was only through their losses that I came to understand that what may have seemed best for us was not in the best interest of our beloved pets.

Shortly after being married to my wife Barbara in 1973, we visited our local animal shelter and adopted our first dog. We named her Esmeralda after the fictional character in the movie Hunchback of Notre Dame. We adopted her shortly after the birth of our first child, Joshua. Esmeralda became the second addition to our new family.

As most dogs do, she loved us intensely. We could not walk into another room without her tagging behind. When we took a drive, she came with us. When we ate, she sat nearby. She was our shadow. I still recall the warmth of her fur against our bodies as she slept between my wife and me on those cold winter nights.

Esmeralda experienced the births of our other three sons. They loved her and she loved them. She was the only sister that they would ever know. As they aged so did she. Then as life goes, when my oldest son Joshua turned 12, Esmeralda’s health began to fail. In dog years she would have been 84.

The day that she died I wasn’t even home. It was not by chance, it was by design. I callously placed the burden on Barbara to make arrangements with the same shelter from which she was adopted to have her put to sleep. I was a coward to place such responsibility on my wife and to turn my back on a dog that loved me so. It was a horrific decision that haunts me till this day. I only hope that in her unconditional love, Esmeralda forgave me at the moment of her passing. I can only hope that she forgave me for not being there when she needed me the most.

There is consensus among many in the veterinarian and animal rescue community of the benefits of being with your beloved pet at the time they are euthanized. It is widely known that as a dog is being put down, their frightened eyes race across the room in search of their humans. Eyes that cry out for reassurance. Eyes that plead for comfort. Eyes that yearn for those who have not only been the most important humans in their lives, but also the most important in their transition into death.

If I could only turn back time, I would be there for Esmeralda. I would hold and tell her how much she was loved and that we would one day meet on the other side. I would also tell her that I am sorry.

I sincerely regret my absence during that moment in time but assure you that it has never been repeated. And when it comes time for my current dog Leo, I will hold and comfort him until his last breath. His eyes will not have to find me. I will be there to let him know that he was loved by Barbara and me beyond expression.

During my early life, my wife and I also made a second decision regarding a pet that I will always regret. The decision was to hold onto our Siamese cat named Bright Eyes far too long knowing that he was suffering from a catastrophic illness. Although we administered insulin to him for many years to control his diabetes, it had become ineffective. Bright Eyes had grown much older and had lost all quality of life. On several occasions he had suffered painful and life threatening seizures.

On the night of his passing, I received a phone call from my wife. She was crying and asked that I come home. She told me that Bright Eyes had suffered a series of seizures and was lying unconscious on the kitchen floor. When I arrived home, my sobbing sons were huddled around his almost lifeless body holding vigil. When he suddenly experienced another violent and obviously painful seizure, I suddenly realized that we had made the wrong decision to prolong his life. We refused to let him go even when he let us know that it was okay to do so. When we held and comforted him later in the evening as the vet technician injected the serum into his tiny leg, I realized that we had kept him alive for us. And as he slowly faded into the distance like a winter’s landscape beneath the first fallen snow, I promised that it would never happen again.

I do agree that “knowing when” is sometimes gray and often a judgment call. But when you begin to notice that your loving pet has lost all quality of life and is beginning to suffer, it is time to let go. While second medical opinions are always best, when your vet and others suggest letting go, it is time. It is best to be a little early then a minute late. Bright Eyes taught my wife and me the importance of timing.

I also agree that watching your pet being euthanized is one of the most painful moments you will ever encounter. It is perfectly understandable why you may want to leave the room at that very moment. We all handle grief and loss differently. But if it is emotionally possible, I urge that you consider staying. I firmly believe that such a final loving act will help you grieve and get closure more readily then if you walk away. To know that your loving face was the last one that your pet saw as she traveled across Rainbow Bridge will leave you with a greater sense of peace and comfort. But it is your choice and your choice alone.