Someone just asked me for an old column to help a friend think through the extraordinarily difficult decision of euthanizing a beloved pet who is beginning to show signs of suffering from illness. It’s an odd feeling to be considered a resource on this topic but it’s an issue I’ve faced, and now have helped others face, countless times. I have come to think of the life and death of a pet as a package deal: that is, we would never enjoy the loving presence of other animals if we denied ourselves that wonderful experience because it ends, often far too soon, often with us having to make that hard choice for our companion animals.
Those of us who love our animals, who suffer as they suffer, come to understand that the gift of a gentle death is a piece of that love. In my experience, the difficulty is not in coming to understand that but, rather, in acting on it: on making that compassionate, difficult and at times almost impossible decision. We frail and faulty humans hardly seem up to such a task.
Talk about a damned if you do/don’t situation…. Make the decision before your friend is in real and unreachable pain and you’ll likely come to feel guilt that, perhaps, you acted in haste. Make the decision after your friend is obviously in horrible pain and you will forever beat yourself up for waiting too long. If we avoid making the choice, we fail the opportunity to be selfless and, understandable as it may be, we are cowards. Yet when we make that choice, we forever second-guess ourselves.
Here’s my read: in caring for someone so entirely dependent upon us we reach to something beyond our usual capacities. It is when we are at our best, flawed but selflessly striving to do right. We really can’t win in that awful scenario of “I acted too late, I acted too soon.” But if we make the best choice we can, compassionately and as fully aware as we can possibly be, then those for whom we make the hard choice can and do win.