Saying Goodbye: When is it “time”?

By Dr. Renee Fleming, DVM, OVC Class of 2004

I remember the day we brought Emma home.  I was in my first year of veterinary school at the Ontario Veterinary College when my husband John and I welcomed our beautiful, wrinkly, snorting (and sometimes stinky!) English Bull-dog into our home and hearts.

After surviving the challenges of puppyhood with my Princess Emma, it’s amazing how soon you forget it all.  I almost forget about the beautiful pair of boots that she destroyed; the remote control she chewed (and after an urgent trip to the after-hours emergency veterinary hospital, I discovered NOT the batteries along with it!); the many bottles of carpet cleaner we went through. It is all worth it in the end.

As they say, the years go by quickly. When Emma turned eight, she began showing signs of arthritis. At age 11, she found herself not only dealing with a new puppy, a wiggly and active French Bulldog named Oliver Frances, but being awoken from her slumber by a crying and demanding newborn baby, Ewan. When I was feeding my son, Emma would sit at my feet in the nursery while I rocked him back to sleep. She took these changes in stride and has learned to tolerate, if not love, her new housemates. The dog who used to avoid children will now toddle over to lick my son on the face or see if the object he is holding in his hand might just be a tasty treat.

More recently, I lost my dad to cancer.  I was fortunate to have been able to be the care provider for my dad during his palliative stage, and he passed away in my arms while Emma snored away on the floor below.  My dad, like many cancer patients, suffered greatly in the weeks prior to his death.  Looking back to when I brought Emma to meet mom and dad for the first time – my wrinkly, wiggly canine bundle of joy – I never dreamt that I’d say goodbye to my dad before her.  One thing that brings me comfort when I think about saying goodbye to my Emma one day is knowing that I can give her a beautiful and peaceful gift when her time comes.  I can let her go in peace, surrounded by those who love her, instead of watching her deteriorate and even suffer. I tried my very best to make my dad comfortable – I diligently gave him his prescribed pain medication, wiped his face, wet his dry mouth – but I know he suffered.  I don’t want Emma to suffer like that.

As a veterinarian, I educate my clients so that they can also make informed decisions about their pets’ well-being.  Having to coach a family about making the decision to say goodbye is hard – harder than the euthanasia itself.  Everyone has different beliefs. Euthanasia is not accepted in all faiths, and many people have a very difficult ethical struggle about the end of life. I can’t speak for what is right and wrong for everyone – only for what I believe and practice in my daily life.  I don’t judge my clients as they make their journey through this emotional process. Sometimes the decision is easy. The hardest is when the decision is a bit of an ‘unknown’, which is often the case with a senior pet that is declining but may not be ‘sick’.

Initially, neither John nor I wanted to say the word euthanasia. Emma’s time hasn’t come yet. She still greets us at the door (not every time, but some of the time).  She still loves a good bum scratch.  She loves to stretch out on the grass in the sunshine.  She ‘occasionally’ loves her little fur brother Oliver and will still initiate play with him.  She still gets very excited to see my mom when she visits.

As I finish writing, Emma is still at my feet, although she’s now happily chomping away on a stuffed Kong. It’s not her time today and hopefully not tomorrow or next week. John and I notice her really good days, and take note of her not-so-good ones.  I spent a fantastic day this winter with her and a local dog photographer for what she calls an ‘honour session’. We captured Emma’s personality and “adore-abullness” and did an outdoor hike along the trails. I carried her when she needed it, and we completed our adventurous trek together. My family will miss her terribly when her time comes, and I often tell my little Frenchie that he has big paws to fill. My son’s first word was Emma – although I pre-tended to hear Mama; it sounds so similar after all.  I’ve been sneaking her some extra Kongs, a few more Timbits and doing my best to let her know that she is the most wonderful companion that we could ever have been lucky enough to share our lives with.  And when her time comes, I will be the one who helps her find the Rainbow Bridge, because I owe her that much for all that she has given to our family. 

Editor’s note: Dr. Fleming and her family said goodbye to Emma three months after she wrote this story. 


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