Why Putting a Pet to Sleep Is Always Traumatizing

shih tzu
The brave, little boy
It was the last thing I wanted to do after returning from a trip to France -- head to my dad's in Jersey to put our family dog to sleep. Death's never convenient. I drove up on Wednesday after work, knowing the deed was going to be done Thursday morning. On the ride over, with my own dog in the passenger's seat, I tried to steel myself against what was to come, knowing I had gone through something vaguely similar a little over a year ago. Except with my mother. So this should be cake.

When I walked into my father's, our 8-year-old shih tzu, Gino, was nowhere in sight. This was a dog accustomed to presenting himself, like most dogs, when anyone entered the house. I discovered him swaddled in a blanket next to my dad on the couch, labored breathing, a gooey film covering his eyes, and the inability to do as much as raise his little head to greet me.

I knew there was no way we were waiting until the morning.


As one would expect, the vibe in the house was strange, eerie actually, with the sense of impending doom palpable. The lights were dimmer than usual, the TV was low, and my dog, a shih tzu also, sat there, eyes blinking, as if he weren't real. I walked over to Gino and gave him a hug.

"I don't think he's going to make it through the night," my dad said.

"Yep," I answered, my head still buried in his ears.

Before I knew it, the three of us were in my father's car.

Pets aren't just things we feed and walk. They're living, breathing members of our family with personalities and the innate ability to provide a level of comfort no human ever could. Putting one to sleep is a traumatizing experience for anyone, to say the least. This I know. But for us, it was much worse.

Although they can't really compare, there were things happening that were oddly similar to the night my mother died. Like Gino, my mother was sick, and my family was subject to witnessing her rapid decline on a daily basis. The car ride to the hospital -- that dreaded car ride -- was one that we knew we'd never have to take again. And not for good reasons. Also, the question "why does everything have to die" sat in the back seat of my dad's Mercedes -- a retail therapy purchase -- like the Grim Reaper himself. This was going to suck.

The vet at the hospital was a nice woman. Her fair skin and red hair made her look vaguely familiar to me -- perhaps she was the mother of someone I once knew? But after she spoke, I knew it was the first time I'd seen her.

She gave us the science of it. But not in too jargon-y a way. She told us there wasn't much left to do -- though we could try -- and how if it were her dog, she'd go ahead with it. We heeded her advice.

The final moments were almost unbearable. And my jet lag and lack of sleep were making things worse. We cried until all we could see was a blurry furry blob, and we dried our tears on his face, which was pressed against ours. We told him we loved him. We told him he was a good boy.

We sat outside the animal hospital for a little while before getting back into my dad's fancy car. The weather was nice. We said nothing to each other.

The car ride home I felt vacant and blank, like all thoughts had been surgically removed from my head. It was a drained feeling I recognized from the year before.

One question, "Why does everything have to die?" remained, though. It sat flatly and unobtrusively in the back of my mind, no longer nagging me like it did before. Perhaps, because after 16 months of so-called healing, it was finally, maybe a little bit answered: To make life important.

Have you ever had to put a pet to sleep?

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