The vet didn’t make eye contact with me the whole time.
Instead her eyes were focused on the floor as her hands moved gently from Tuff’s neck to under his front and back legs. I don’t think she heard a word I said.
“He made it up onto the bed just fine after he fell the first time,” I went on. “But I wondered…I wondered if maybe he hurt himself and that’s where the lump behind his leg came from…”
I trailed off then and just watched when she remained silent and continued her investigation. The vet tech was also quiet and held Tuff gently in place as she worked.
Finally I looked at Tuff. He was looking right at me with eyes half open and ears back. Immediately his look seemed to tell me everything I needed to know. He was sick. He knew it. And now he knew that I knew it.
Lymphoma in dogs is not curable, and she was 99% sure Tuff’s was aggressive. This was the first bit that washed over me before I started to feel numb. The second was that I needed to make a decision about treatment despite the fact that there wasn’t anything we could do to stop it. I listened as she talked about options, but kept my eyes locked with my sweet pup. He was calm, but held his blinking gaze on me as my tears started to well up and spill over.
Later in the car, I had to pull over in a parking lot and let the sobbing take over. I held him in my lap and blubbered to my husband the diagnosis over the phone and let myself have a moment, because I knew we’d have to tell the kids and we’d have to ultimately make a decision together.
At first we were considering treatment, which could possibly give us more time with him, and that seemed worth it, however long it was. But after official labs came back, the vet said she felt that with how bad it was, we’d only get a few months at best, and it was expensive.
I finally asked the question I’d been skirting, but needed an answer for: how long without treatment?
A week, maybe, but no longer.
When to know it’s “time”
However difficult it was hearing that our beautiful Boston Terrier rescue of five years, our first family pet, had days left in his short ten year old life, it was worse telling the kids. Watching their shocked reactions was difficult, and watching it set in was heart wrenching.
We cried together often, particularly with our oldest. She had been terrified of dogs before we got Tuff, but his loving and spunky personality eliminated her fears. He was who she turned to when she was upset or needing a snuggle after a long day, and he always returned the affection with obvious gratitude.
The minute we returned home from the vet, Tuff was no longer the same dog he had been even days before. He was declining so fast and it was difficult counting the things he could no longer do. No more spaztic zoomies every time he came in from going potty. No more leaping onto furniture even when he knew he shouldn’t, desperate for affection. He yelped in pain when we tried to carry him, and struggled doing simple things like climbing the stairs and eating.
We made the decision early on that none of us wanted to see him in pain. We had to quickly accept that he wasn’t going to get better, he was only going to get worse, and even treating him would only delay it for a while and then we’d be suffering through his pain together again as a family in a few short months, if we even got that long. We needed to let him go.
I chatted with the vet tech the next day on the phone and she gave me the best advice ever. Haltingly I asked her how we would know it was time to bring him in. I was waiting for her to tell me something vague and unhelpful, that I’d just know, or that he’d let me know somehow, but instead she just said that what she does is just to pick a day. She said we should schedule it for when we’d have time to process it, but also so that we could spend all the time leading up to it spoiling him and showering him with all the love we could possibly give him.
That seemed to feel right to me, so I picked the following Monday, not even a week since his prognosis.
How to prepare for the end
The kids weren’t thrilled knowing we only had a short weekend left with him, but picking that day was just about the best thing we could have done. Tuff only got worse, so we set up a bed for him in the kitchen where we spent most of our time together and there was hardly a second that he was left alone the entire weekend. I even moved his kennel into our bedroom and let him sleep close to us so I could listen to him breathing at night, knowing he wasn’t alone.
The kids took as many pictures of him as they possibly could on their devices with him. They took movies. We picked out some delicious dog treats for him at the store, even though he only nibbled on them. He had always had a hard time letting me leave a room without him, so when he kept trying to get up and follow me around the house, I eventually spent a lot of time just lying on the floor with him so he didn’t have to move.
The wonderful thing about living in Colorado is that we were able to purchase and administer some CBD treats to him. This, we were told, would help some with the pain, but would mostly help with anxiety coping with the pain and allow him to sleep, which he did. I’m so grateful we had that, we never got to a point where I felt as though he was in unbearable pain. That would have been difficult for all of us to experience.
Finally Monday came and we promised the kids that they would get to say goodbye after school before we took him to the vet. We scheduled it so they wouldn’t have to do that on their way to school, which allowed them to not be consumed by it while they were away from home. We had initially planned for me to just take him by myself and my husband would stay home with the kids, but allowed the older two the option to come with if they wanted to (ages 12 and 11). They thought about it and decided to come, knowing that the alternative would be watching me drive off without them. They wanted to be there with him until the very end.
We drove to Sonic when it was over and had gotten most of our crying out together and bought milkshakes and talked about our favorite memories of Tuff. By the time we got home, they were able to give their dad some weepy hugs and take some deep breaths and drift off to sleep. I will also always be grateful they were there with me. We grew closer experiencing it together, and we would not have been able to share it if they stayed at home, even though it was hard for them.
A day or two after he passed, a book showed up in the mail that my aunt sent us called “Dog Heaven”. My younger two were sad, but didn’t completely understand everything that was happening. Reading that book together was such a tender moment as my then four year old pointed out “Tuff” on every page (any dog on the page was Tuff) and my eight year old processed and took comfort in the idea that Tuff was frolicking in eternal fields in a better place.
We opted to have Tuff cremated and keep the remains. It’s been six months and he’s still been sitting in my hutch, but we all felt better knowing we could bring him to some of our favorite spots and remember him in that way rather than having the remains disposed off at the vet’s office.
I also purchased a memento for each of the kids for them to remember him by. For the girls I got necklaces, a chain with a Boston Terrier silhouette and his name printed on it, and for my son I got a tie pin of a Boston Terrier. This may have been more for my own healing than it was for theirs, but it felt better giving them something special as a physical memory of him.
That week included lots of random hugs, a few sporadic tears here and there, and lots of sharing of photos and memories. It was a sweet time, and ultimately we were glad that we didn’t have to see him shutting down and in more pain than he already was. That weekend was the perfect amount of time to soak in as much of him as we possible could before we had to say goodbye.
One of the worst parts about losing a pet, particularly if you only had one in your house as we did, is coming home every day without them there. Our daily routine involved him, so every time my auto-pilot kicked in and I was reminded to let the dog out or feed him or sit with him watching TV at the end of the day was another pang of sorrow.
If you are used to having a four legged friend around and suddenly they are not there anymore, the void is huge at first. It got a little better the next week, but never went away.
We had talked some even before Tuff had passed about bringing another dog into the home, but didn’t make a decision until he had passed. When we first talked about it, the kids felt a bit as though it was somehow disrespectful to Tuff to move on so soon. But getting a puppy was just about the best thing we could have done to soak away the worst bits of grief of losing our pet.
As luck would have it, a litter of Boston Terrier puppies were available in our price range in Southern Colorado with two pups left and before I knew it, I’d put a deposit down on one for our family (and then soon after the other one for my sister in law’s family, which was a happy addition as well).
My husband and I took a weekend to go and pick up the puppies and left our kids with family. My son was the most hesitant about it. He didn’t want a puppy, he wanted to adopt an older dog that wouldn’t need as much training. But he happened to be the first one outside when we pulled in and the look on his face when I put this tiny little sweet girl in his arms was priceless. His mind was changed in that moment immediately.
We named her Rue, and while no two dogs are the same, she has been a welcome chaotic addition to our clan and training her as a family has been a good bonding experience for all of us. The pain of losing Tuff was made better by a bumbling, sleepy, snuggly pup that none of us can get enough of.
Well, you know, unless she’s getting into trouble, which happens on the daily. Good thing she’s still cute…
Having a dog heart
A few weeks after getting Rue, I was sitting in the vet office waiting for her next checkup and happened to be chatting with the vet tech at the front desk while we were waiting. I talked a bit about losing our old dog and she suddenly asked if it was Tuff I was talking about.
I confirmed it was and she then asked if I was the one who had called to ask about when to know it was time to put him down. She asked if I had felt that it was helpful when she suggested just picking a day, explaining that she actually didn’t usually have people ask and felt unsure if her advice was the right thing to say.
I immediately assured her it was the best advice she could have given. I was so worried that we would wait and I’d be at work when it happened or that he’d be in so much pain I’d have to clear my schedule and take him in before the kids had a chance to say goodbye. Knowing we had an “end date” picked made it so much easier to process his sickness and untimely departure. We had all the time we needed and I’m not sure I would have done that had she not suggested it, I’d be too worried that I’d end his life too soon when he could have had more time.
She moved from around the counter and gave me a hug and we cried together for a minute.
If you’re out there wondering whether it’s okay to mourn your pet too much, or thinking people might not understand because it was “just a cat” or “just a dog”, let me say that you have my permission to mourn the heck out of your pet. It’s hard losing them, it’s so incredibly hard. I’m unashamed in my pain of losing him still and I share about it often because I would hate for someone else to feel they had to hurt in silence over it.
And if you haven’t had to experience this yet, give those fur friends all the love and hugs you want to. We only have them in our lives for a short time, but we are their whole lives.