When your pet first comes into your life, whether they're a teeny kitten or an older dog you rescued from the local shelter, the furthest thing from your mind is the fact that someday, hopefully in the far future, you'll have to say goodbye. Although I've had animals my entire life — and currently live with five cats and a dog — given my pets' young ages, I fortunately haven't had to put a pet to sleep in 10 years.
However, that all changed recently when my mom's cat Pierre — who I grew up with in middle school and high school — received a terminal cancer diagnosis last week. As a 15-year-old cat who battled diabetes for most of his life, there was simply nothing his vet could do. Although he certainly was older and never in amazing health, Pierre's death was still somehow surprising. It was a bookend in my family's life that signified years of incredible memories, funny photos sent in our texting group, and holidays spent trying to keep him away from the shrimp platter.
Despite the fact Pierre was clearly in pain, my mom didn't want him to leave the earth without giving me and my brother the chance to say goodbye. He was virtually sitting for final exams at college five hours away. Because of this, my mom pushed the procedure back 24 hours, so my brother could make the trip home.
I couldn't shake the fact that these were his final hours, and it completely tore me up inside.
For everyone involved, that last day was incredibly bittersweet. On one hand, Pierre led a good life. He was loved and well taken care of. He got an entire rotisserie chicken to himself that my mom bought through tears for his last meal. We all reflected on the wonderful times we had with him: when we got him as a kitten and he completely stunk up the bathroom, when he'd snuggle with our dogs on the couch, or when he'd greet us at the door with a disapproving meow for being a few minutes late for dinner. Still, I couldn't shake the fact that these were his final hours, and it completely tore me up inside.
Whenever you make the painstaking decision to put a pet to sleep, it's hard not to feel like you're solely responsible. Of course, you don't want to see them in pain and needlessly suffer. But I'd be kidding you if I didn't feel a pit in my stomach anytime I think about it. Some people believe animals know their end has come, but seeing the lights go out in real life is enough to keep you up at night for weeks.
You'll remember those times fondly, you might even chuckle on an otherwise crappy day, about the time your dog took the remote for the umpteenth time.
In my darkest times, I wonder if pets that passed wonder if their humans betrayed them. But when you take stock of their entire lives — the happy memories, the late-night snuggles, the emergency trips to the vet when they eat all the Easter candy — they had to know how much we will always love them.
Now that I have six pets of my own, I've made sure to acknowledge all the small moments that make me love them. They wake me up at 4 a.m. for food, call my laptop keyboard home, and sometimes eat stray chicken legs on the side of the road, but I've started soaking up the moments that used to peeve me.
There's going to be a day when those moments won't be possible anymore, and you'll have to rely on the past. You'll remember those times fondly, you might even chuckle on an otherwise crappy day, about the time your dog took the remote for the umpteenth time. Or that one time that your cat knocked a vase of flowers over.
At the end of the day, pets are family. And if you've ever caught yourself grieving, wondering if the heartbreak was worth it, the answer is always yes. Putting a pet to sleep is one of the hardest things most people ever have to do. Of course, it's painful, but having those memories to look back on will always be something you'll treasure.