My friend thinks she's selfish for wanting her dogs back.
April 1, 2009 10:06 PM   Subscribe

How do I convince my friend that she didn't make a mistake in choosing to put her dogs down, and that she's not selfish for missing them.

On Monday my very close friend had to make the hard decision, along with her husband, to put down her dogs. We knew it was coming... Petey had rectal cancer with tumors and infection, requiring washing his behind every few days, and Patches fell a lot and had been wearing a diaper for a few months due to incontinence. But Monday morning Petey fell for the first time and could not get up, and would not stop yelping and, as she put it, "screaming." The dogs had pain pills from the vet and they had to give Petey 5 pills to get him to stop crying. Having been together their whole lives, she decided to have them both put down at the same time. Her family, and the vet, thought it was probably a little past time to have them put down. The vet had told her late last year to consider it.

Now she keeps second-guessing her decision, saying that maybe she should have kept Patches a little longer, since he wasn't really suffering. Or that she could have helped them both for another week until their birthday, when they would have turned 17. (Their birthday was the day before her own, and I don't think having them put down closer to her birthday would have helped her at all. She already doesn't want to celebrate it this year.)

Not only is she second-guessing herself, she also thinks she is a horrible, selfish person, because she wants them back. She knows that it was kind to end their suffering, but she says she would rather have them suffer here for one more night and have them with her, than to have them gone. I've tried telling her that missing them and wanting them back is just a normal part of grief, but she still thinks she's an awful person.

I'm at a loss as to how to help her any further. Is there anything more I can say or do to address her feelings of selfishness, other than be there to support her and assure her it's normal to wish they were still alive? She does believe they're in a better place, whether Heaven or the Rainbow Bridge or wherever.
posted by anonymous to Pets & Animals (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
She made the right decision, it is okay to be selfish after making the right decision. And she is a great dog owner, to have her babies make it to 17 years (!!!) and so well taken care of!

She is being normal, it is going to take more than a few days to stop feeling completely raw over this. They are beautiful dogs, by the by. You just need to support her and keep her moving (bake a cake with her, watch tv, whatever).
posted by Acer_saccharum at 10:10 PM on April 1, 2009

...but she says she would rather have them suffer here for one more night and have them with her, than to have them gone.

I'm going to be generous chalk this up to post-death hysteria, but that is an unutterably repugnant thing for her to say if she truly believes it.

They don't know they were going to be turning 17. All Petey knew was that he was in blinding agony, and all Patches knew was that he couldn't walk and his crotch was wet and his good buddy was in a lot of pain.

Sounds to me like it was the ethical thing to do for them, and she shouldn't insert herself into the equation. Companion animals are not accessories or a favourite blanket. Her emotions, while understandable, are wholly irrelevant in this regard.

Yes, she is being selfish. Extremely selfish. And it's important that she recognises this. Don't try to downlplay it when she brings it up, but don't bring it up yourself unbidden.
posted by turgid dahlia at 10:19 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by turgid dahlia at 10:20 PM on April 1, 2009

Yes, she is being selfish. Extremely selfish. And it's important that she recognises this. Don't try to downplay it when she brings it up, but don't bring it up yourself unbidden.

No, she's being human. She probably wouldn't really want them to suffer longer; she's expressing the terrible depth of her grief.
posted by words1 at 10:31 PM on April 1, 2009 [13 favorites]

Grief is a bitch, y'know? Worse is that she's probably got some guilt that she let them suffer so long, even if she's not in a place to acknowledge that yet. It's only been a few days. Let her vent, let her cry on your shoulder, let her do this sort of terrible brokenhearted bargaining, and keep reassuring her that she did the right thing. You're being a great friend.

I would advise to not put too much weight on these things that she's saying right now and certainly not bother calling her out. Now, if she's not starting to think more rationally about her decision after a week or so, that's another can of worms.
posted by desuetude at 10:32 PM on April 1, 2009

Yes, she is being selfish. Extremely selfish.

Um, no. She actually did make the right decision. If she was really selfish, she would not have made that choice.

What happens after death, emotions, deals with god, rationality or irrationality all come from trying to process that loss. We do not know how heavy that pain can be, as it manifests differently in each of us.

We are not to judge how people deal with grief, and to put a label of 'selfish' on someone who is so devastated that she is second guessing herself, and is entertaining fantasies of having them still be with her, just doesn't work. That is not where compassion lies.

Dealing with death brings up so many 'what if's', and 'what I could have done differently', and 'I wish it were that way and not this way', and 'I don't care, I just want them back, whatever the cost', and ' don't care how they would feel, I just don't want to feel this". It is so very normal to have a strong desire to escape that pain.

It makes us human, not selfish.

Just be her friend. Let her feel her guilt, her sadness, her perceived selfishness, etc. right now she is processing that loss. 17 years of constant, daily companionship is quite a loss. Do not try to rationalize with her, only when you think she really needs it. Just say you understand how she feels, and let her feel all of it. She does not need to feel even more guilty about feeling guilty. Don't let her spiral down, but don't try to talk some sense into her either.

All of this will pass. It will take a long time. And in that time you will see her in different stages of her loss.

It sounds like you are doing the right thing now. You are a good friend, and trust your instincts. I bet they will be spot on.
posted by Vaike at 10:39 PM on April 1, 2009 [9 favorites]

So, just so I'm clear, wishing a loved one was still around - wanting them to "suffer here for one more night and have them with her" - if I find that despicable, I'm the one who is not being human? (I won't say "inhumane" because that is the most meaningless term imaginable.)

Look, I sympathize. I sympathize completely with her grief and her loss and the difficult, but correct, decision she had to make. I've had to make the same decision with beloved companions a few times before myself. But never for a second did I want them to remain in the agony they were in just so I could enjoy their company for twelve more hours. And I don't sympathize with that attitude - note, an attitude is not a person - one iota.

Is she selfish for wanting her dogs back? Of course not. Is she selfish for wanting them back, even in the states they were in? Absolutely, and shying away from an issue like that is only going to reinforce not only her attitude, but the attitudes of people connected to her. And this is drawing a pretty long bow, I know, but it also reinforces the general human attitude of "a non-human animal's physical suffering is worth less than my personal preferences and tastes".
posted by turgid dahlia at 10:48 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

On Monday she did this, you say?

It's way too soon to give her rational you-did-the-right-thing push-back. She's still grieving.

Probably the only technique worth using right now is echoing. "I'm horrible!" "No, you're not a bad person." "Who would do this to their pets?" "Someone who loves them." Etc. If that doesn't peter out on its own use distraction.

But jeez, she needs time.
posted by dhartung at 11:02 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

So, just so I'm clear, wishing a loved one was still around - wanting them to "suffer here for one more night and have them with her" - if I find that despicable, I'm the one who is not being human?

You're being a jackass. The owner of the dog has already proven that she is responsible and sensitive to her dogs' suffering by making the difficult decision to put them down. There is no need to ascribe to selfishness and irresponsibility what can easily be explained by the natural process of grief.

More to the point, there is a Russian proverb that can be translated as: "You can never get enough breaths in when you know death is coming." Another minute, another day -- not even another week with the dogs would have ultimately satisfied your friend once she knew it was their time to go. She did the right thing and she has to resign herself to the inevitability of the situation.
posted by Krrrlson at 11:14 PM on April 1, 2009 [20 favorites]

It's extremely natural to second-guess putting down pets, and it's common when owners are good owners and really love their pets. But the best owners, the ones who truly care for their pets, do what your friend did and put the suffering of their pets ahead of their own desires to be with them and not to have to make the painful choice to put them down. The selfish thing is to keep an animal alive for our own emotional needs when that animal's life will only be more suffering. Your friend made the right decision and her second-guessing herself is totally natural.

You can tell her this, and tell her that Patches probably was suffering, and would have missed Petey terribly if she'd only put one of them down. Plus, he had a good long life and was clearly near the end of his. As for her saying she's selfish for wanting them around - I think she's being a bit self-indulgent and just wants you to tell her that she isn't. Because, like, duh, of course we want our dead pets back. That's not selfish, that's a sign we really liked them.
posted by Dasein at 11:25 PM on April 1, 2009

So, just so I'm clear, wishing a loved one was still around - wanting them to "suffer here for one more night and have them with her" - if I find that despicable, I'm the one who is not being human?

No, no, not at all. But there is a big distinction between what someone says during the grieving process and what their actions are.

She is not selfish because she did the right thing. The words she is saying right now are not her actions, they are just a spoken desire to escape the pain. I deal with death every day, and you would be surprised at what people are thinking/saying, but they are just thoughts that are coping mechanisms. If she really wanted the dogs back, she wouldn't have made the decision in the first place. Think of it as that little voice in the back of your head being a bit louder than normal for awhile... Pretty darn guaranteed that she doesn't really want that. That is why the OP, shouldn't even bother trying to speak too much to that part of things right now.

I have had my mother die in my arms, my father die, endless relatives and pets and friends, and, yes, I have thought some pretty intense thoughts at those times, not all of them 'nice'. And as supporters of those who are grieving, the best thing you can do is just allow it, it will pass.
posted by Vaike at 11:25 PM on April 1, 2009 [7 favorites]

Echoing the idea that it's too soon to rationalize with her. She's grieving and she's going to say a lot of things and think a lot of things that reason can't touch. After time, she'll let reason back in, probably of her own accord.

Last year my aunt actually went through nearly the same thing. She had two dogs she loved very much, but the health of both were deteriorating. One day the one that had the worst of it fell down and couldn't get up anymore, and since they were "brothers" (not biologically) and the other one should have probably already been put down anyway, she had to put them both down on the same day. She was miserable and second-guessed herself too, and said the same sort of things your friend is saying about the one that was not quite as bad off as the other.

She's okay now. We couldn't say anything to make her feel better in the meantime except to repeat that she had done the right thing. Part of grieving, I think, is to confront all the feelings you're scared of, grapple with them, and come away feeling more secure about your decisions (or where people have truly screwed up, feeling that they can do things better in the future). While it sucks to see a friend hurting, you might make yourself feel less helpless by recognizing that this is necessary for her to go through, if she's ever going to get over it. If she doesn't deal with these feelings now, she'll be worse off.

Before those two dogs, my aunt had another dog for sixteen years that she eventually had to put down because of cancer. He started throwing up blood one night, she took him to some emergency hospital, and he had to be put down in her arms. She was a mess after that too, and swore she'd never get another dog. People say things when they're grieving that they very much mean at the time, but often enough they don't go on feeling that way forever. So don't worry this is something permanent.
posted by Nattie at 11:32 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, I wanted to add in particular: it would have been worse, I think, if she had spared the other dog for a bit. His last couple weeks or months of life would have been the same pain, plus mourning his friend. I know if I had to choose between dying at the same time as someone I love, or spending a couple weeks in physical pain mourning them and then die, I would choose dying at the same time. It would have only made sense to spare him if he had a long life ahead of him, but he didn't.

So, that's just something to repeat when she second-guesses that in particular. But yeah, you can't stop her second-guessing for now. Just be supportive.
posted by Nattie at 11:35 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your friend did absolutely the right thing. My old blue healer Barry had bad arthritis, he was such a boisterous twit of a dog, and when he couldn't walk anymore he was not having anything near the quality of life I would want for an animal in my care.

It sounds like your friend really looked after and loved the dogs, I am sorry for her feelings.
posted by mattoxic at 12:05 AM on April 2, 2009

Your friend is going through normal grieving processes. We grieve for pets just like we do for our friends and family. Treat this just like you would any human death - go for a visit, bring flowers and maybe dinner (she's probably been too upset to eat much). Let her sit and cry for awhile. Lots of hugs. Encourage her to share memories of the good times she had with her pets, and remind her that they had been in pain for a long time, and that for the first time in a long time, they are no longer suffering. Make it clear to her that she is not being selfish - she misses them like she would any human friend who had passed away. Remind her that quality of life is, more often than not, more important than quantity of life, and that she did was a very good doggie-momma. They were very sick, and in all likelihood, the absence of Petey would only have increased Patches' suffering, and hastened his decline.

Also, never underestimate an evening of watching "All Dogs Go To Heaven." Bring lots of tissues, and talk about it afterward. It sounds silly, but this is what my family has done each time we've had to put a dog to sleep.
posted by honeybee413 at 12:12 AM on April 2, 2009

Some people need to feel punishment, so they will put themselves through the rings of fire and hell for that purpose. It helps ease the other pain of loss and grieving. I think the best bet at this point will be allowing her time to grieve. She also will find comfort in knowing that the animals are in paradise right now. Without pain, playing, lively and blissful. They will always be a part of her life. Nothing has changed other than their state of being. She will always have them in her heart, a part of her.

As for the guilt? It might be wise to point her in the direction of some kind of resource that explains what guilt is and does such as this one - and there are countless others.
posted by watercarrier at 12:18 AM on April 2, 2009

maybe I can't stop her second-guessing

Having gone through this with my own pets (sadly) quite a few times, I can say that, no matter how many times you need to make this decision there is always (even when you know it is right) doubt and second guessing. Making a life and death decision about a little creature you have loved and cared for for years simply sucks. I remember that the first time for my wife and I was hell, and we let our little guy hang on way too long.

From the sound of it, I think your friend made the best possible decision for the animals and was able to place her own considerable emotions aside and consider the state of her pets and what would be best for them, that is a hard thing to do, let her grieve, like honeybee says, for many people pets are like family.
posted by sundri at 3:55 AM on April 2, 2009

She's a good pet owner and did the right thing. They were suffering and she stopped that. We had to put our beloved dog down one Christmas Eve, it sucked and Christmas was miserable as we all missed him. However, it was the right thing to do, he knew it was time to go and couldn't have carried on without suffering even more.
It's not selfish to wish they were here still, but she is a good owner and did very well to have both of them for 17 years.
posted by arcticseal at 6:31 AM on April 2, 2009

I put my dog down last summer. We think he had a tumor and renal failure.

There was doubting and second guessing, but after he took his last shuddery breath and drifted off into a painless sleep which turned into a painless death, I knew he didn't have to suffer from the repeated vomiting and incontinence. He was 13.

I grieved, sure, albeit really only crying once, but everyone feels sorrow differently, and in some ways I'm still kind of grieving for the little bugger 9 months later - can't quite stand to see a picture of a sheltie yet without feeling like shit.

She did the right thing. She's only human. Maybe tell her it's okay to miss them so much she wishes she didn't do it, but that she did the right thing because their quality of life would have been horrible otherwise. She'll deal with her grief on her own!
posted by kldickson at 8:33 AM on April 2, 2009

You really can't stop the second guessing. The night before and day I put my beloved boy dog down, I worried that it was too soon for euthanasia. And then for weeks after, I worried that I had not had him euthanized soon enough and that I had made the wrong choices with respect to his treatment. Also on the castigation list—worrying that I had mourned his death while he was still alive. Yeah, whatever. I still feel as if that dog was representative of some of the best parts of me, and that absence is just killer.

The reality is that we can't base decisions on what tomorrow will be, only on what we expect it to be, as best as we can guess. That's what she did for both of her pets--and that includes sparing one ailing dog the confusion and grief caused by the death of the other.

She used the information she had to give them the best life possible--and that includes the best death. But internalizing that information is a bitch, and it doesn’t do anything to fill the absence of two beloved companions.

I don’t know how much you can do in terms of getting through that grief process. My advice is based on my preferences so, you know, usefulness and all:
  • I kind of filtered out the mooey-murmurs of people who used a certain meant-to-be comforting voice. I preferred flat assertions, not “there there” or that tone of voice I think of as the cancer whisper. Your friend might share that preference, and while such assertions don’t alleviate the awfulness immediately, they might sink through the fog a little.
  • Be calm, be available—but not pushy.
  • State again and again that Petey and Patches were excellent dogs, and their doggy excellence was due in part to her excellence as an owner. That they are worthy of grieving.
  • I preferred being around people who also grieved for my pets, but didn’t want to escalate things so that I would have to be wary of comforting them.
  • I didn’t know what I wanted in terms of companionship or conversation from hour-to-hour. Don’t ask me at 2 what I want to do at 3. If I changed my mind, it became some kind of fuel for my second guessing.
  • I was intensely grateful to people who offered me escape hatches from my routines without insisting I use them. One friend gave me the key to her house, told me to enter and leave at will at any hour whether or not she was home, and that I did not need to ask ahead of time or greet her. Just knowing that I had someplace I could be—without obligation—if I were overwhelmed was a relief.
  • Don’t tell her that time will ease things. There are plenty of other people telling her that.
  • Some folks like to talk to strangers/professionals or have a structured path through things. It’s not out of line to see a therapist a few times or call the counselors from an employee assistance program, if she has one.

posted by nita at 8:35 AM on April 2, 2009

Best answer:
My concern is just that she's adding to her pain by telling herself that she is selfish

Just remember that she is not adding to her pain by feeling selfish, that just is the way her pain is expressing itself.
posted by Vaike at 8:51 AM on April 2, 2009

I'm not sure there is anything you can do to "convince" her. You can just be a good friend and be there for her. Bring her food, etc. The dogs lived to 17? Wow! I think putting them down together was the right move, so neither had to grieve for the other.

A nice gesture on your part would be to make a donation to a shelter in Petey & Patches' names.
posted by radioamy at 9:22 AM on April 2, 2009

Selfishness is an action, not a feeling. She acted selflessly, and that's all that matters.

I don't know where people get the idea that it is selfish to feel the way you feel when someone dies. My father-in-law, for example, refuses to attend funerals, even that of his own mother, despite the pain that he knows this causes his living family members, because "grieving is a selfish emotion." Umm, what's selfish is doing whatever the hell you want despite how it affects others. Doing what's right for others, despite the pain it causes you, is selfless.

Anyway, she's awash in grief. It's way to early to ask her to reason. Just be with her and reassure her that she did the right thing and it's normal to feel the way she's feeling.
posted by HotToddy at 9:31 AM on April 2, 2009

posted by HotToddy at 9:32 AM on April 2, 2009

I'm very sorry for your friend's loss. A little over 4 years ago I had my beloved cat of 18 years put to sleep when she was in the late stages of kidney failure and I still miss my little buddy to this day. I think feeling guilty and wondering if you made the right decision at the right time and wishing the pet was still around are all normal parts of losing a beloved pet.

Anyway, my mom told me something that made me look at my cat's death differently; maybe it will help your friend like it helped me. My mom said that taking away my cat's physical pain and making it my emotional pain was an act of love. Your friend put her dogs' best interests first. That's what a loving person does.
posted by Maisie at 2:27 PM on April 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

She did the kind, rational thing by making her decision when she did. And now she's having all the unkind, irrational thoughts that are normal but which she was repressing before because they would have stopped her doing the right thing. So yeah, she's having selfish thoughts. Because she's allowed to have those thoughts now, the situation is over and it's safe. So this is both normal and, I think, healthy

When my little cat was run over earlier this year I spent the first few days feeling a combination of utter guilt, like I was the one that had killed her, and outright dislike for my beloved cat for doing this to me. Both feelings were foundless and irrational and both faded. The stuff that comes into our heads when we're grieving is weird and often not very nice. Make sure your friend knows she's allowed to have those feelings, let her know she's a good person who did the right thing, be there as she works through it and hopefully the horrible weirdness will fade for her too.
posted by shelleycat at 5:35 PM on April 2, 2009

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