Pets | Euthanasia |Dying | Grief | Interview
Singing A Dog to Heaven
Should pets have a say in how they die? Susan Goldstein believes they should. And she works with pet owners to help them start the discussion.
Susan Goldstein has counseled animals and their humans on end-of-life issues for 35 years.
Founder of pet retailer Earth Animal in Westport, CT, Earth Animal Ventures in Southport, CT, Healing Center for Animals in Westport, CT, and co-author with Dr. Robert Goldstein, D.V.M. of The Goldsteins Wellness & Longevity Program: Natural Care for Dogs and Cats, Susan helps families explore the option of euthanasia from their pet’s perspective as well as from their human one. “I focus on the animal’s needs, too,” she says.
Her approach to dying and the grief that follows enables both humans and pets to experience a life ending that is as good as it can get for both parties.
Susan is not alone in feeling that the animal’s perspective on end-of-life decisions deserves consideration, too. Dr. Don Hamilton, D.V.M., devotes the final chapter of his book Homeopathic Care for Cats & Dogs: Small Doses for Small Animals to an exploration of human-pet relationship issues including euthanasia. “We take drastic steps to prolong an animal’s life so we don’t have to face death so soon, so we don’t have to face the loss, reflecting our inner pain, so soon. But just because we can take these measures does not mean that we should take them. We have these animals to consider.”
“We must always ask, what is in their best interest? And then we must act from that position.”
Don Hamilton, D.V.M.
Life experiences prepared Susan for her calling as a counselor. Like the fictional child in my book I Heard Your Dog Died, she suffered the sudden loss of her family’s dog Penny at a very young age. And like that child, Susan suffered because her dog just disappeared. Her parents told her they took the dog “to be put to sleep” to end the pain of advancing cancer.
That explanation only increased Susan’s emotional pain. “I felt my heart shatter. They told me Penny had gone to heaven,” she says, “but I never got to say goodbye.” She carried that grief for years. Her mother died when Susan was just 20 years old, adding another loss to the emotional burden she carried.
Susan gained new perspectives on death and grief in 1978 when she accompanied her veterinarian husband to the Bahamas where he studied alternative cancer therapies with Lawrence Burton at The Immuno-Augmentive Center in Freeport.
During that 5 year period, Susan met psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross whose groundbreaking 1969 book On Death and Dying reshaped the cultural groupthink surrounding dying and grieving. Kübler-Ross defined five characteristics of those facing death — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Kübler-Ross always noted that her list was not a linear formula for facing death, that everyone moves through this emotional jumble in their own way and in their own time.
But she believed that naming and exploring these feelings, rather than ignoring or suppressing them, helped the dying feel less isolated, better understood, and more able to accept their transitions.
A New Support System for Pets
Motivated by her own unresolved grief, Susan studied with Kübler-Ross, interned in a ward for children with brain cancer, and became certified to support the dying. Susan began counseling pets and their people because she saw their unmet need for support with end-of-life issues. People coping with the loss of a human relationship could choose among many support services.
Those facing the loss of a pet usually faced their loss alone. Filling that gap became Susan’s mission.
Decisions surrounding euthanasia stir up particularly strong emotions. Add desperation and guilt to Kübler-Ross’s list. Susan’s grief counseling uniquely considers the pet’s viewpoint about this end-of-life issue as well as that of the household’s humans and other pets. “When you read about elephants grieving for their dead and about grieving ants carrying their dead to burial sites, your consciousness changes,” Susan says.
She finds perspectives on euthanasia shift dramatically once people comprehend the intelligence and emotional life of all species.
Susan uses her intuition to consider the pet’s viewpoint as well as that of the household’s humans. So how exactly does one do that? How can a person intuit what an animal’s preferences might be?
A boxer named Jack taught Susan how simple intuition can be.
Susan sat on the floor as her husband Dr. Bob, still hoping for a miracle, prepared to take Jack to yet another veterinary specialist. Mentally she asked Jack, “If it’s your time, don’t get in the car. Come over and sit on my lap.” Jack paused as though weighing his options. Then he padded over to Susan and laid down on her lap. The Goldsteins put on classical music and, as she held him, Susan sang Jack to heaven. “All our animals since Jack know they can be sung to heaven,” she laughs. “Somehow they know that Susan will sing them to heaven even while she’s sobbing!”
Asking Your Pet
Goldstein’s early experience of clearly communicating to Jack what the situation was, what the options were, and suggesting a way for him to express his choice is not unique, she says. Susan acted on her intuition about what Jack preferred and verified it by linking her hunch to a specific action that would help her validate it. Over the years, she gained the experience to know when a thought is really hers or one that is coming from the pet. Susan has developed her own prayer process to help her remove her ego from counseling sessions and be clear about what the pet wishes.
Susan encourages people who come to her for help to talk with their animals even if they are not sure humans and animals can have conversations.
Many people tap into intuition through meditation or journaling. Focused breathing techniques can cultivate awareness of where the body may be holding on to emotional trauma. Deliberating shifting that awareness to a “neutral” zone where the ego-mind stops frantically searching for “answers” helps open the door to intuition.
Becoming observant of a pet’s usual body language and typical emotional responses to different situations can help people judge their pet’s current physical and emotional state against his or her “norm.”
Those observations can help validate intuitive insights.
While Susan encourages clients to communicate with their pet, step into their pet’s perspective and trust their own intuitive connection with their animal, she sometimes suggests using professional animal communicators and administering emotional flower essences to treat the impending grief. She emphasizes the importance of due diligence into the communicator’s background and references.
What About Other Pets
Discussing end-of-life options with the dying pet may only be part of the overall situation, Susan says.
If there are other pets in the household, they need to be part of the conversation, too.
Communicate with these pets about their companion’s health status and end-of-of-life decisions such as euthanasia or home hospice. Think about how one pet’s death might affect the pets left behind. Just sit down and talk to them about what is happening, she says. At some level, they will understand.
Give other pets time to say goodbye.
Do not let the dying animal just disappear from their lives without explanation. If possible, allow the ailing pet to die at home so that the other pets can witness their friend’s transition and be with the body for a time if they want. Communicate to the other animals how all of you can support one another through the grieving process. Remember that process may unfold differently for each human and pet in the family. Some may be stoic or calmly accepting. Others may grieve so deeply they refuse to eat, literally passing away.
Susan finds flower essences invaluable in supporting both people and pets through the emotional turmoil surrounding euthanasia. Sharon Callahan of Anaflora Flower Essences introduced Susan to flower essences and taught her how to use them to help people and pets dealing with emotional issues. For instance, Calllahan notes, forget-me-not helps with acceptance of death on its own terms. Hyssop fosters forgiveness between people and pets to allow release. There are also combination essences formulated to facilitate transition and heal grief.
Even when animals are in terrible pain and have little quality of life, Susan says, it can be hard for pet parents to set aside their own feelings and muster the courage to let their animals go. Flower essences become another supportive tool she can offer. Susan uses essences to help other household pets struggling with the family loss.
Susan encourages people grieving a pet’s loss to seek out compassionate listeners. “When I hear someone say, ‘Shape up. It’s just a dog.’ I cringe,” she says. When you are losing a pet, you need someone walking beside you who has been in your shoes and can say, “I understand,” she says.
Euthanizing a pet, if not well thought out and planned, may bring up feelings like guilt, shame, anger, or depression during the grieving process. Find a trusted friend willing to listen as you talk these feelings out. Seek professional help when intense or prolonged grief interferes with daily living. “Grief is an individual process,” Susan says. So is its duration and intensity.”
“We grieve to the degree we love.”
Keeping Love Alive
“Animals love unconditionally and change the dynamics of our souls,” Susan says. We miss that unconditional love when they leave us. Susan reminds those who lose a pet that even though the physical relationship with their animal ends, the heart relationship goes on.
“It’s important to keep dialoguing with your with your animal after the transition,” Susan says in the final chapter of her book. One of the most important concepts she absorbed during her training with Kübler-Ross is that even though the physical body goes away, life goes on through the soul. “It’s a really upbeat thing,” she says. “It’s not the way I thought it was when I was younger. It’s not as terrible as we think it is.”
“Great love always finds a way of keeping on and keeping on. Expect a miracle.”