TAMPA - When I sat down to write this, I did so knowing it would not be the first story written about coming to grips with the passing of a beloved pet.
There are many articles out there, some written in the first-person.
I decided to start off by sharing one of my own moments.
Then, I’d like you to hear from someone you may already know. Her devotion to animals is deep and beautiful. She has her own stories -- lots of them -- and a compelling point of view.
So we begin.
Almost two years ago, I was out for a walk with my two black standard poodles, Orion and Edison.
It was a rather warm November afternoon. My wife had left a short time earlier for a weekend stay at the beach with some friends.
Orion, who was 10, had recently been under the weather. But he seemed to be better that day.
Orion was a great dog: sweet, loving, obedient and protective. In short, the complete pet.
As we passed someone’s yard several blocks from home, two big dogs ran to the fence and began barking ferociously.
Not wanting to hang around, I pulled Orion and Edison along. I looked over at the barking dogs again and felt one of the leashes being pulled hard.
It all happened in a matter of seconds.
I turned around to see Orion looking at me as he yelped and went down. I knew instinctively and immediately that he had suffered a heart attack.
My actions were automatic.
I scooped him up in my arms. He was totally limp. I heard a very faint whimper and a dying breath.
I remember crying out loud to no one. “I’ve lost him! Orion! I’ve lost him.”
Edison was understandably oblivious, wagging his tail as we began the sad, painful walk home, Orion in my arms.
A man who lived in the neighborhood drove past me in a pickup truck and stopped. He realized what had happened and told me to get in the back of the truck. I said I was only a half block from home and thanked him anyway. He insisted.
I lowered Orion into the truck bed and Edison jumped on board. I sat down, my legs dangling from the back of the pickup.
Less than a minute later, we were in my driveway. I placed Orion in the back seat of my car.
The neighbor, whose name I can’t recall, was imploring me to take Orion to an animal emergency room several miles away.
I went back to the car and put my head next to Orion’s nose and felt his chest. Nothing.
Not taking my eyes off Orion, I said that it was no use. When I finally looked around, the man in the pickup was walking in circles in the middle of the street, anguished, yelling things I can’t recall.
I remember calming him down and offering my thanks. “I’m sorry you wound up being a part of this,” I told him.
We shook hands and he left.
I looked at Orion again and ran my hand over his head. My heart broken, I went in the house to call my wife.
It was a miserable phone call to make. “We lost Orion,” I said. I did my best to console her.
I hung up the phone, wondering what to do next.
Many people bury their pets in the backyard. I didn’t want to do that, partly because Orion was a fairly big dog.
I wanted to have him cremated. But it was Saturday afternoon and my vets office was closed. In fact, all veterinary offices were closed except for one: that same emergency animal hospital down the road. I called.
The nice lady on the other end expressed her sorrow. I asked her if I could bring Orion there or if there was something else I could do.
She gave me the phone number of, and not to sound cold, a pet undertaker. They would come to my home and take Orion away for cremation and burial, if we wanted it.
I thanked her, hung up and dialed again.
I got an answering machine and left a message. Less than five minutes later, the phone rang. A gentleman on the other end offered his condolences and explained how their service worked and how much it would cost.
I told him to come to the house. He was at my front door in less than an hour.
The vehicle he was driving got my attention: a black boxy Scion with dark tinted windows. A pet hearse.
We gently placed Orion in the rear of the Scion and the gentleman left. A few days later I picked up Orion’s ashes.
The urn now sits on a shelf with Orion’s picture. I was also given a death certificate, some comforting literature and a lock of his hair.
Edison, the younger poodle, is now the elder. He has a new pal: another standard poodle named Remington. We call him Remi. They’ve become close pals. They’re happy, we’re happy.
But we still miss Orion, along with all the other dogs and cats we’ve owned both together as a couple and before we met.
That’s the hard part about pets. Unless you’re very old yourself, you’ll probably outlive your pets.
We try not to think about it, but as a pet ages, the inevitable starts creeping in.
In a way, how Orion died, suddenly and without warning, was a blessing.
For many, including myself with other past pets, it often comes down to a decision to euthanize. It can be a very painful judgment call. But, when faced with the stark facts, it becomes an obvious one.
Someone who knows more than a little bit about this is a lady named Martha.
Of all the pet people I’ve known, Martha Murray stands apart. If the name sounds familiar, it could be because she has appeared on ABC Action News in Tampa once a week for the past 20 years.
Roughly 1,000 shelter animals were adopted after appearing on television with Martha. Thousands more have been adopted due to her influence, either directly or indirectly.
“Instead of a soccer mom, I’m a dog mom,” Martha told me.
She became active in the SPCA about 20 years ago. Around the same time, ABC Action News was coming into being and the station wanted to do a pet segment.
Martha and the station were a perfect match.
Today, Martha owns six dogs. As you might guess, she’s had others that have passed on.
She has her own stories and some advice for those facing the unavoidable sadness of losing a pet.
“It’s like they’re on loan from God. We get them for a very short time,” Martha said.
For a brief period, George and Gracie were a part of the Murray family. They were both Great Danes and both passed away about ten years ago.
“George and Gracie. They were huge dogs, which is not good as far as life span. They were already five,” Martha said.
For Great Danes, 10 years is a ripe old age.
“I had them for 2 ½ years. It seems like such a cheat. But on the other hand, my life is so much better for having had them those 2 ½ years that I would do it all over again,” she said.
“Gracie showed me how to live with style, dignity and grace. She went through her cancer treatment that way. She had one leg amputated and when I went to pick her up, she just bolted down the stairs and jumped into the back of the Jeep. And it’s like style, dignity and grace. You know, I can learn a lot from her.”
If a pet lives to be old and you’re conflicted over what to do, Martha advises that you just pay close attention. “They tell you,” she said.
“For instance, Gracie actually died in my arms at home from going through her cancer treatment. She lived an extra nine months, which for her life span was excellent. And I told her it was okay to go while I was holding her and she went.”
It happened all over again just a few months later.
“George was so lonely without Gracie and as it turned out, a couple of months later we took him in for his physical and there was a lump and he was limping and, oh my God, here we go again. I can’t do this. I just can’t do this.”
It turned out he had cancer that had spread to his spine.
“They sent him home with a little shunt thing (for chemo treatment) in his arm,” Martha said.
The next morning, Martha’s husband told her, “We can’t do this to him.”
The decision to euthanize George was made.
Martha continued. “We had the people there at the house ready to do it and I said, “oh, just give me a minute.” George, who couldn’t walk really, got up, came over to where I was and laid in his bed that was right by me and looked up at me and put his paw on me and he was ready to go. It was time.”
Over the years, Martha has lost ten dogs. Three passed within a six-month period.
“And every time I knew that I had made the right decision because they had told me. When the bad days outnumber the good, you’ll know it’s time.”
“It’s a hard thing and it’s a painful thing. You just have to grieve and you have to stop and look at how much better your life is for having them there and what a difference you made in their life,” she said.
Many find it painful, and often impossible, to be with their pet when it’s being put to sleep.
For Martha, being with your pet in those final moments is the ultimate act of generosity and love.
“And this is one thing. I know lot of people who say I just can’t be with them. It’s the biggest gift you can give them,” she said. “It’s a hard thing and it’s a painful thing. You just have to grieve and you have to stop and look at how much better your life is for having them there and what a difference you made in their life.”
She went on. “It won’t go away fast. But it will. It will never really go away. It will get a little easier and a little softer. But they will always be in your heart.”
“There are things you can do. If you feel the need there are grievance groups. You can ask your vet and you vet will have a list of those,” Martha said. “Just talking with someone who’s gone through it at the same time. Just talking about it. And soon you’ll find you can talk about your pet without crying. And you find yourself talking about them laughing and smiling and that’s when you know you’re going to be okay.”
If you’re a true pet lover, the BIG QUESTION eventually rises to the surface: Should I get another one? Many people say they don’t want to feel that pain all over again.
Martha offers a question, an answer and some food for thought.
“Do you want to deprive your life of that joy just because of this pain or do you want to experience it again and give another pet a chance? You make room in your heart for another knowing it will happen again just knowing that your life it better for it. Think of the quality of life that you’ll miss out on by not having one in your life.”
In her “library”, Martha has a lot of shelving. Some of those shelves hold the cremated remains of past pets. “We have our little marble boxes, their little urns with their little names on them and their picture next to them and their collars and their little tags and a favorite toy,” Martha said.
As always, life goes on and Martha continues to make the world a better place for animals.
She recently pulled together the money to open her own animal shelter, which should be open before the year is out.
From Martha’s description, it won’t be your run-of-the-mill shelter and she wants all shelters in the Tampa Bay area to work together. We’ll let you know when it’s up and running.
She has many more stories to share, happy ones, and we’ll be visiting with her from time to time.
As we wrapped up, Martha looked at me and said, “I’m living my dream. It is my passion.”
Some additional information:
As it turns out, the Washington Post hosted a web chat session on September 26 titled "How kind is at-home pet euthanasia?" To read the comments, click here .
For those wondering about the "pet undertaker" the service is "Honor Thy Pet." To visit the web site, click here .
If you would like to see a picture of Orion, click the number "2" below the photo of Martha and George.
Click here to visit the Pet Loss Support web site.
Click here for a related article from MSNBC.
Click here for a related article from CNN.
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