Henry stands weakly in his backyard, then his rear legs slowly sink to the ground.
At 14, Henry’s health is failing.
He’s likely had a stroke, is slightly deaf and shows signs of dementia. His mobility has declined drastically — his muscle mass is slipping away. Henry has to be picked up and carried up the stairs, to bed or to his favorite spot on the sofa.
Joan Martin of Decatur chokes up as she talks about her boy.
No one knows how much time the mild-mannered reddish-brown and white pit bull has left.
It could be months or a year. Right now, he’s under home hospice care, during which a vet comes into the home to check on Henry, administer medications and, when the time comes, administer euthanasia.
“We know it’s coming,” said Bob Futterman, Martin’s husband.
Martin tries not to think about Henry’s passing, but it always lurks in the back of her mind like a dark storm cloud. “It hurts so much.”
For many pet owners, the loss of a pet — whether from natural causes, accident or euthanasia — cuts deep, and sometimes the aching pain is almost unbearable.
The owners go through symptoms of grief as if they’ve lost relatives. After all, many people view pets as family members as well. How often do you hear a pet owner refer to a dog or cat as his or her child or baby or themselves as mom or dad?
The couple found Henry years ago, when he was trying to cross busy Memorial Drive. They rescued him and brought him to their Decatur home with plans of putting him up for adoption. Some callers seemed too suspicious. They feared Henry might end up in a dog-fighting ring.
“We couldn’t give him away to who knows what,” said Futterman. “It was a no-brainer.”
So Henry stayed and has slept in their bed ever since.
These days, they don’t travel together because neither one wants Henry to be alone, should things get worse.
“A family will say this dog has been with me through my entire marriage, my divorce and all different aspects of my life and now we’re losing them,” said Dr. Lauren Cassady, with Lap of Love, a nationwide network of pet hospice and palliative care practices and who is working with Henry.
A meaningful connection
Cassady calls what Martin and Futterman are experiencing anticipatory grief, which sometimes includes the same symptoms as those felt after a death has happened “and that is significant and hard to work through. They have to determine when is the right time to say goodbye. That is probably one of the hardest things a family has to go through.”
How a pet owner experiences grief varies based on that person’s emotional relationship to the pet and perspective about animal ownership.
Looking at millennials alone, 78 percent of women and 58 percent of men see their pet as part of the family, calling them their “fur baby,” according to a survey by TD Ameritrade.
The grief can be so profound that there are support groups for owners who have lost their pets. A handful of companies, including Kimpton Hotels, offer paid bereavement time or, at least, are understanding if an employee wants to use his or her personal time off to mourn the loss of a pet.
Although it’s not a formal policy, pet-friendly Kimpton Hotels leaves it to the discretion of an employee’s direct manager to offer paid bereavement time of up to three days. It can be a cat, dog, bird or snake.
“It is not for us to decide who is meaningful to you,” said spokeswoman Faith Yi. “When you’re in that head space, you’re not at your best.”
When Tammy Campbell’s beloved toy poodle, Gracie, 13, was euthanized on March 7 after suffering from congestive heart failure, she took two days off from her job to grieve.
“I was just completely distraught,” said Campbell of Marietta, an office manager and former flight attendant. “I didn’t know how to cope.” Campbell, who owns another dog, Jett, said she got Gracie a few months after her husband died. She helped Campbell cope with the loss. “She knew my emotions. She knew when I was sad or when I was happy. She felt that. I totally relied on her 100 percent.”
Through good times and bad
Kenyette Tisha Barnes, an activist and co-founder of #MuteRKelly, recently lost her brindle boxer, Serendipity.
Before taking her dog to the vet to be euthanized on Ash Wednesday, Barnes donned all white. She draped pearls around Serendipity’s neck and placed a matching tiara on her head.
Since Serendipity’s death, Barnes has joined a pet grief support group and started seeing a therapist to help wade through her emotions. Her Facebook page is filled with tributes, and she has written a blog post about her boxer.
“I never anticipated this would be so emotional for me,” said the Atlanta mother of three children and a cat, who adopted Serendipity from a North Georgia man who rescued her from a puppy mill.
“When my husband and I divorced, I remember writing her name down on the property distribution list,” said Barnes. “She was with me through the divorce, through my multiple relationships after the divorce and through my move after a fire last year.”
Serendipity fell in January and everything seemed to go downhill rapidly. She had a mass on her chest, then developed what Barnes said the vet suspected was skin cancer that spread to her bones. She was 10 years old and there was no guarantee that she would survive surgery or that the leg would not have to eventually be amputated. It was never about money. Hospice care was an option, but each option would only give her a few weeks or months at most.
“I made the decision not to do cancer treatment,” she said, and she struggles with guilt over her decision to euthanize her pet. “In the black community, we don’t cry over dogs. The black community has had a very difficult relationship with dogs, especially as it related to the history of Jim Crow policing and how dogs are used in police work.”
She’s had to contend with people offering her “replacement” pets. “They just don’t get the connection.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp recently took to social media to mourn Gus, the “First Dog.”
“Gus was a loyal companion and I always hoped he would make it to the governor’s mansion. While only there for a few weeks, Gus brought a warmth and sense of excitement that’s impossible to explain and difficult to replace. He was a Damn Good Dog and will be sorely missed.”
‘You have to be realistic’
Every first Tuesday, a social worker meets with between 15 and 20 people in the Decatur office of Paws, Whiskers & Wags, which offers pet crematory services.
The pet grief support group was started by founder Christine Hunsaker to provide a safe, confidential space for pet parents to share their feelings of loss, emptiness, heartache and, at times, guilt.
Did I do everything I could? Did I make the decision to euthanize too early?
What many say they notice immediately is the silence. Sure, one misses the barking or meowing.
But what becomes noticeable are the sounds you don’t usually notice.
There’s no clicking of nails on the floor, licking of paws, or metal clanging of tags on a collar.
And it can also be hard on the veterinarian.
It took Cassady, who can provide euthanasia services in the home and sometimes in a park or favorite location of the pet, years to really understand how she felt about euthanasia and the grief associated with losing a pet.
“What I know is that pets and families are going to be dealing with disease and end-of-life questions, no matter what. I look at my role as how can I support a pet and the pet family that has to make that end-of-life decision and what time is the best time that it can possibly be? I absolutely feel the sadness of the family and I allow myself to be in with the family during that time. I allow that sadness to flow in and I allow it to flow out.”
Some pets may pass away quietly. Others may be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness or injury. Sometimes, a pet owner cannot afford treatment.
“You’re never really ready, but sometimes you can try to be prepared,” said Dr. Will Draper with the Village Vets, which has several locations in metro Atlanta. “When bad days outnumber the good days, it’s time. You have to be realistic and honest with yourself. At some point, it’s about the quality of life.”
When his own French bulldog, Etta James, developed brain cancer, he could not bring himself to perform the final procedure on Feb. 18 or even to be there. His wife, who is also a vet, did.
Veterinary programs are also recognizing the importance of compassion.
Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine has a course that deals with death and the loss of a companion animal. It’s also important for a new veterinary student to “come to terms about their own feelings of loss and death,” said Eric Richman, a licensed clinical social worker, whose main job is to work with pet owners.
The school also offers a communications course where students work on such things as empathy and take part in an intensive course about the technical and emotional aspects of euthanasia.
At the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, students learn about euthanasia and the impact on the family, vet and staff. They also look into some of the research on grief associated with pet loss and strategies to help afterward.
“I think it’s one of the most stressful and challenging responsibilities that they have,” said Dr. Nicole Northrup, associate professor of oncology and assistant hospital director. “They have to think about it intellectually and doing the right thing for the animal so they don’t have to suffer. It’s still very difficult.”
‘I was inconsolable’
“The Bert Show” co-host Kristin Klingshirn got Parker Jones, her “lovable goofball” golden retriever, in 2005.
“It’s so hard to explain, but dogs have personalities and mannerisms just like people,” she said. Like how he walked. “He just had this silly, goofy attitude about him, and he loved attention. If you petted him on the head, he would nudge you to keep going. He was so rotten, but in the best way.”
In 2016, she noticed he was acting “off.” She calls it “mother’s intuition,” but she just knew something was wrong. His breathing was off and he was lethargic.
Their vet, Dr. Doug Morgan, discovered a mass in Parker’s chest, said her husband, Bart Mattingly.
Parker underwent surgery, where the vet removed a softball-sized mass.
Klingshirn and Mattingly, her then-fiance, delayed taking engagement photos until Parker could be included.
Everything seemed well. Parker bounced back like a real trouper.
Then in January 2018, while Klingshirn and Mattingly were in Mexico on vacation, they got the call.
Their pet sitter said Parker collapsed and died.
They were two days into a week’s vacation. They immediately made plans to return home. “I was inconsolable,” said Klingshirn. “I didn’t want to be there (Mexico) anymore. We rushed home to say goodbye. It was devastating and I’ll always beat myself up about this (leaving Parker). It was almost like he didn’t want us there.”
She told the vet to do whatever they needed so Parker would be home when they arrived. Back home, her husband slept on the guest bedroom floor with Parker “so he wouldn’t be alone.” The next day, they found a pet crematory so they could say their final goodbye to “our sweet redhead golden retriever.” His ashes were placed in a redwood box with his prints on the lid.
She shared her grief with listeners and received an outpouring of support.
Sure, there were some people who were probably not as sympathetic, “but if anybody felt that way, they didn’t say that to my face.”
After Parker’s death, her other dog, Leeroy Brown, developed anxiety. He didn’t want to be left alone in the house. She knew they would eventually have to open their home to another pet, which they did.
They have since adopted two more rescues, bringing their total to three. They adopted Willie in February 2018 and adopted Boone last month.
“There is this beautiful bond with animals, especially dogs, that is so pure. We will never have a home that will not know the love of a dog. The world can be such a cruel place; to have that unconditional love in your home is invaluable.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.