06/17/2013 08:01 am ET Updated Aug 17, 2013

Why Losing a Pet is So Hard--and How to Get Through It

Everyone said I would know when the time was right, but I didn't. I called the vet asking her to euthanize our dog and canceled three times.

Then a friend said, "Ask yourself whether you're keeping the dog alive for his sake or yours."

McDuff was a Cairn terrier, a ferocious palm-sized ball of fluff when we brought him home as a puppy, unafraid, even, of chasing deer in our backyard, despite the fact that he hardly came up to their knees. He grew up to become a solid, hassock-shaped dog with a stubby tail, a painter's beard, and wise brown eyes. He kept me company at home when the kids were in school, when it was just the new baby and me left at home.

Later, when the new baby went to school, too, McDuff was my companion in the kitchen, in the car, in my office. He was still opinionated and noisy, brave enough to drag himself home after a coyote attack, trying to die in his customary bedroom. Luckily, the vet was a friend and took him at 5 AM, stitching him up and saving McDuff's life.

As time went by, McDuff grew stiffer and fatter, as many of us do. He was diagnosed with Cushing's Disease and suffered from Lyme disease as well. Despite medication, eventually McDuff could do little more than lie in the dining room in his customary place. He hung onto his dignity, going outside to do his business and nosing around for treats whenever our other dog was begging for them. After a while it became a scramble for him to make it up the tiny step into our kitchen. One day, he stopped being able to do even that much, and soon he was standing in the corner of the dining room at odd times, peering at nothing. His tail stopped wagging. He smelled like death.

McDuff was smart enough to be terrified of vet visits, so I found a vet who came to the house, a lovely woman with a sweet assistant. They sat on the floor with me and gave McDuff a sedative while I stroked his head and told him what a good dog he'd been. The cat purred beside us and my youngest son, the same age as McDuff in human years now, patted my shoulders. When they stopped my dog's heart, he didn't even twitch.

The vet gently rolled him in a towel and carried him like a baby to her van, taking him to be cremated and leaving me to hope that, when it's my time, I will have some way of leaving this earth as peacefully as McDuff did, surrounded by those who love me, rather than being strapped into a hospital bed, a shell for my family to mourn.

What makes it so hard to say goodbye to a beloved pet is that your pet--dog, cat, whatever--isn't just livestock. That animal was chosen by you at a particular time in your life, and represents an era, no matter how long or short, that can never be repeated, no matter how much you wish it could be. In our case, McDuff came into our family when our youngest child was born, at a time when my husband and I were starting our life together as parents of a vigorous, exhausting blended family in an old house we renovated together.

McDuff moved with us to a grander house six years later, a new house with lots of land that could accommodate our bigger, busier family. He was with us again when our children started leaving for college and we downsized to the house we're in now; McDuff nearly made it to the youngest child's own departure for college. He was with us through the deaths of my uncles, my grandmother, and my father.

How can you make the decision to let go of a beloved pet and ease the pain that follows?

Ask yourself, as my friend made me do, whether you're keeping your pet alive for the animal's sake or your own. Can your pet still do the things that made him/her happy and confident? What is to be gained by keeping your pet alive if your pet is elderly, in pain, or infirm?

If you do make the decision to euthanize your pet, consider having it done at home to ease your pet's anxiety. Google "mobile vets" and you will find one close to you, or ask your own veterinarian for recommendations. Give your pet a special meal, and ask your vet for the collar, a tag, or ashes afterward to help you treasure your memories of the animal.

Then mourn your loss, while celebrating the bond between human and animal, between this life and the next.