Our pets teach us to be patient, to love, to lose and to never forget. It’s the natural order of things. They aren’t supposed to outlive us, though we wish they could. And when they are gone, they leave paw prints on our hearts forever.

But losing them is no easy task and something no one can prepare for. They don’t come into our lives with instructions to “love them to death, even though death may come sooner than expected.”

But such was our family’s experience last month when, in the middle of the holiday season, we were faced with the agonizing end-of-life decision with our golden retriever. The medical odds were not in Charlie’s favor, and we had to listen to his body as it told us the end had arrived.

There had been other farewells before his. As newlyweds, we lost our first, a Siamese cat. There was no internet back then. No children yet to soften the blow. Just a very patient and understanding veterinarian with Kleenex who took the time to listen.

“It is tough. Sometimes it is the right decision, but it doesn’t make it easier,” said Stiern Veterinary Hospital’s Dr. Rose Rakow, who was with Charlie until his final breath.

On average, a dog or cat is euthanized at both its locations every day, on par with the national veterinary office average. That final leg of the animal life cycle may seem clinical and routine, but it isn’t any easier on the caregivers.

“We lose a little bit of ourselves, too, with some of our patients. We get close to them and our technicians and staff do, too. I’ve been lucky. My pets just went to sleep. I wish that for everybody, that they don’t have to make that decision,” Rakow added.

After the goodbye, where to turn next, in a day and age when a follow-up visit with the doctor is now an old-school option as it was when we lost our cat? The American Veterinary Medical Association offers valuable links on its website.

“Washington State University, which is my alma mater, has a great grief hotline 24/7,” Rakow said of what is regarded as the premier veterinary program in the country. Veterinary medical students trained in grief counseling man the phones, empathizing with callers, assuring them that it is natural to feel the way they do.

Rainbows Bridge is a virtual memorial home and grief support community. One of the most comprehensive online sites is the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, where a virtual candle, forums, personalized chat rooms and categories allow pet owners to share their stories with one another.

Because the loss is so personal, so too is the recovery and moving-on process.

“It is such an individual experience on when is the time to get a new pet,” said Bakersfield Animal Care Center Executive Director Julie Johnson. “This is a family member that has been with you.”

She’s right. The loss takes its toll on everyone in the household, including the remaining pets. We returned home, brokenhearted without Charlie to two other canines who stood in wonderment.

Some people can’t bear the thought of replacement, others can’t stand the silence and loneliness. “If I didn’t lose my first pet, I’d never have gotten the ones that came after,” Rakow added.

There is no right or wrong when it comes to replacing a beloved pet with another animal in desperate need of affection. But just as it is with their end-of-life, listen to your heart. Tap into the plethora of services available, and in the immortal words of Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it is over, smile because it happened.” 

Opinions expressed are those of Lisa Kimble.