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Journeys to Peace

Providing end-of-life care and bereavement care with distinction

Would you trade 5 years?

“Would you take 5 years off your own life and give these to your dog?”

This question was posted on the Reddit this weekend and generated a lot of attention. It’s a fascinating question and actually probes deep down into the bond we share with our pets. Would you do it? What would you trade to have a specific pet live longer… or even much longer? Would you want a dog or cat to live 20 years? 30? Even more?

Maybe it’s just my medical mindset, but I couldn’t answer the question without knowing which years we’re talking about trading. Would I give up my last five years to share another five years with my dog… with his health locked in at a youthful and vibrant time span? Trading my elderly, lower capacity years seems easier to let hold of – but what if I had to barter instead with my active, healthy years? And to be honest, I wouldn’t dream of extending my dog’s life if it’s only to tack on five years at the end… by the end, they are near The End. I wouldn’t ask him to journey farther in the old and ailing body he had just before his passing. For this “genie’s wish” of spending more time together, I found I had some pretty specific demands.

What if our dogs and cats ordinarily lived to be 30 or 40? Would we see more pet ownership or actually less because the commitment is so intimidating? Would adopting a pet become more like starting a family – which our society has generally shifted from something begun in your 20’s, to now something taken on in your 30’s? Would you delay until you had a settled place to live, dependable income and a general plan for your life?

I consider the seniors I know who grieve at the passing of their pet – not only for the loss of that one special soul, but also for the loss of companionship since now they may live alone. They grieve for their loss of purpose – without someone to walk and feed, sometimes they make excuses to avoid being outdoors, maintain a daily schedule and maybe even avoid getting out of bed at all. And for many, when one pet dies, they have to grieve the pet-owning part of their identity; they will not get another pet, because they fear it will outlive them.

So what then if adopting a dog was a 30 year commitment? Would a person in their 50’s or 60’s be considered a poor candidate to adopt a pet because the owner will become aged, weaker and maybe even pass away while the dog is still in his prime?

Could it be that we’d shrink the pet-acquiring years to some “sweet spot” in people’s 30’s and 40’s – those younger aren’t stable enough to bring a pet along for all the changes that lie ahead and those older will not be fit to care for the pet for as long as the pet will live?

In the moment, it feels very sad when we have to live on without a pet who has meant so much to us. And the fantasy of trading time or extending time seems magical. But the fantasy is actually one of the stages of grief: bargaining. After denial and anger that we have suffered a loss (or anticipate a loss), our mind reels with “what if” thinking. “What if I’d switched pet foods long ago?” “What if he’d tolerate chemo without many side effects?” “What if I’d taken him to the park every day instead of just on weekends?” “What if I had more time?”

Take solace. The bond of love which makes us want to keep our pet by our side for a very, very long journey together is a bond to be celebrated. All bargaining aside, there are advantages and disadvantages to the way things work out in life. Enjoy the fantasy of what you would do with more time together… but also enjoy the reality of the precious time you did share together.