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If Only Our Pets Could Tell Us When to Let Go

Losing a family pet is hard. For some, it feels like you've lost your best friend. Thanks to mother nature, this is an experience that animal lovers experience multiples times over the course of a lifetime. It never gets any easier, but there is something to be learned from it.

The first hard part is when you start to see your pet experience physical ailments and wonder whether he is suffering. This is the part where you watch your sprite kitten lose its fur and your playful dog struggle to stand. As right-to-die legislation is approved in California , we are reminded that our beloved pets have always had this right – and it didn't make the decision any easier. How does anyone decide when to end the suffering of their dying friend? How does someone decide whether to pay for that expensive cancer treatment? How does one know whether their canine-child would prefer enduring pain or sleep-inducing medication? It's no small task to end the life of a loved one, even when you know they're suffering. If only we could ask…

Yet, as humans, we have the ability to largely solve this agonizing predicament for our loved ones. We have the power to speak and to write down our preferences for enduring pain and to give authority to end our lives. We have the privilege of choice and direction to our children that it is "okay" to end our suffering and to relieve them of the burden of deciding for themselves. This ability comes in the form of an Advance Health Care Directive.

An Advance Health Care Directive is a legal document that allows a person to make end-of-life decisions for themselves in writing. These decisions include: whether to administer pain relief; whether to treat for disease if an individual is in a coma or otherwise unresponsive; and under what circumstances it is okay to die. Additionally, the Advance Health Care Directive allows a person to designate an agent that can make any other health care decisions if the individual is unable to do so. This includes making course-of-treatment decisions if a person becomes seriously injured. Family members often have very different beliefs and philosophies about medical treatment. Consider that one relative may believe in medicated treatment while the other adamantly insists on herbal supplements. The only way to ensure that your own beliefs are carried out is to put them in writing and to designate the agent that you believe can best carry out your wishes.

This is the part that we can learn from. Instead of shrugging our shoulders and pretending like we don't care what happens when we are old or when we are gone, we can acknowledge that it is not easy being the decision maker or being the one left behind. Your planning empowers your loved ones to make decisions and, finally, to let go.

This article was first published in the San Diego Union Tribune on January 5, 2015.

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