Hollywood has a lot to answer for. Movies and TV portray death as this noble, painless (other than a few dramatic twinges), peaceful event. Our hero is shot in the chest, and manages to gasp out his last profound words before slumping slowly over in the arms of his beloved (or his faithful sidekick). There’s blood, but not too much. Or the old person at home in front of the TV who just “slips away”. These things are not the norm, not the expected. Death is often the opposite of peaceful.
I can’t answer to what really happens with people, though my ER doctor clients can, and it sounds roughly the same as what happens with pets. Natural death (unassisted by any hospice-type medications) isn’t generally pretty, it isn’t sanitary, and it is generally not sentimental or peaceful. It’s profound sometimes, but mostly it’s just very real.
In the wild, a sick animal, as he becomes more and more debilitated, is generally killed and eaten by something higher up the food chain. In this case his death is hopefully swift in the end, but certainly painful and frightening for as long as the event lasts. I don’t think being chased and cornered and mauled until you eventually succumb to your injuries is particularly peaceful, no matter how long it lasts.
If the wild beasts don’t eat him he has a rather lingering and probably painful period of physical and mental suffering before isolating himself and freezing, starving, suffocating, or dehydrating to death, eventually unable to move out of the pool of his own excrement as his organs gradually shut down.
We have such hopeful expectations when we think of our own pets passing away. We don’t want anything like the above to happen; that’s why we don’t leave Jasper and Mittens out in the wilds to fend for themselves. We want to protect them.
We want Mittens to die peacefully in our arms on the sofa while we kiss her and whisper our last loving words into her ear, so she knows we’re here and she’s not alone. We want Jasper to die curled up in his bed, so that one morning we come downstairs and he’s just… gone, and we don’t have to make that awful decision.
Some people want this so much that they don’t plan for anything else. They want to force this scenario on their pets, no matter what. They think that if they just don’t call the vet, ignore the fact that the pet is not eating anymore, or drinking, or is hiding under the bed all day, or the abdomen is enlarging with fluid, or Jasper is having a harder time breathing, if they don’t schedule an appointment with the vet that “nature will take its course” and Mittens will decide on her own that it’s time and expire in a tidy and entirely Hallmark manner.
And, eventually, Mittens will die. That’s a fact. But without help she’ll likely have a terrible time of it. She will be no different than the wild animal whose life gradually leaks away, as her kidneys and liver and heart pack it in, toxins take over, there’s not enough oxygen, and she gasps and has seizures and urinates on herself and nobody is there to make it stop. Nobody is helping her to go peacefully. Nobody is minimizing the pain, discomfort, distress and fear. Her owners think they care, but they don’t care enough to take on the pain themselves and make a decision to relieve her suffering – they let her go through it instead.
And then they post on Facebook that she died peacefully at home.