Icouldn't imagine life without Molly. In her 16-plus years, this charcoal-colored poodle mix had shared five domiciles and countless adventures with me. She'd been the sole constant in my evolution from single woman to married mama. She was, without question, the dog of my soul.

But now, Molly was dying. The tumor that had been removed four months earlier had returned and spread. The time had come to let her go.

Euthanizing a beloved pet like Molly may be one of the most traumatic experiences a person can face.

If you've loved your animal well, there's no way to avoid the pain that comes with such a loss. But that doesn't mean we should subject ourselves -- or the pet -- to unnecessary indignities.

When you and your pet have an appointment for euthanasia, you don't want to be sitting out in the waiting room at the vet's office with a lot of other owners and their healthier pets.

You don't want your dog or cat to go through the nervous paroxysms he usually experiences when traveling to the vet. And you certainly don't want to have to figure out how to pay the bill afterward, when your emotions are raw and your mind is reeling.

Nor should you have to deal with the trauma of the unexpected during the procedure itself.

Sandra Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, says that many people aren't prepared for what can happen as a pet dies. "They're not expecting the animal to sigh, to not close its eyes, or to lose continence," she says. Such surprises can worsen the trauma that a person already feels over the death of a pet.

According to Nancy Peterson, human-animal issues specialist for the Humane Society of the United States, "several things can be done to make this difficult time a little less stressful." Here's what she and other experts suggest:

* Talk with your vet. When your pet reaches his geriatric years, is succumbing to a terminal illness, or is failing to overcome a dangerous problem such as aggression, start talking with your veterinarian about end-of-life procedures. Find out, for example, if the vet will euthanize your pet at home (if you're interested in that option), or if he can refer you to a veterinarian who performs that service. Ask, too, how euthanasia is performed at the clinic, what might happen during the procedure, and about options for disposing of the pet's remains.

* Bring the comforts of home to your vet's office when the time comes. I brought Molly's bed to the vet's for her euthanasia appointment, and I'm glad she passed away ensconced in the comfort of that well-worn sleeping cushion.

* Pay at another time. Ask your veterinary clinic if you can pay the bill for the euthanasia and related procedures (e.g., cremation) before you bring your pet, or if a bill can be sent to your home. Most clinics will gladly accept your payment hours or even days beforehand; others will wait a few days before mailing you a bill.

* Ease your pet's stress. If your pet hates going to the vet, you might want to make this last journey a little less stressful. Many veterinarians will prescribe a mild tranquilizer that you can give to your pet an hour or two before the appointment. Book for the day's end. Peterson suggests trying to book the very last appointment of the day for your pet's euthanasia. That way, the vet can spend time with you and your animal companion and not have to rush off to the next client.

* Ask for private access. Ask your vet or clinic receptionist if there's another entrance that you and your pet can use. That way, you won't have to walk through a reception area and face a lot of strangers.

* Tell others what's happening. Telling friends, co-workers and other people about your loss -- before and after the event -- can help you get the support you need. When Molly's death was imminent, I made a special point of informing my daughter's kindergarten teacher. The teacher paid close attention to my daughter, talked to her about Molly's death, and kept me informed about how my daughter was dealing with the situation.

* Plan a memorial or tribute. Barker says that a tribute to a departed pet can be very comforting to those left behind. After Molly died, I wrote a check to the animal shelter from which I'd adopted her 16 years earlier. Writing that check -- and the letter to the shelter explaining why I was sending it -- was incredibly therapeutic. I loved the idea that my tribute to Molly would help other dogs that were walking the same path she had.

Molly died eight years ago, but I often feel that she's still with me. Her picture graces my office bookshelf. An envelope that contains a lock of her hair and sympathetic letters lies in a nearby desk drawer. And sometimes, in the early-morning netherworld between sleep and wakefulness, I feel sure I've glimpsed her merry, whiskered face. We said goodbye long ago, but she never seems very far away.

At the Washington Humane Society, Mary Healey hugs a dog whose owners no longer want it. She used an injection to calm the dog before euthanasia.