So, the worst thing that happens when you love a pet is coming to terms that you will lose it. As veterinarians we have to learn how to give a pet owner bad news. Even after 16 years in practice it’s terribly difficult. I stumble over the words, try to think of the best way to present the information. In a practice like mine, where our clients and pets are like friends, even family, their grief becomes ours too. Many times it’s because we were there, the first day the new the dog or cat joins their life. Practicing in a small town, we know their kids, hear about life’s ups and downs, we see their family members pets too.
The script varies when I have to deliver it, some clients hold their breath hoping I’ll say something different, some want me to be as direct as possible, some try to bargain with me as if I can change fate. After they process what has to happen, I am always amazed at how composed, thoughtful and gracious they are. Yes, I’ve been the object of anger, fury disguised as dismay and grief. That’s rare though. Most are dignified at the end of their pets life and somehow try to make me feel better when they are so obviously heartbroken. People always ask me how I can do it, and it IS incredibly hard. It helps to know you are ending the suffering of an animal and a privilege to help the human who loves it.
I broke down and sobbed when the poor doctor told me my dog Gunner had a bleeding kidney tumor that would end his life. I think she was taken aback because I was so emotional. She probably expected me to be more stoic because we live this every day, but I wasn’t. I’m telling myself I will handle it much better when the terrible certainty hits me that it’s Bubba’s time. When I do euthanasias I try to keep my emotions in check. I think it’s important to keep the focus on the animal and its’ owner because they don’t need to worry about me blubbering while they are grieving. So I’ve been coaching myself to be brave. When the time comes I don’t want Bubba to be worried because I’m crying.
One of the stages of grief is bargaining. Right now I’m telling myself I won’t ever get another dog after Bubba because it hurts too much to lose him. I don’t mean to minimize the grief someone feels when they lose a child or parent, that must a hundred fold worse. Maybe it’s a different feeling because we choose to love THIS specific animal, with its own personality and needs, and we willingly care for it knowing we will outlive it. We do this because the feeling of love outshines the deep pain of loss. We do this over and over again every time we bring a pet home to be a part of our family.