“When the love grows, the depth of the pain also grows.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne
You’ve just taken the life of a pet you know well; one you probably nurtured from the first months of the animal’s life. Then there’s the bereft pet parent with whom you also probably share a very caring relationship. You and she chose to end the life of the one being she loved unconditionally. Her pain and grief are bone-marrow deep, as likely are yours.
Euthanasia isn’t just a painful part of your profession, but also an inevitable one. And the fact that veterinarians are at higher risk for depression than the general population1 arguably has something to do with the stress and heartbreak of taking a beloved animal’s life.
Dr. Katja Lang, a veterinarian at the Heart of Chelsea Animal Hospital in New York, affirms that, “euthanasia is emotional, even for professionals who regularly perform it.” And says, “As vets, we get to know the patients, we get to know the clients. So, we’re invested emotionally.”
You took an oath to “solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering…” However, no matter how medically necessary euthanasia was; no matter how much the act was a “prevention and relief of suffering,” it’s not how the pet parent experiences it.
Clearly and patiently, you delivered the diagnosis. But she was numb, exhausted and distressed, her heart unconvinced and unaccepting. She will, very shortly, enter the throes of denial and bargaining: Is this really happening? If only I had done… what if we tried…. did the vet really do all he could? To her, as to most of us, knowing and accepting are as different as the heart is from the mind. You’ll be asked many times to explain exactly why her pet’s life was taken. She’ll want to know why the euthanasia absolutely had to be. Of course, you’ll do your best to explain the reasoning.
And so, the grief journey begins. Gradually the story unfolds of the first cough, the loss of appetite, the call to the emergency vet…days, weeks or even years after a pet’s death, someone is still reliving that day and that moment in your clinic. Because euthanasia has less to do with the mind and everything to do with the heart and soul, those who seek psychotherapy for their pain and sadness are often unsatisfied and unhealed. Few therapists are trained in grief work, almost none are trained in pet grief work and few veterinarians are seriously trained in pet grief work. There are, of course, grief-related studies in progressive veterinarian schools which make a significant difference in how a client is helped to cope with her loss, but the actual, sustained work with the bereaved is usually someone else’s responsibility.
The dominance of the medical model in our society makes it difficult to accept that a broken heart is not a mental health issue. There are pills for depression; none for sadness. And depression is usually where unexpressed, unaddressed grief ends up, for both pet parent and even the veterinarian.
The death of a pet can also trigger the unmourned, unexpressed grief of other deaths, perhaps that of a parent or another loved one, usually from long ago. The goal is not to help the bereaved pet parent “move on” or “let go,” but to help her “move forward;” move toward a belief in a future where she will love another animal again and remember the one that died with more joy than pain.
Seeking closure is another common, unhelpful grief assumption. No one who has loved ever really wants to “close” anything. The goal is reconciliation; reconciling the loss, integrating it into the lives of the bereaved as they move forward. Accepting the reality of the death is absolutely critical for any of this to happen. Without this fundamental step, no progress is possible.
Veterinarians are front-line workers who triage unfathomable grief on the spot, and often into the future. You’re never forgotten. You’re remembered in detail as a blessing and a curse…and you pay a steep price. So, what can you do to make the necessary evil of euthanasia a little easier on your grieving clients?
TIPS TO MAKE Euthanasia EASIER FOR GRIEVING CLIENTS
- “Justifying” a pet’s death by pointing out how necessary and medically called for it was only disenfranchises grief. Believing the necessity of the death is critical but there will be time for these kinds of explanations later.
- Listen to and answer all your client’s questions, even though some may be repeated over and over.
- Realize there’s nothing for you to “fix” because nothing is wrong.
- You should encourage tears and realize that they’re natural responses to losing a loved one. Inhibitions to public displays of emotion are harmful.
- Lean in and close the space between you. In principle, touching and physical contact are taboo, and probably discouraged during the pandemic, but touch is a powerful way to connect and say, “I’m here.” A touch on the arm can be deeply reassuring
- Death can take a long time to be accepted. The body, mind and heart resist the reality—life without life’s companion. Let clients know you’re available to try to answer their questions. Encourage them to make an appointment to talk.
- Because “naming and sharing” are great healers, encourage clients to spend time with understanding, non-judgmental friends and family who will listen to their story no matter how many times they’ve heard it.
- Leave something of sympathy. Some animal hospitals place a rose or some other flower after the euthanasia. It’s a simple compassionate act that softens the pain.
- Grief never ends, but you may be in a position to say that relationships and love never end either. Ritual actions taken to secure the relationship after death—ceremonies, tree-planting, shrines with photographs and mementos, and art and letter-writing to the deceased pet keep the spiritual connection and memory alive and strong.
- Encourage self-care and self-compassion. Grief places a huge burden on the mind and body, so self-compassion, self-care and forgiveness are essential prerequisites for the journey. Good advice is to eat well, take grief breaks, go for walks and stay in touch with loving, caring people.
It’s also important to take your own advice—show compassion to yourself, take grief breaks, spend more time with loving and supportive people, stay healthy and, of course, cry when you need to. Those who have lost a loved one tend only to remember the last days of death and illness, but since we don’t just focus on the end of a movie, suggest that they remember the entire beautiful life that was shared. +
1. When Working With Animals Can Hurt Your Mental Health, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/08/190809113026.htm