I have had philosophical moments throughout my life (but my dad told me you couldn’t earn a living from being a philosopher) and the concept of death has evolved over the years. While away in Cairns recently I had some discussions about what it means to ‘say goodbye’ and an essay grew from this. Here is an excerp:
Goodbyes mean many things and as an integrative vet who engages in philosophical discussions with clients, I have gained some insights that I would like to share.
Death is a big goodbye. Vets often chose to be vets because we wanted to save lives, to beat death. However, as vets we spend a significant part of our time euthanizing animals. We see suffering, we see end of life experiences and we see the varied ways that death occurs. What does the end mean for the animal, the owner and the vet?
Many years ago, I was warned that if you work in complementary medicine, it can be very stressful as your main clientele are old, decrepit animals nearing the end of their lives. There are no puppies or kittens to balance the old, chronic patients. About 10 years ago, I hit this exact wall. My happiness gauge was solely dependent on how good or bad my aged patients felt that day. These days, my attitude to healthcare is broader and more balanced.
Many of my clients want to know when it the right time to say goodbye. My advice to them is that we have a responsibility to our pets at the beginning; we also have one at the end. Whatever we choose, don’t have any regrets. Don’t say I wish I had done it differently. Many clients are still traumatized by the death story of a previous pet. Is it our right to decide? Is it the same for everyone? A pet does not exist in isolation; it is a relationship between the owner, the pet and the environment. Many perfectly healthy pets are euthanized for aggression. Some animals are born fighters; they don’t want to give up. Other animals are more fragile. I remember years ago coaxing a Siamese back to health because it decided that a cat fight abscess was’ all, over red rover’. I have also met an elderly lady who declared that she would put her cat down if it had to suffer at all because she had suffered so much herself. Suffering seems extremely subjective. It depends on your personality, your life experiences, the support around you, the environment and so on. I feel that death is one of personal choice, the animal’s personal choice. If the animal feels that it has had enough, that it wants to let go, then I am happy to advise the owners that it is time. It is time to say goodbye. I don’t feel ‘godly’ enough to dictate when I think ‘enough is enough’. It is not about ‘me’. I may tell the owners that according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, there will be a part of the animal’s soul, the Ethereal Soul, the Hun that lingers after death and is part of the concept of ancestral worship. Just as funerals are an end, a way for us to say goodbye to our loved ones, pet funerals and cremations can allow the human family to say goodbye. It is also just as important for the other pets in the family to be able to say goodbye. If the companion pet left to go to the vets and never came back, the pet at home may continue to wait for the other one to come home. As a vet who sees many end stage patients, I often feel a loss because I don’t get to say my goodbye when the pet goes back to its general vet to be put down. I write my sympathy letter as my way of celebrating the patient life and saying my goodbye.
When I was at vet school, I was advised to be clinical, to make judgments based on bloods, ‘vital signs and so on. No one told me to listen to my heart, to listen to the client’s feelings and to look into the animal’s eyes. To do all that would be to get involved. We were taught not to get involved because this would lead to emotional burnout. I can honestly say that my life is richer for having known all these animals, for having been there and looked into their eyes. As new graduate, I once asked an older lady if she would be OK about the loss of her dog, she replied that she had buried her husband and her son and she would be OK with this latest death. I, as a young vet had never buried anyone, what could I offer her? Since then, I have learnt that just being there, just being their friend and listening to the stories was just as important a part of being a vet. So my advice is not to distance yourself but to embrace it, change the negative energy into good, make it a good death.