Dealing with Loss

One of the THE most important things I do as a veterinarian is euthanize pets. The ability to ease a suffering animal out of this world and into the next is the most painful part of my job as well as the most meaningful. Helping people through the decision making process is always difficult for all concerned. It should be hard. No decision to euthanize should be taken lightly. EVER. Because it is the best decision, the most humane decision, does not make it an easy decision.

I have been a veterinarian for over thirty-two years. I have no idea how many pets I have put to sleep. I don’t want to know. I do want to know that I can look at myself in the mirror and know I did my best for that animal. I take every procedure seriously. It does not get easier with experience. I hope it never does as that would mean I will have lost my sense of what that animal means to the world and to its family.

In order to perform my job, I do have to put on my professional exterior and function as a doctor. Inside, it can be very conflicting. In many cases, I am ending the suffering of an animal that has been nearing the end of its life for a while. In other cases, I am relieving the suffering of a pet that has an acute illness or injury that may have a grave prognosis or be too overwhelming for a family to deal with the amount of care needed or the finances involved.

While every euthanasia has its associated emotions, knowing what the pet owners are going through makes it more challenging. I have euthanized the pet of a spouse that has long been gone, of a child lost to an accident, of a parent recently deceased. That animal is important as a connection to the person that is lost. I wish I had a magic wand to make it all better. I don’t. I have no words to say that will heal. Time will help, but I know from experience, there will always be a hole in the heart.

At times, I have struggled in practice with euthanasias. It’s veterinary medicine’s dirty little secret that the number of euthanasias go up around a holiday. Ho ho ho. Not a great time for veterinary team members. We learn to expect it and deal with it. For whatever reason there are weeks when we perform a higher number of these services than others. There are days that I start with a euthanasia and end with one….add maybe a one or two in the middle. It is sobering to say the least.

I have had horrible days in practice. One time, I put four dying puppies to sleep in a row. I cannot start to describe to you how awful that was. They were five months old. Dying from a terrible disease. I know it was the right thing to do, but it was something I will never forget. Never. But, do you know what would be worse? Knowing those puppies were going through a miserable, horrible experience that would end in death. I was, at least, able to give them a peaceful exit.

Over the last six months, I have lost three of my own old cats and am facing the reality that one of my dogs, two of my horses as well as another cat are getting older and a bit more frail. I hate to think of losing them too. I have also recently euthanized a number of pets for people that are close to me. That is the most challenging. I feel their pain; I know these pets well. There really are days that I think my days of performing euthanansia are over. The toll it takes  saps a bit of life from me. But, honestly, I know, the transition from this world to the next is too important to step away from.