Dealing with Personal Grief as a Veterinary Professional

Posted: Apr 12, 2013
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Working where I work and doing what I do, I have a lot of experience with death. I’ve seen it go well. I’ve seen it go horribly awfully bad. I’ve seen people make decisions I agree with, and others I would never ever do for my own pets. As a result, I think about death quite a bit. I think about my pets and what I would and wouldn’t do. When surgery would be a go, and when to stop. Would I treat this disease but not that? Am I willing to put them through that? Would I put my dog on the ventilator? I’ve long told my coworkers that I need someone smart and rational that may need to tell me when to stop…

I made paw prints of all of my pets when they were young and healthy and have displayed them in my house for years. I didn’t want any reminders of their death, only of their life. I took silly videos of my dogs just running around the dog park, doing tricks in the living room, and pictures of them sleeping in cute positions. I knew what was coming and I was determined to be prepared. It’s the fallout of facing so much death every single day. I had a plan, I had expectations, and I was going to handle things JUST FINE.

In March of 2012 my perfect dog Chief started exhibiting some signs of back pain which quickly progressed to marked hind leg weakness and ataxia. He was constantly painful and I started preparing for the worst. When I say perfect dog, I mean perfect dog. He came to me perfect, all I had to do was feed him and love him, he remained perfect. Drugs sort of helped, acupuncture helped but only for a short period of time, and when the dog who loved to be outside could no longer get himself up and outside without a significant amount of help, I knew the time was near.


It’s true, pets do tell us when the time is right. We have to be listening, which is the challenge, but they tell us. Chief told me when it was time, and I listened. I waited a few more hours, until I knew the hospital would be quiet, and at 5am I put my coworkers through the awkward horror of dealing with one of their own losing a pet. All of us that work here are amazingly compassionate and caring people – who have no idea what to say to one another when we are grieving. It’s okay. The display of flowers I received was talk enough. Chief passed peacefully, it went as well as it could have gone, until I brought Phoebe in. Phoebe is the younger dog. The dog who never lived without Chief. I left her in the car, and once Chief was gone I wanted her to see him, to have a chance to grieve over him so she would understand. Phoebe and I walked back into the room, Chief was on a dog bed, and I sat down next to him. Phoebe literally leapt OVER his body onto the couch and looked out the window. That was it. That was her grieving process. I was SO MAD at her. Had she no respect for the old man who taught her everything? Was she THAT out of touch with me that she couldn’t see what was happening?

Does it say something about me that I was more upset about Phoebe for a while? She RUINED my plan! She continued life as normal while I was crushed over the loss of the perfect dog. That’s the thing about this grief. You can’t plan for it, against it, when it hits, how long it lasts, and even how you will respond. It’s forgetting a patient’s name while taking them outside (come on, uh, kiddo, time to get back on fluids!); it’s having a strangely extreme reaction to a client decision; it’s suddenly not wanting to get out of bed in the morning (or really late morning, look who’s talking here); it’s being angry at your remaining dog who refused to mourn the loss of her best buddy.

You can’t will it away. You can’t be strong enough to not be affected by it. But you can talk about it. It’s hard – in a building full of AMAZING compassionate people, we don’t know how to handle a crying coworker – but if you communicate that you’re having a hard week I bet those compassionate people will cut you a break. Give yourself a break. Being caring and empathetic for 10 hours a day is hard work. Even if you don’t see death every day, you see people making decisions based on money, you see animals who are stressed and frightened, you are making decisions that have big impacts on those animals and people. You are allowed to have a bad week. That’s what chocolate/ice cream/Golden Girls reruns were made for. And naps.

Just remember that everyone handles grief differently, and is affected by different situations. It may be as obvious as the loss of their pet. But it may be, almost a year later, that coworker treating a dog that had similar symptoms to that beloved pet, and now that coworker is standing in the potty yard crying. If you think someone is experiencing grief, it’s up to all of us to make up for that by having compassion for them. Supporting them, maybe even picking up the slack a bit, and welcoming them back to happy when they get there. Thanks to my team who have done that for me many times over. It’s kept me going for 13 years.