Dealing with Personal Grief as a Veterinary Professional

Posted: Apr 12, 2013
Views: 3437 - Comments: 16

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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.

Chief

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.

Chief

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Comments

Sarah Crisp's picture

Chief was the BEST. It takes a strong person to still come into work and be supportive for everyone else (including Phoebe the remaining -totally nuts but awesome- dog), and then turn around and write a blog about it. Go Megan!

Debi Kent's picture

I had the same experience with my beloved dog. She told me it was time, when she was with me at work. My co-workers were amazing and helped me let her go with dignity. I then also had the experience of about 6 months later, needing to care for a pet with the same symptoms. (vestibular) I just couldn't do it. And again, my awesome co-workers totally understood. It's hard to let others see our grief and tears for our own losses.

Megan Brashear's picture

Thank you Sarah :) And YES Debi, it IS really hard to try and maintain 'normal' at work. I'm so sorry for your loss of your perfect dog. We all feel like we have to be so strong and professional while at work, while inside we're a mess. There is the source of fatigue! I'm glad you could communicate with your team about it, and have their understanding. We are awesome people us veterinary folks!

Samantha Freeborn's picture

Hey Megan, I wanted to thank you for sharing this post and let you know that all of your Alaskan friends up here are very sorry to hear about your loss of Chief. We're sending you some polar hugs from across the miles!

Megan Brashear's picture

Thanks Sam! I miss all my friends up north... when are they going to let you come down to Portland for a visit?

jenny nordstrom's picture

Well said, Megan. Over the last ~15+ years, I've always found that it's utterly impossible to not love your own - and understand and respect them and the situation - during times like these. As I've said before, it's no less than an honor to be a part of such cherished lives, even if it's in their later moments. At that, we spend so much time taking care of our patients, and we need to remember to take care of each other as well.

Rosemarie Niznik's picture

Megan, Thanks for the blog about veterinary professionals handling euthanasia and the grief that follows. Some hospital staff and lay people may not understand how difficult it may be for some veterinarians to euthanize their own pets, since "we do this everyday to client pets". I read this blog at a difficult time for me as I was caring for my beloved 15 year old dog that was sick but not ready to go yet. Your kind words let me know that Nikki would tell me when she was ready and it was OK for me to grieve in any way that I chose.

Megan Brashear's picture

Dr. Rose, I'm so sorry about Nikki. I'm glad I could offer a small amount of support and help, as we all need to go through this differently.

Stacy Bokelheide's picture

Hi Megan, what a sad but sweet story about Chief? I wish I could have met him. Your story has inspired me to want to tell my story of "Hogan". I owe it all to him for my career change to become a CVT and to go further in my career and challenge myself to enter the world of emergency medicine. Hogan became ill with a foreign body and I made a decision to bring him to the emergency clinic rather than the GP I worked at. Hogan spent a couple days in the hospital with me by his side as much as I could, and this led to my employment there. Within just a month of my start there and the wonderful and brilliant technicians training me, I noticed changes in my dog which led to his diagnosis of ARVC. He lived a few more months when he came to me and told me it was time. It was my husbands birthday and Hogan decided it was his end of life day. He walked over to me, looked at me, let out a cry and collapsed. He was being treated at the U of M veterinary hospital for his heart condition so he was immediately brought there where his life ended. My other dog and Hogans best friend reacted like your Phoebe. I can understand how that made you feel. While getting through the grieving period is still not over, I now have 2 great jobs because of him. I still work at the emergency clinic and also at the U of M vet school that I will be eternally grateful to Hogan for. I'm still trying to find a way to honor him. Thanks for taking time to read this.

Megan Brashear's picture

Stacy, I'm so sorry about your loss of Hogan, but how awesome is it that these special dogs open up so many doors for us in our lives? I'm happy for you in your career and that you have Hogan to thank for it :)

Rachael Brady's picture

Grief among your peers is hard. We all know it sucks, but don't know what to say to make it better. Can we say anything?
A couple months ago I had to let go of my dear friend of 8 years, Pooka. She was my perfect dog. I think that the thing that needs to be remembered is that we need to support each other's decisions. I felt during her sickness that one of our doctors wouldn't listen to my concerns for her declining mentation because she was fine when she was at work. I asked another of our doctors and she helped me come to term with her progression. She helped me to set a time line for her. We suspect she had a slow growing brain tumor, but I wouldn't put her through an MRI. As a tech, I know what it means when your 11 year old dog has new onset seizures and behavior changes. The end came when she attacked one of my other dogs. She had never done that before and I had to pull her off of him. The hardest part was when she was having a good day, she was the happiest she had ever been.
It has been about 3 months now and I still can't control my emotions when participating in a euthanasia. Even just writing this I am tearing up. Just waiting for this to get better.

Megan Brashear's picture

Rachael, I'm so sorry about Pooka. You make a great point with respecting each other's decisions. We all are not going to make the same choices with out own pets that clients make, or even another vet professional would make. Our job as technicians, doctors, assistants, coworkers, and friends is to be supportive through the rough times. It will eventually get better, but that feeling of missing your perfect dog will never quite go away. Hang in there, and make sure to take care of yourself too!

mel bocchichio's picture

Thanks Megan, I just lost my BFF last week after 14 years together. It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my whole life. In the end, I have no regrets about a single moment of our lives together. Afterwards, being at work was a challenge for me because just looking at other dogs was so painful for me. Plus everyone wanted to hug me, which only made it worse. I was super impressed with everyone's compassion and understanding though, which is the greatest gift for a grieving person, to not have to feel guilty about the grieving. Thanks for sharing your story.

Kristen Cafarella's picture

Thanks for this. I lost the love of my life last June under similar circumstances, and my remaining dogs also didn't act how I wanted them to. Nine months later, I still have a tough time with hind-limb ataxia dogs. It's so much easier for us to handle client grief since we can offer out condolences and see them off in a short period of time. I feel bad for my co-workers who see me melt down at articles and cases like this. It's a lot harder to support someone through the process long term.

Rachel Medo's picture

Kristen,

Thanks for sharing your story. I'm sure many others in the veterinary field can relate to what you must be feeling, even your co-workers. Don't be too hard on yourself, the grieving process can be a long one, and you shouldn't feel like you need to rush through it. Please let us know if we can share any resources with you.

- Rachel