Today, I’m musing about the death of one’s pet. Veterinarians devote a much higher percentage of their professional time and services to end-of-life issues than all the other healthcare professionals. Why is this? A number of factors come to mind. The most obvious one is that all the other healthcare professionals care for people and people live longer—7 times longer than dogs and cats, for example. The bigger question for me involves the magnitude and the intensity of grief and emotion we animal lovers experience when our non-human companions (“children”?) die.
One component of my consulting business is to contract with, to be available for, Dr. Ziegler’s Wolf River Veterinary Clinic’s at-home pet euthanasia service. In the event that their veterinarians are too busy, I fill in. Recently, I received an apologetic early morning call from the clinic. Could I euthanize a dog that was suffering “as soon as possible”? “Yes” I replied. What unfolded over the next couple of hours was movie-like.
When I drove my truck to the clinic, the sun was out and the skies were unremarkable. When came out of the clinic, the skies were dark with ominous black clouds on the horizon. The abrupt weather change felt eerie. I entered the address of (out of respect for their privacy and loss I’ll call them) “Nora”, “Nick”, and their dog, “Bowser” into my Garmin. I then called their home. Nora answered. She warned me. She had seen on TV how a big storm was approaching New London. It was “going to hit at 9:10 am”. I could see on the Garmin I would arrive at their place some time before 9. When I arrived, as Nick was ushering me around their house to the ramp into room where Bowser—all 200 pounds of him—was down, my cell phone rang. It was Nancy, warning me of the storm.
The storm hit as soon as I got into the room with Bowser. Fortunately, I had brought my new favorite device, my small (and surprisingly bright) LED headlight. Bowser had gone down in a room in which there were no lights and Nancy informed me that our power went out for 30 minutes thanks to the storm. The word euthanasia is from the Greek (euthanatos, eu- + thanatos ) meaning “good” or “easy” death. Legally, veterinarians are the only healthcare professionals that can perform euthanasia. The methods used have been perfected over the years. Generally it is a two-step process. The first step is to inject a combination of agents into the animal’s muscles to sedate them. Then a solution that is heart stopping and life ending, is injected directly into a vein. After Bowser entered into a deep, peaceful, and non-responsive sedation there in the darkened room, my struggles began. As I worked to find and raise a vein in Bowser’s leg, I heard myself saying to Nora and Nick, “Doing the right thing is not necessarily doing the easy thing” and “Just like how that act of coming into this world can be difficult, it is not always easy to leave this world”. I could go on. Suffice it to say, I could not have performed Bowser’s euthanasia without Nora—who served as a sort of midwife, hugging and consoling Bowser through his passage out of life—and Nick, who assisted me with any number of logistical issues, such as helping me with the tourniquet.
Nora and Nick were crying when I arrived and they were crying when I gathered everything to leave. The experience was surreal. During all of our struggles, Nora in particular went through waves of intense tears and vocalization of her anguish followed by times of lucid and focused practical suggestions and helpful commands for Nick and me. Now the sun was out. All was calm and post-storm clean. As Nora and Nick thanked me, I tried to convey how it was an honor for me to be present for this sacred benchmark time in their lives.
I heard the following tale years ago. Its wisdom has been confirmed by what I’ve witnessed and learned in my life since. A wealthy and healthy man has the means and time to search and explore. He wants to know the path to happiness. He finds the sage who can enlighten him. He sits at the sage’s feet. The sage says, “First the grandfather dies, then the father dies, then son dies, then the grandson dies.” The explorer is alarmed. He exclaims “That’s happiness??” To which the sage calmly replies, “When it happens in that order.” The point of the story is that there is no bigger loss that we can experience than the death of one’s child. I suspect that I could spring back from almost anything that Life might hand me. However, I am hesitant to even allow the thought of what it would be like to lose one of my three children, so I’m not going to write about this further…
The oldest of my three children is now 35. My youngest will be 28 in November. Parenthood has been unlike—more enriching and fulfilling than—anything I could have ever imagined or anticipated. Sophie is now 12 and Jack is 4—roughly 84 and 28 in human years. Mia and Bassui are both 6— roughly 42 in human years. These numbers provide part of the data for why euthanasia is a big part of veterinary medicine. My non-human kids are aging 7 times faster than my actual children. There is no avoiding this issue of happiness, the death of a child, “When it happens in that order”. This starts to explain for me the surprising intensity of emotion that I was a part of with Nora, Nick, and Bowser, that we experience when one of our pets die. Could it be that whenever we choose to enter into a relationship with pet, we cannot avoid the fact our “child” is going likely die before we do? I don’t know. Mysteries abound. I came across this quote that somehow quieted all these questions in my mind:
“Every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them. And every new dog who comes into my life, gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.” ~Unknown
Published in the Waupaca County Post East newspaper, 8/4/11.
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