My grandmother died on July 24, 2017. While I feel sad, I don’t know how to fully express my grief. I have shed a few tears but something still seems off about how I feel and how I should feel. I’m not writing this to get sympathy, but rather to let those who have a veterinary person (anyone who works in a vet hospital or animal shelter) understand how we act when a loved one dies.
We deal with death far too often, almost on a daily basis. This is likely the cause of the problem. Most of the time we are euthanizing elderly or sick animals. We justify this by knowing that they won’t suffer, feel any pain, and will be free of their maladies.
Sometimes though, we’re are having to euthanize a younger animal due to a freak accident, owner financial reasons, or bad luck from some contagious disease. It’s harder to justify this scenario but somehow we have to plug on to the next patient.
The case with my grandmother is similar to the former scenario. She had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer just as my other grandmother passed away. The doctors initially didn’t give her much time. She was unable to eat and lost almost 40% of her body weight. Chemo was tried and failed. A second protocol was tried and ultimately also failed.
We knew there was no cure but all we were hoping for was a good quality of life and fun times while they could last. She lived for her grandkids. Her first hurdle was watching the 13th be born two months after her diagnosis. Then the next goal was Christmas. After that, I like to think the rest was bonus time.
When I conversed with her the last time, I didn’t know it would be the last. Three days later when she entered hospice and my family reviewed the blood test results, I knew it was a matter of days. Yes I was sad, but also I found myself rationalizing the experience. She had lived a full life. She was going to be with her true love, my grandfather, once again. It was a mixture of feelings…part of me felt guilty for rationalizing everything; the other part of me felt sad but I didn’t know how express it.
I don’t think I’m the only veterinary person who feels this way. For the most part, maybe it’s just that we’ve forgotten how to grieve. This is not something they taught us in vet school. They can’t prepare us with how to fully deal with death.
Assuredly, we do feel sadness. Mostly though, we have learned to suppress this as our jobs don’t always allow us to express our emotions either through the reasons of time or professionalism. Believe me, I don’t think any of us are happy with this or proud of it. Certainly, there are times when we do break down and let it all go – but we rarely let anyone see this.
To my colleagues in the field: Don’t lose your humanity. Take time to cry. Don’t forget what’s right in front of you – whether that be your work team, your past, present, & future patients, and your family. To our families who love and support our crazy or confusing veterinary lives, trust that we do hurt and trust that we will share when we are ready. Thank you for supporting us and for understanding.