Finding the Joy in a Pet’s Death
Now that I’ve been blogging here at petMD for a few weeks and I’ve warmed you up with such fluffy fare as measles outbreaks and lawsuits, I thought I could begin diving into the REAL serious stuff. Like, deadly serious stuff.
Death is one of my favorite topics. It’s true.
I never thought I would say that. Like many people who go into veterinary medicine, I thought I could handle just about every aspect of the work except the euthanasia part.
I’ve worked in general practice and I’ve worked in emergency, staving off death for as long as I could. And now look at me. I’m a hospice practitioner.
Death, its approach, and its aftermath are now the main part of what I do for a living, and weird as it to say, I’ve never been happier or more fulfilled. Before you write me off as a completely morbid weirdo, let me explain.
I’ve always been a little phobic of nursing homes. The smell, the sadness, and the loneliness always bothered me, and during the times I volunteered there in college I thought to myself that I would do all I could to keep my family out of them.
My grandfather Pepe felt the same way. When he got lung cancer, he decided he wanted to die at home. The family was nervous. No one had been through death before; everyone they knew had died in a nursing home or hospital.
It makes sense, considering that is how 80 percent of seniors in the U.S. pass away. We don’t know what death looks like, and that is a frightening thing.
I never met Pepe’s doctor, but I got to know his nurse very well. She was our lifeline, our educator, the one who talked us through morphine dosages, the increasing amounts of sleep, the shutdown of a body at the end of its life. Knowing what was coming made it so much less scary.
In the last couple of days, ten of my family members (including me) stood around his bed and took turns holding his hand while snow fluttered down outside.
Three days later, we celebrated a somber Thanksgiving, strangely grateful for the timing that allowed the family to celebrate together for the first time in almost two decades. And that is what we remember most. It was lovely.
When you eliminate fear, you are able to focus on the life in front of you — giving thanks for it, celebrating memories, and just being there letting the one who is dying know they are loved.
In standard Western medical culture, death is seen not as a natural part of life, but as a failure. We try to cure it, whatever it is, and we fight up till the bitter end. Hospice, in both humans and animals, attempts to stop this approach when a cure is no longer possible and focus on the comfort of the patient and the preparation for the family. That is a huge change for patients, and for many doctors.
Hospice is not “giving up” on the patient. It can be very aggressive in terms of the level of nursing care, pain medication, and symptom management. Some studies of veterinary patients have indicated that our ability to control symptoms in dying pets is so good in hospice that they actually live longer than pets who don’t go into hospice.
We are in a unique position in veterinary medicine in that we can control the exact time and place of a pet’s death through our ability to perform euthanasia. I think of it much like a labor induction during birth — a medical intervention in an inevitable process. It allows people to prepare for the event.
Much like the angel hospice nurse with my grandfather, I strive to help families understand what is going to happen. I encourage children to be involved if the parents wish it. Learning from a young age that death is a sad but inevitable process that you can get through with your loving family by your side is HUGE.
Pets teach us so much; how to live and, just as importantly, how to die. It is one of their greatest gifts to us — to see a peaceful death firsthand, to know that our presence during that transition can be a beautiful thing. It is such an honor to guide families through the process.
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang
Image: Sealander / Shutterstock