By Dr. Carissa Haverly
Recently I received a question from a veterinary student related to how I handle the trauma of euthanizing animals. It is a question I often get, so I thought I would share my answer with you.
Death is a part of life. It is the end of the story that we’ll never know the details of. Sometimes that story is a closing to a joyous life well-lived or a tragic end to a brief time on Earth. But the thing is, we veterinarians get to be a part of that story. We get to help a life end with grace and dignity. I feel it’s an honor to take a person by the hand, both literally or figuratively, and help them through the hardest decision they will ever make for their pet.
It’s an honor to be trusted by these families and guide them through each step of the procedure, making sure to stop and check-in with them to answer questions. Then, when it’s done and their pet takes their last breath, the room always goes quiet and I confirm the heart has stopped. More often than not, people thank me. They thank me for my strength, my compassion, my understanding, and my skill. They thank me for ending the suffering of their loved ones. It’s ok for the family to cry afterward, and sometimes I cry with my clients too. Sometimes I need to stay strong and be the anchor of calm in a room filled with grief and uncertainty. And never apologize for shedding tears; grief is an honest and authentic emotion. It is the other side of the coin of love. The grief re-affirms how special and valuable the pet was. Grief is the price we pay for love. I believe it’s a price worth paying every time, no matter how deep the hurt.
It is a gift and an honor to help patients and clients in the manner. To my clients and fellow veterinarians, I say: do not ever lose your heart, it is the center of your compassion. Do not ever stop feeling, or you’re in danger of becoming depressed. Don’t ever listen to anyone who says to “toughen up,” as it is just a way of suppressing your feelings and not facing or dealing with them. This denial will lead to depression and compassion fatigue, too. Kindness is not weakness. Kindness is a quiet strength that will make you better and more in touch with your humanity. After my clients thank me for helping them through the maelstrom, I look them in the eye without embarrassment and say, “You’re welcome.” Grief is an odd emotion and everyone experiences it differently. So be kind and give the family who trusts you to care for their beloved pets, you, and your family some grace as you all move through the grieving process.