After fifteen years of practicing veterinary medicine, I’ve got a lot of moments burned into my memory. Naturally, some of the most deeply engrained moments involve highly emotional events, and in my line of business, performing euthanasia on a beloved family pet is always an emotional affair.
I have to admit that over the years I have learned to put up a wall to protect myself from what they call “compassion fatigue.” Dealing with major events like someone losing a cherished pet takes a lot of energy and emotion. Sure, some folks don’t really get too emotional, and frankly that makes it a bit easier on me. However, for most people, going through the loss of a pet is a pretty emotional event on many different levels. It’s not just the act of the euthanasia itself. It’s the sometimes very long process from diagnosing someone’s best friend with a terminal process, managing that process, then finally coming to a decision that it’s time to let them go, and, finally, performing that very hard but necessary act. That really does take a lot of emotion, and you have to care, not just for the pet but the people and what they are going through.
But what about when you have four euthanasias in one workday? Or when you are continuously juggling seemingly endless cases of terminal diseases and difficult decision making?
Let’s face it, we can only endure so much emotion before the flames start to flicker out. If I let myself get too emotionally invested in everyone’s heart- wrenching loss, I’d eventually burn out and would no longer be emotionally present for anyone.
So here is where the wall comes into play. Can you go from putting an animal to sleep that you have known for its entire life, while its family is present and mourns, and then 10 minutes later be excited and happy for the parents of the new puppy in the next appointment?
Well, yes. Perhaps it’s a bit of a mental art—being totally emotionally present for people when they need it, but being able to move your own mental state quickly forward to whatever the next need is.
There are some moments that sneak behind that wall and linger, but not in a bad way. Some of the more common moments to do this are when I see kids lose their pet. Whether young kids, or the college kids who have come home to see their lifelong friend off, kids are so completely honest in their emotions that they can cut through any wall you may have.
One recent moment involved the euthanasia of the old family retriever. We did this at their home, on the back deck, and all the three kids were there, all in their late teens and early 20s. They had known this dog since they could remember anything. One of the girls was completely silent, but welling with tears the entire time. The son’s emotions were less obvious, but his withdrawal to a bench on a distant part of the deck showed how much he was struggling.
Then there was a moment when before being sedated, the old dog starting licking the oldest daughter’s face. She started bawling, makeup streaming everywhere, while the dog just kept licking her face and the tears, so happy to be doing so. I asked her if he always tried to lick everyone’s face, and she cried, “yes!” as she continued to let him kiss away, so happy not be told to stop.
Another moment from years ago involved a single mom and two young kids around 7 and 9. You could tell that the mother would rather not have had the kids present, but she had no other choice than to bring them along. Perhaps it sounds cliché, but she was so strong for those kids, being so calm and sure despite her own heartbreak, as this was the dog she first got back when life was more simple. The young boy just sat on the bench, hugging his knees, tears in his eyes, but silent. The older sister was clearly the caretaker in the family and was doting all over the old dog, being positive, and telling her how everything was going to be okay. She showed such maturity in such an emotional moment. But she broke down once the dog took its last breath, and I still remember seeing her tears landing on her old friend’s face as she cried from real, honest sadness.
There are many, many more “moments” and I am glad for those that from time to time make it through my wall. If we build our walls to be completely impenetrable, then we lose the ability to hurt with other people, which is such an important part of our humanity.
Additionally, I always find myself envious of the unspoiled emotions of children during these times of loss. They have no reason to pretend they’re not hurting, nor do they overdo it. They just react openly, honestly, and with appropriate measure. Witnessing that is an inspiring glimpse into the human soul.