Part of my job is to help people say their best goodbyes to their best friends. Saying goodbye is never easy and is oftentimes painful. In my role as a veterinarian, I assuage guilt by discussing the timing of the goodbyes. I seek to bring peace to grieving owners by assuring them that their beloved companion will feel neither fear nor pain, that their experience will be falling asleep one last time. Animals have no fear of death – the pure of heart never do. Euthanasia is a gift we can give them, a kindness, one last selfless act where we can choose to truly put them first.
There is something I see within the veterinary community that makes the rounds on social media now and again. Its a plea to pet owners to stay with their animals during the euthanasia. It paints a picture of scared, panicked animals spending their last minutes amongst strangers, searching for a kind familiar face amongst the enemies in scrubs.
I kinda hate that post.
While I agree a euthanasia can be a very special moment for an owner to spend with their pet and always encourage owners to stay and offer the unconditional love, support and comfort their furry companion has offered to them over the years, I have had a few owners who haven’t been able to stay in the room. A few owners who couldn’t bear to have their last memory of their precious pets be tainted by the finality of death.
It’s to those owners I would say this:
You couldn’t stay with her. I understand the pain of this goodbye all too well. It’s the most permanent change we know in this life, the transition from “is” to “was.” You looked at her with her bright eyes and a weak wag of her tail, she was so ill. You walked out of the clinic and she was taken to the back. You left her alive in your memory. Sick, weak, but alive and with that glimmer of hope that is always attached to life. Breathing in and out, in and out.
We made her a little bed with the softest blankets we had, stacked one atop of another so she had a warm, cozy place to rest. We didn’t euthanize her right away. We filled medications and discharged the anxious barking dog who had just recovered from sedation. We checked out our last few clients and wished the sick kitty well as she transferred to the overnight hospital. We closed and locked the front door. In the hustle and bustle of it all, she was offered gifts, tidbits of food: wet dog food, treats we had for our own pets, chocolate cake, leftover Chinese food, and lots of pats on the head. She sat on her throne of blankets surrounded by these meager offerings, turning her nose up to the delicacies a healthy dog would have devoured in seconds, but she did seem to enjoy the attention, the pats, the kind words. And then, the clinic was quiet. There was no chorus of worried/dysphoric animals. No chatter from nervous owners. No disagreements over charges. No ringing phones. No cars. Just quiet. Peace. It was time.
I sat down next to her. The rest of the staff took seats all around her. My lead technician took your dog’s head in both hands and let her rest the heavy weight on her knee. The other technician rubbed her belly. My receptionist rubbed your dog’s ears and told her what a good, good girl she was. We told her she was brave. We told her she was sweet. We told her she was loved. And she left this world peacefully, in the back of a quiet clinic, queen of the softest blanket throne, without fear, pain or stress, the last words in her ears being, “You are such a good girl.”
I understood that you couldn’t be there for her. It’s unspeakably difficult. But, I don’t want you to feel guilty for that Dear Owner. You left her in our care. We were there for her and she knew she was with friends who offered her treats, caresses and kind words. It’s the hardest part of the job, but damn if it’s not the most important, the most sacred. And there is no reason for judgment to be passed in the most difficult of goodbyes.
Goodbyes are not easy, but they don’t have to be anti-aircraft missiles that seek and destroy your heart. They are a part of life, of death, and of love.
I recently said a goodbye to my 007-b. I’d never broken up with anyone before (I know the script for getting dumped verbatim. I didn’t know the other role at all). I decided to be honest, even though honesty can hurt and I tried to recognize this and not cross the line into cruelty. I spoke from the heart, sincerely, respectfully. I followed the Golden Rule. I spoke to him the way I wished to be spoken to and he responded in kind. It was important for me to not spread blame or judgment and to take responsibility for my role and my emotions. Tears were shed – even the “good” goodbyes are not easy. But I feel it was peaceful. We hugged. We wished each other well. We meant it.
Later that night, I recieved a message from 007-b thanking me for the way I handled our last goodbye. He seemed pleasantly surprised with how the breakup went, I guess he didn’t know I’m pretty much an expert at gentle send offs.