what WE feel
The most difficult, delicate, and daunting part of my job is euthanasia. Yet, I am bound to my oath to relieve pain, suffering, and disease. Vet school does little to prepare a veterinarian for this moment. All of our medical knowledge means nothing now, and we must rely on our emotional intelligence to help us get ourselves and our clients through this condition. Grief is one of the most difficult, sad and confusing emotional experiences that humans suffer.
Veterinarians must be empathetic and altruistic at the same time. Clients count on us to maintain composure and dignity, while providing compassion and support during a highly emotional and extremely stressful moment. We willingly fatigue ourselves, and sometimes we fall victim to intense emotional exhaustion.
With each euthanasia, veterinarians experience loss as well. We lose a patient that we've been fighting for and have lost sleep over. We lose a client we've bonded with. Through this ordeal, we lose our own pets all over again that have passed even years ago. We never, ever forget.
For owners, euthanasia is a conscious event that is inevitably intertwined with unconscious projections originating from the owner and projected onto the veterinarian. Humans are of all sorts of distinct backgrounds and experiences, and each have different expectations, emotional reactions, and needs. There are also circumstances that can intensify the grief. For example, if a pet's death is the result of trauma or toxicity, guilt may enhance the grief felt. If a person has recently suffered other losses, or has never fully grieved an earlier loss, then the grieving process is often much more complex. At times, clients seem to view contact with us as some sort of contact with their lost pet, and will attempt to communicate with us for an extended period of time.
When a human dies, society recognizes our loss and grants us a grieving process. We are encouraged to feel bad so that eventually we can feel better. This is accomplished with the aid of rituals and funeral services. However, society generally fails to give pet owners and veterinarians permission to grieve openly. Bereaved pet owners often feel isolated and alone because they don't have a conventional support network. This can be a critical part of grief resolution for some owners, as many people cannot accept the reality of pet loss without a suitable period of mourning.
Sometimes, our emotional investment is overwhelming. There are nights when we go home and cry after one or several euthanasias in a day. This sentimental investment may last for several days, weeks, or months in honor of a grieving client. Compassion fatigue is a recognized condition of our profession. In this condition, we are more prone to depression, stress and trauma, and are at even a higher risk of developing these symptoms when we deal with terminal illnesses. Secondary traumatic stress becomes an unfortunate part of our lives, especially those that work in the field of emergency medicine.
There is a reason veterinarians choose this profession. Most all of us are willing and capable of sacrificing our own well-being for yours, at a moment you need us the most. Sweet, aren't we?
For a year we all struggled and fought together as a team to get Colby well, but Mother Nature won the battle.
My friends and family have been supportive, but I really felt that you were the only one that truly understood what I was going through....I think because you were going through it too. (With weekly visits and tons of emails for a year, I guess we didn't leave you with a choice) =)
I think pet lovers have a common bond because we all understand that pets are not just something to feed or clean up after....they are a part of our hearts and souls. It is unfortunately true that you will not get much sympathy from people that don't own pets. Sadly they miss out on an unconditional love, that in this world, can be hard to find.
Thank you for being such an incredible "kitty doctor." Your professional, as well as emotional investment in your patients is priceless.
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