The Grim Reaper, widely looked to as our collective imagining of death, is a frightening figure indeed: looming, cruel, bony, and mysterious. As his acting agent for pets for the last decade, I’ve come to realize that perhaps we have it all wrong and he’s just misunderstood. After all, flu aside, I don’t think I look like the reaper at all.
When I arrive to a home euthanasia appointment, the scene can vary but it generally goes like this: The adults who live in the home are there with their pet. The kids, if they have kids, have been sent away. It’s silent, and everybody has spent the morning sitting and staring at each other with dread. And who can blame them? Making the decision to euthanize a pet is a terrible, difficult thing to go through, and for the most part people have very little guidance on how to go about it.
Aside from prior experience, what frame of reference do people have for how to plan a death? Veterinarians are for the most part pretty uninvolved when it comes to the emotional aspects of death. “Whatever you feel is best,” we say, perhaps accompanied by a hug, a card, and a list of local pet loss support groups. People ask their friends, who often look at them like they’re nuts when they ask what they should do. So maybe they lean on their historical experience with death, which varies from place to place and among different religions.
Grief is a universal emotion across the world, from pole to pole: sadness, pain, anger, crying. Mourning, however—the way we process that grief and move forward—is as varied as can be. In many cultures, a strictly defined mourning period is observed, allowing the bereaved permission to experience their grief as well as commanding the community to offer support to the bereaved.
We have a lot of understanding about how people deal with human death: with burial, ritual cremation, a wake; but when it comes to a pet? No one really knows, so most people do nothing at all.
But even this community support is lacking in much of our Western culture, when counseling of the dying is done not by spiritual advisers but by doctors who are trying very hard to avoid death. Be it pets or people, the people we rely on the most in our time of loss have nothing much to say once the death actually occurs. Then we are on our own.
The bereavement process is a very necessary step in processing grief, no matter your background: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or atheist—everyone benefits from some process of acknowledging a loss. We’re getting better at recognizing this for people but we still have a lot of work to do to make the jump to our pets.
So back to my work with a typical family: usually when I tell them their children are welcome to remain, I am met with extreme trepidation or relief; fear about what the process entails, or a gut feeling that the kids should be a part of the process. I welcome the opportunity to work with both.
Working in end-of-life care involves both medical and counseling work. Euthanasia is one of the simplest medical procedures we do: an intravenous injection. There is a reason people think end-of-life care is the hardest work a veterinarian must perform, and clearly it’s not the medical part people are talking about.
We are often a family’s first experience with death, and we can set a positive framework or scar them for life. I’m doing the best I can to be a good death fairy, but I know we still have a long way to go.
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang