When people ask me why I became a veterinarian, I usually tell them it was to help animals stay healthy and to cure them of illness. I share these similar desires with my friends who are human physicians. One of the things we talk about regarding our differing careers, is that veterinarians meet most of our patients as babies then see them through their entire lives. Physicians rarely have this opportunity while veterinarians are faced with handling both euthanasia and pets' natural deaths on a daily basis.
It is a very tough part of our jobs, especially since we know our patients and clients on a very personal level. We learn a lot about medicine in school. However, dealing with the hardships and trauma of death and pet loss were not stressed at all. Instead, we were taught to hide emotion in front of clients, not to interfere with their very individual loss, and simply to be a supportive presence.
I have never been good at following those instructions. Over the years, I did become stronger in the face of death, until two years ago, when I lost my beloved dog Mia.
There is a deep infinite emptiness that accompanies the loss of a pet and member of the family. Many pets are viewed as 'furry children' and losing them at 10,12, even 14 years is a tragedy.
Our pets love us unconditionally and never feel sorry for themselves. They are a gift we are lucky to have.
Mia was one of a litter of seven puppies abandoned by their stray mom while I was in veterinary school. The puppies were born in my yard and though I took care of them, I had no intention of keeping any.
This little girl, however, had other ideas. While her siblings played and chased one another, she sat in my lap and stared at me. There was no denying we were meant to be together.
That dog helped me through countless rough times. She sat with me as I studied, kept me laughing when times were tough, and reminded me every day why my career was so important.
She was crazy and obnoxious and always in some kind of trouble.
I loved her. She was my rock.
Mia had a tough life. She travelled with me from the Caribbean all over the mainland, and finally to Hawaii. She had hip dysplasia, ruptured her cruciate ligament in her knee, and underwent over eight surgeries to remove a recurring cancerous nerve sheathe sarcoma in her elbow. She never complained and was my constant companion through the years. Even after I had a human child, our relationship never changed. In fact, my son's first laughter was because of her.
My friends always made fun of me because I would say 'Mia's going to live forever'. I knew it wasn't true, but how can one think of their life without a family member? I wasn't naive, and I had lost pets before growing up. In my clinical year of school, I lost my beloved cat, Scrambler. That was an extremely difficult time for me, but Mia was there for me and helped me through it.
I thought I had more time with her, though a hundred years would not have been enough. My dad would make fun of me when I called her my soul mate and daughter. She was just a dog after all. Not to me. She was a part of me.
At the young age of twelve, my Mia suddenly stopped eating. For a week she would eat, then stop for a day, then eat again. By the time she had an ultrasound and I had blood work back, it was too late.
As her mother and her doctor, I never saw it coming. My beautiful dog passed away in my arms. I told her it was ok to go and that I would always love her. I still don't understand what happened from a medical stand point as her death was very sudden.
What I do know is that I was given an amazing gift. Mia taught me more in her short life than most people I have known my entire life.
So, now when my patients pass away there is always that memory of holding my dog as she took her last breath. I see her eyes and her happy smile. Now, I can honestly tell people how I dealt and deal with the loss of a pet and family member.
In the beginning, I reminded myself to breathe and tried to get through my days. It wasn't easy and not everyone would understand my spontaneous outbursts of tears.
My clients had to deal with the other side this time and gave me such a heartfelt outpouring of good will. They were patient with me when it took a moment to compose myself when discussing their own pets. I am very thankful to all those kind words, flowers, books, and text messages of sympathy. My staff felt the brunt of it and helped me stay positive.
I was lucky to have my staff and clients' support. I realize that many people feel embarrassed and keep their grieving away from other people. Maybe their friends don't have pets, or those that do don't understand. I will be the first to say, whether or not people understand, it is not wrong to mourn for your pets.
For me, I kept waiting for the pain to dull and to forget.
That never happened. In fact, I even randomly broke out in tears thinking about Mia while surfing a few months ago. It just kind of blindsides you every now and then.
Time passes, that's the only thing that changes. I don't agree that it is time that heals. It is acknowledging the love and allowing it to replace the pain that heals. I won't lie, July 18th was easier for me this year, two years after losing her, compared to last July 18th.
Time gave me perspective, it didn't dull missing her. That's the only thing that changed. Perspective to view our lives together as the most beautiful, joyful, wonderful time imaginable. Perspective to close my eyes and see her running on the beach and swimming with me.
Perspective to understand that the length of a life does not make it more or less significant and that for Mia her mission was over. She will always be with me, and I will always love her and feel her soft furry hug when I imagine her.
My son, who is now five, just asked me why I am crying. I told him I was writing about Mia. He said, 'Oh, you're sending her a note to heaven."
I looked at him and smiled (then kept crying). Yes, if there is one thing I can now tell my clients with confidence when I am about to put their beloved pet to sleep, or tell them the end is near is that it will be okay. Their pets will always be a part of them, and they will indeed get through this terrible time. It's not easy and there are places to get help if it is needed. Just ask your veterinarian.
If I could get through it, so can anyone. Love is eternal, especially the love of an animal.