When Spot dies

Many years ago, as a new vet, I felt the need to write a children’s book to assist children to cope with the death of their pets. As a veterinarian I felt I had a responsibility to both the patients and their families and I remember how unprepared I was then to deal with death. The loss of a family pet is often the very first experience a child has of death and dying and I was just out of my depth both as a childless adult at the time and one who had not experienced bereavement myself.

I am still, even after all these years, ill equipped to prepare some owners for the loss of their pets but I find that the trust a child has for the judgement of their parent is infinitely more powerful than any words of consolation I can offer them. In fact, I believe that contrary to what I was taught to believe, children are generally far better prepared to accept death than are many adults.

In the past, I was challenged both by the responsibility of euthanasia and the grief of the clients and their families with no tools in my toolbox. Co-incidentally, most of the ‘thank you’ letters and cards that vets receive are after the euthanasia of animals. It is something for which we are remembered even if there is often some confusion and uncertainty surrounding the event.

I was, therefore, inspired to write a short story to try to bring some meaning to children of the whole experience of dying. To try to make it more palatable and to make it look like vets were doing a good thing in assisting animals to die. Or as some of our more vocal adversaries put it, ‘killing animals’. This was all long before I was acquainted with Sri Chinmoy who has written extensively on the subject of death and dying. So I was flying solo with only my goodwill to assist. I did not fully recognise at the time that the writing of this book, which incidentally was never published, was as much for my own self justification as for the potential benefit to my clients.

I was seeking my own meaning in the act of euthanasia. The truth is, I am still seeking. It is something that has often been quite stressful over the past years. Sadly, Sri Chinmoy himself died before I could ask him to elaborate on how appropriate this time honoured ‘act of mercy’ to animals is generally considered by those who know more about it than I do.
I am lucky enough, however, to have developed some insights over recent years that have enabled me to practice veterinary medicine with a clearer conscience.

The rediscovery and validation of time honoured natural healing practices has meant that not only do my patients generally live happier and longer lives but they also die more peacefully and unassisted by euthanasia.
Whilst I can look back to a number of assisted death experiences of my patients and feel that their time had really come, I can also see now that it would have been possible to have acted differently, albeit to the same ultimate end but with much less angst, in a larger number of cases.
I spoke to an holistic colleague a while ago about her own approach and she was able to articulate what I had been feeling. She will refuse to conduct euthanasia unless all three of them are prepared, the animal, her client and herself. Reflecting back on the cases that felt ‘OK’ for me, I realise that this is a key point. The difficulty quite often is attaining this alignment. As a result, I now choose not to enter into the euthanasia arena at all.

The strength of the human–animal bond cannot be underestimated and we have much to learn from each other. Amongst the most rewarding relationships we have on earth can be with our pets. They bring unconditional love, loyalty, devotion, sweetness and companionship. It is little wonder that we cannot bear to see them suffering towards the end of their lives. My view is not to condone their suffering but to try to see it from a different perspective.

The soul does not suffer.

It is beyond and above the touch of suffering. We see the physical body suffering and we cannot help but identify with it. This brings us grief and distress unless we can detach sufficiently from the physical appearances and allow life to completely take its course. This detachment is very difficult to attain when the bonds of emotion and dependence are so strong. It will take considerable awareness, acceptance and practice. Although we may not always understand or appreciate the way things seem, it may be a greater shame to deprive an animal of a natural death when they are so much a part of Mother Nature herself.

Death can be very stressful. It is often very stressful in fact. If we can be better prepared for this inevitable, natural occurrence I believe we may cope much better with it. It can be stressful for both the animals and their owners. They both need assistance. There have been some incidents even in recent months that have been difficult for me as a practitioner as a result of being unprepared and I feel there may be a few more as life brings its inevitable challenges. There are many unanswered questions about why this experience seemingly cannot be made easier but just as life itself is often difficult, I accept that for some of us, leaving life may also be difficult. It comes down to how accepting and comfortable we are with a process that is as natural as breathing but has been mystified and outsourced to such an extent that we will do almost anything to avoid dealing with it and anything to try to explain it.

Allowing ourselves to accept life and death as part of the same continuum is also crucial to our own development as human beings. I don’t believe we have the right to interfere with the all nurturing, all loving force of Mother Nature in these matters, however difficult it is to overcome the urge to intervene. The relentless pursuit of an elusive diagnosis is itself an unwelcome interference in many cases of dying animals. The added stresses that these procedures often bring, to both the patient and their owners alike, is usually counterproductive. We don’t need a diagnosis to accept that death is a natural part of living. It is only our minds that require answers to assist us to accept circumstances beyond our control. It is our hope that a diagnosis will assist us to cure the patient. It rarely does in cases that have gone beyond the capacity of the vital force to recover. Peace and solace comes only then with acceptance.

If we come to realise the meaning of life then perhaps we will also come to realise the meaning of death. I will no longer seek to justify my own actions when I strive to act only from my deepest faith in the sanctity of all life.

May all our dearest companions lead peaceful and happy lives and exit in a timely, natural and dignified manner.

2 Responses to “When Spot dies”

  1. From Ray & Julia Spencer, Adelaide

    Dear Saranyu,

    Thank you for these most comforting words. We will never forget you & how you helped us to come to terms with the loss of our beloved Danny (Please refer to “testimonials” for our heartfelt tribute)

    Ray & Julia Spencer, Adelaide

  2. From Fred Boulton

    This article is so nice. Thank you.

    We have just (1 month gone already) lost our darling Amie Lab X after she struggled so bravely for 5 months after falling victim to something Previcox related after just 3 days on the drug. We can perhaps assume leaky gut syndrome. She had all of the symptoms that we seen on the ‘Net.

    We struggled with the choice of euthanasia and decided that as long as she was eating, wagging her tail and could walk and had bright eyes that we would help her to live rather than to die. On 16th November after 5 months of struggle we realized that she wasn’t going to make another day and came to terms with the fact that we’d have to call in the vet. Amie chose her time and gave up her struggle before we called in the vet.

    Would we do the same thing again? We’re not sure. My wife is haunted with Amie’s last sounds of struggling for life and even now, one month later, can’t talk about it.

    Thank you

Leave a Reply