5 years ago I walked out of Jesse Auditorium as a brand new DVM and straight into practice at My Zoo Animal Hospital. Since then, I’ve welcomed 2 children into the world, and numerous foster children into my home. We said goodbye to my greyhound, Gary, in 2015, and we said goodbye to our other dog, Ruby, in January 2018. This was not the way I anticipated starting our new year. The loss of a pet is always very hard. As a veterinarian and a pet owner, I have the unique opportunity to help others dealing with the loss of a pet by sharing my own loss. I am working through the stages of grief now.
The Stages of Grief
There are many different opinions on what the official “stages” are, but here is a summary with how I experienced them. I hope it will help someone else going through this – or at least validate feelings.
Ruby started getting sick so slowly at first I barely noticed. There was evidence of vomiting just every once in awhile. Over Thanksgiving, I had a time to observe her for a couple of days and noticed she was vomiting often through the day. I figured she had just gotten a few bites of some richer than normal food and was suffering from “dietary indiscretion.” I found nothing concerning on full bloodwork or x-rays. She got better for a time, but it was clear she was very sick over Christmas. I decided to do something called a contrast study to enable me to see how her gastrointestinal tract was functioning.
- Shock and Denial. I gave my dog the contrast agent to illuminate the gastrointestinal tract on radiographs. The grossly enlarged esophagus (called megaesophagus) was evident on the first view. I was very upset. In most cases, there is no cure for megaesophagus, and it can be caused by a long list of very bad primary diseases. It also requires a huge amount of time and dedication…and carries no guarantees that even with meticulous care, my dog won’t aspirate and die of pneumonia. I desperately tried to find another answer – one that was curable. So I continued the contrast study throughout the day, but I never found any evidence of something “fixable.” Still in denial, I called a radiologist (a specialist veterinarian with advanced training in reading diagnostic imaging). She confirmed my diagnosis. So I called an internal medicine veterinarian. She reiterated the poor prognosis, and outlined the tests I could do…the treatment I could try, but cautioned me things weren’t looking good long term for my dog. Lastly, I called my best friends (2 veterinary school classmates) who always speak the hard truths. It was time.
- Anger/guilt. In my case, this was mostly guilt. Maybe there was more I could do. Maybe I should continue trying to treat. I grappled with guilt that maybe I was calling it quits too early…or maybe too late?
- Bargaining. Maybe if I did the testing, I would find something treatable. Maybe I could just start some prednisone for a few days to buy some time to think more. Maybe I could make my husband decide. I spent hours poring through internal medicine books trying to figure out a solution that was feasible and would preserve my dog’s quality of life. I was grasping at straws.
- Depression. After Ruby was gone, I was numb and so very, very tired. I felt unable to move…unable to cook dinner for my family…unable to clean the kitchen…unable to call my vet friends with an update. So my husband and I loaded up the kids and took them to Chick-Fil-A. We sat in silence as the kids ran around the play ground while we waited for food. Neither one of us felt like talking.
- Acceptance. The kids went to sleep, and I laid in bed thinking about my dog…going through all the stages of grief again. The next morning, I woke up and prepared for the day. I picked up my stethoscope and went back to work. Despite my own loss, there are animals I can help and I will keep going. Life continues and so will I.