Monday, October 04, 2010

Thank you!

Many thanks to everyone who's e-mailed or commented with messages of sympathy. Gary and I really appreciate them.

Our doorbell just rang (very unusual if we aren't expecting anyone) and Gary opened it to find Dr. Wilson, Harley's non-emergency vet. She'd stopped by the house to give us flowers and a beautiful sympathy card. So thoughtful!

That was definitely the nicest possible ending to a surreal day. Yesterday, I slept most of the day. I got up before dinner thinking I'd work until one or two in the morning, since I had heaps of grading to do for today's classes. But I conked out again around ten. My stomach hurt, and my back hurt, and I couldn't keep my eyes open, even though I'd napped all afternoon, and I figured that if there were any time when it was okay for me to give myself a break, this was it. I wasn't getting much work done, anyway.

So I went back to bed and slept through the night. I woke up at 6:00 -- on my own, without an alarm -- showered and had breakfast, and started working through the piles of papers. I was frequently interrupted by Bali, begging for attention and affection: both he and Figaro have been much needier than usual today, and have clearly been searching for Harley.

At 9:00 a.m., the phone rang. I thought, I bet that's Dr. Wilson. I bet she got the faxed report from AEC and she's calling to give us her condolences.

It was indeed Dr. Wilson. "Isn't this just a kick in the teeth?" I said.

"Yeah, I know. So how's he doing?"

I blinked. What? "He's dead! Didn't they tell you?"

"What? Oh, Susan, I'm so sorry!"

It turned out she'd gotten the first report from AEC -- the one about Friday night's visit -- but not the one from the second (and final) visit. She was clearly shocked. "He did so well with us! We were so careful!" But when I described the symptoms, she agreed with Dr. Pratt that it absolutely sounded like a blood clot.

The weird thing is that she says he was walking fine after the surgery -- "I wouldn't have sent him home with you otherwise!" -- but the minute he got out of the carrying case at home, that back end was down. Gary says that when we picked Harley up after the surgery, as he was carrying the case out to the car, he felt a thump, as if Harley had fallen down inside. At the time he just thought Harley was woozy from the surgery. Now we're all thinking that that's when the blood clot hit him. When he got out of the case at home, I assumed he'd been walking that way at the vet's office, too. Now I wish I'd taken him back right away, although Dr. Wilson said we would have wound up at AEC anyway.

It probably wouldn't have changed anything. I have to believe that.

So, anyway, she stayed on the phone with me for fifteen minutes, saying all the right things, and then I got off and got back to my grading and went to work.

Work was surreal. A colleague across the hall told me that his two cats were in and out of emergency care all weekend too, and that one might die. Another colleague said she'd just finished writing a condolence note to a friend whose dog died last week. One of our priests at church sent me his homily from yesterday, about his dog who died last week. And Dr. Wilson says they've been doing more euthanasias than usual. Is there something in the water? Is it the change of seasons?

Classes went fine, I think; I got all the grading done, anyway. I had to cancel my office hours to make that happen, but that's okay. Students can e-mail if they really need me, and again, if there's any time I cut myself a break, it should be now. It's strange, though, because I was very conscious of the whole disenfranchised-grief thing that happens with pets. I told a number of people what had happened, but most of them (not all) had very casual reactions -- "Oh, that's too bad," as if I'd broken a favorite vase -- even if they have pets themselves.

Okay, so we all know that cats and dogs don't live as long as we do. But most of us expect to live longer than our parents, too, and no one treats that loss as a minor one. Because pets are so dependent on us, they're woven into our lives more closely than anyone except infants, or loved ones of any age who've become disabled by age or illness. Even if they're small, furry, short-lived, and don't have opposable thumbs, their deaths leave huge holes in our lives.

But my friends with pets certainly know that, so their reactions were probably just part of the general cultural cluelessness about dealing with death. For all that cluelessness, we have a slightly better sense of what to say when a person dies.

When Dr. Wilson dropped by with the flowers tonight, we talked about all this a little. I asked if vet students get any special training in dealing with grief. She said they don't. There's no mechanism for veterinary folks to process their feelings about having to euthanize animals, which has to be the toughest part of the job. Gary told her, "You need a chaplain." (And he's an atheist!)

She'd read Harley's obit and said, "Yeah, I noticed a pet chaplain on your blogroll!" I said I could never do that kind of work; it would upset me too much. Having now gone through hospice, albeit briefly, with both of my parents, I think I could do human hospice work, and would in fact find it very fulfilling, but most dying humans can, at some point, talk about what they think is happening to them. They can make sense of their experience. Animals can't do that in any way that's accessible to us. Their people can, but it's still a lopsided process. (Although I believe there are now veterinarians who specialize in hospice/palliative care/end of life issues.)

Since there are such vets, shouldn't there be more training for vets in regular practice? I need to do more research on this. In the meantime, if anyone's aware of any grief-related resources for veterinarians -- other than vet-school grief hotlines like the one at Davis, which Dr. Wilson knew about and which are really more for owners, anyway -- please fill me in!

There was just a huge crash as Bali knocked over Dr. Wilson's flowers, shattering the vase (not a favorite) and showering the floor with glass and water. We've gotten that cleaned up. Now Bali's stretched out on my desk, looking for things to chew.

Must go play with the kitty.


  1. So, so sorry. You've had so much loss in the last year or so, and now to lose a furry family member must seem especially hard.

  2. Amy and I have experienced the same clueless reactions from people when pets have died or become seriously ill. Last year, when it looked like Nikolai might have lymphoma, I was having a hard time dealing with it. I told folks at work and there were the usual "that's too bad" reactions. But what really got to me was that someone's son broke his arm right about the same time that Nikolai was sick, and everyone got the dad/son a card and circulated it promptly. My Nikolai, who may have had terminal cancer, didn't warrant a card.

    The clueless-ness seemed worse when our rabbit, Brinkley, passed in August. Some non-animal people can at least grasp that cats and dogs are companion animals with whom we form strong bonds. Most non-animal people don't think the same thing of rabbits. So, when Brinkley died, I just didn't tell most people at work. Keeping it to myself hurt, too, though, because she was important to us and not telling people seemed like I was invalidating her importance. On the other hand, I couldn't face other people's clueless-ness because that is more invalidating.

    My animals are the only kids I'm ever going to have (and I know yours are, too), so I realize how hard this is. I'm even tearing up as I type this. You have our purrs and prayers--both for you and for those who need a little help understanding your grief.



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