March is Women’s History Month, if you didn’t know. I work in a strange profession, one that has changed quite solidly in demographics from its original incarnation to its current status, graduating classes of row after row of- well, men, mostly- now replaced, to an 80% extent, by women. I spend a lot of time talking about veterinary medicine, and I would say about 80% of the time I am talking about it with women (who’d have guessed?)
Does the changing demographic matter? Yes and no. I may be a little prejudiced here myself, but I think women are pretty badass and are doing a bangup job in veterinary medicine. Like their male counterparts, they’re practice owners, associates, specialists, leaders, and, you know, individual people with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Whenever I mention the idea of exploring that concept and what it had meant for the field, editors all run screaming. You can’t, they say. It’s too controversial. There have been some attempts, like this one from Dr. Don Smith at Cornell, but the conversation is by and large stagnant. Fortunately for me, I have no major sponsors to frighten here in my own little corner of the net, so let’s just go ahead and go there, shall we? It’s not like no one is talking about it, just not out loud.
So we’ve all heard of Lean In, right? Sheryl Sandberg’s go get ‘em tome extolling women to jump on in and take the bull by the horns? Yes, that was very nice, and excellent advice for a particular target group who want to be Sheryl Sandbergs. All you gunners out there- you know who you are- read and take note. And for the rest of us, who maybe want a break from running at full throttle at career advancement for a little while in order to live life?
Who said I hated her? I just have a different definition of success. Stop making us snipe at each other for goodness’ sake.
I’m here to tell you that it’ll be OK. And guess what I’m going to do? I’m going to use math, because I’m a woman who loves math AS WELL AS SHOES, and I also think more women should be saying out loud that you can like both. I write my own rules. You, by the way, should as well.
1. Logistical Growth Curve: Up, Up and Away
Let’s start with the typical career trajectory, as defined by the Sandbergs of the world, like a logistical growth curve:
Except instead of population growth, imagine perhaps income, or accolades, or whatever you want. Point is, you start slow, gain some momentum, then go out on top- ever moving upwards.
And in all the talk about women in the workplace, the one elephant in the room is always this: women sometimes choose to have babies. As do men, albeit in a less direct manner. And women sometimes want to take some time to stay home with their children. (Men do too, yes, but when we’re looking at a general trend here, I’m stretching to think of a single male veterinarian who left the field to be a stay at home dad.)
And in honor of Women’s History month, I am going to commit to words the experience I had, that my friends and I have all spoken about in hushed tones and felt we couldn’t discuss out loud because controversy and all. This was my experience. YMMV.
From the moment I set foot on campus, motherhood was presented in a subtle but unmistakable light as an either/or phenomenon when it came to veterinary medicine. Either you went all in or you went home. Women who took a year off to have a baby got eyebrow raises and sighs of “too bad she took the spot from someone who really wanted it,” as if pregnancy opened up a small but permanent hole in one’s brain through which all your knowledge dripped out, bit by bit, until all you were capable of is popping pacifiers in mouths and talking about Robeez. If you really wanted to be a vet, you would have not chosen to have a kid- especially in school.
This doesn’t end outside of school. I’ve been asked in interviews if I was pregnant (thanks for that, carb bloat I guess?) or planning to become pregnant, which is as illegal as you are thinking it is. I’m glad the guy asked it though, so that I knew where he stood on the topic. I’ve sat in meetings, 7 months pregnant and bloated from 12 hour emergency shifts, while the medical director’s best piece of advice to the interns was, “motherhood and medicine don’t mix. Mothers are terrible vets.” I’ve heard of a person who fired their veterinarian for having two maternity leaves, because she is ‘clearly not committed,’ because she wouldn’t give him her cell phone number while she was out on leave. The nerve.
So what’s the message here to women who want to have a family? If you want to be a good vet, you come back to work two weeks later and find a good nanny. By the way, I completely support any woman who wants to do this. The key word here, though, is “want.” What about the women who don’t want to do that? Get out. You don’t deserve to be here.
2. Extinction Curve: Down and Out
I’ll ask for a raise of hands- and I’ll be the first to put mine up: who has been told in an interview “I don’t like hiring young women because they always have babies,” as if all women inevitably do this, and those that do should be ashamed of their lack of commitment. Slacker.
Cue the sad trombone. You, my female friends, are now an extinction curve. Even the possibility that you might one day want to do something so egregious as reproduce is enough to keep you from getting hired in some places. I can see how that might make the women who choose not to have kids potentially a little irritated with the women who do. This is really, really counterproductive. But it happens.
The weight of a family is going to drag you right on out of there.
Being the troopers that they are, I’ve seen some amazing women fight tooth and nail to hold on to their professional commitments full bore despite the fact that it wasn’t exactly what they wanted to be doing at the moment, thinking that was their only option. Then they quit, never to be heard from again. They have been told that you are 100% in or you are a failure, and so they left.
And boy is that a shame. Wanting a personal life- whether that means kids, a hobby, a passion outside the field- is not only all right, it’s pretty darn important when it comes to retaining one’s sanity. I’m a big fan of that.
There is a reason we have one of the highest suicide and depression rates among professionals, and part of it is our own doing by having such distaste for those who strive to live a life outside the office. Martyr complexes only get you so far, and it’s become ingrained as part of the definition of what veterinarians do. I promise you this: I am so, so much better at what I do now than I was when I was stressed, overtaxed, and resentful. I am grateful once again to be a veterinarian.
3. Steady State: Fluctuating around a stable baseline
Now: let’s review what really happens out there in the world (no one will tell me my population biology course was a waste of time! Viva la diff eq!) Real life, messy, biological populations that are stable (though not necessarily stationary) enter what’s known as steady state, sometimes up, sometimes down, but maintaining height:
Who doesn’t want stability? Life- and the average vet- is tougher than we give it/her credit for. If populations can bounce back from plagues and droughts surely we can manage to have a kid, or vacation, or a marriage or divorce or whatever distraction that comes with being human without having to panic and toss away an entire career.
When I went back into general practice after two years of emergency medicine punctuated by two pregnancies, I hadn’t done a routine spay in a year and a half. I was freaking out. I was convinced it was as if I possessed virgin hands and somehow I would mess the entire thing up. I stood over the patient, my boss in the next room in case of mass emergency, and guess what? I did it as if I had been doing it just the day before. Muscle memory is an amazing thing, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
You tune out to take care of things and come back better than ever. This is how leaders are born. By cutting out a huge percentage of our field from believing they have what it takes to succeed long term because they want a breather, we’re killing off our future leadership.
When the increasing numbers of women in the human medical field pushed this same sort of reckoning, asking for flexibility and balance, the end result was happier doctors and both women and men who benefitted from it. Maybe you don’t want kids, maybe you want time to pursue hiking the Appalachian trail or to take care of an aging parent or further dominate your field. You deserve that too. The old timers tut-tutting the up and comers when I was in school a decade ago may still be hand wringing and bemoaning the fact that the new generation doesn’t want to work 80 hours with one day of vacation a year, and guess what? They’re right. Nothing wrong with that. Not everyone can or needs to be a Sandberg.
What made sense back then may no longer hold true.
When I was in school, one of my best friends was a woman named Carrie. She is awesome. Like me, we both decided halfway through that we weren’t all that interested in being small animal veterinary practice owners, and by junior year our colleagues were taking bets on who was going to leave the profession first.
We both did, in our own way. But we did it on our own terms, and we both came back, which is more than I can say for some of my really amazing classmates who opted out under the weight of unrealistic expectations. I am a writer, and now, in a strange twist I never anticipated, I’m exploring a new subcategory of medicine in hospice care. Dr. Carrie is- get this- travelling to the world’s hotspots as a public health consultant. She just got back from Peru, Indonesia and Thailand. THAT IS SO COOL.
Obviously trying to cover gender issues in one post is like trying to sum up War and Peace in a paragraph, but someone needs to start the conversation. Success in the veterinary profession the way we define it now stacks the deck against a whole lot of people. So let’s redefine what it means to be a successful veterinarian. Find a steady state. Your steady state.
To all you new grads and my old friends who are all emailing me saying they think they are ready to leave the field, I have this to say: leave if you need to. It’s OK. You can come back, you can. And if you don’t want to that’s ok too. If you want to single mindedly pursue dermatologic domination at an academic institution, you can do that too. This is a really, really cool field, and you are allowed to make your own path through it. You will always be a veterinarian no matter how you occupy your day, and don’t let anyone who chose a different path tell you otherwise.
14K feet up in Africa. Wouldn’t have happened without my DVM.
Stay. We need guides on all the paths up the hill.
There’s nothing worse than sticking your foot in your mouth. I hate that feeling when the words escape your mouth and hang there, floating in the air, as it slowly dawns on you what horrible thing you’ve just said.
I try to be cognizant of these things in my work as a vet. I’m pretty sure I’ve said some awful things unintentionally, and the most I can do is hope the person didn’t actually really register it. Like when I’m coughing in the middle of a euthanasia, and I apologize by saying, “My allergies are killing me today.” AW DANGIT I DIDN’T…UGH…. that sort of thing.
Unintentional gaffes, awkward as they are, are still better than remarks that are just plain oblivious. People who have adopted children can usually rattle off at least 20 awful things people have said. The always uncomfortable “When are you due?” question to a woman who is not actually pregnant. “Well, you can always get another one” to someone who has just lost a beloved pet. Or, “Who died?” to someone who has just actually lost someone.
I went to Disneyland this week, my first trip since the time they lost my wheelchair bound aunt on the Haunted Mansion. As fate would have it, she was with me again this time. There are few places better for people watching than Disneyland, a location of highly concentrated humanity teeming with all its best and worst attributes desperately, painfully intent on having a VERY MAGICAL DAY.
As we were waiting in line for our magical $15 burgers, I watched a member of the self-appointed mood police harass the cashier in front of me. She was very neutrally taking orders, neither kind nor unkind, simply doing her job. This man was having none of it. “Where’s that SMILE?” he asked, loudly.
She looked up, confused.
“Where’s your SMILE?” he asked again, a bit aggressively, forced cheer pulling his mouth into a rictus. SEE? LIKE THIS?
She gave him a wan smile. She looked tired. She was a captive audience, though, so she tried her best.
“I knew you had it in you!” he boomed in response to her most unenthusiastic ‘smile’, before engaging her in a totally unnecessary discussion of drink preferences. (The line is piling up behind him by this point.)
“I usually drink regular soda,” she said in response to his inquiry. “I like things sweet.”
“Yes,” he said, smirking. “You look like you like things sweet.” It was clearly a comment on her size. He looked up and around, proud of himself and his wittiness, and I slowly shook my head at him. His wife stared at her feet. I doubt this was the first time he’s said things like that.
I bumped into the same guy not 10 minutes later, as I was heading back out to the patio area with a tray of food. My aunt was waiting with the kids, sitting in her motorized wheelchair we had rented from Disneyland. Keep in mind, this is the standard grey wheelchair anyone can rent. It was not special in any way, an unwieldy, functional looking thing with a metal bumper on the front and a small metal basket.
Our friend paused, and pointed to it with a big grin on his face.
“How’s that working for you?” he asked. “You liking that thing?” He asked this the way one might admire a new Porsche 911, or a Harley, instead of an industrial grade medical device.
“Oh yes,” my aunt said without missing a beat. He nodded in admiration. “Yes, I love being in a wheelchair.” Then she turned her back to him while his wife stared on in embarrassment.
“How are you liking walking?” I started to say, but my mother saw the look on my face and kicked me before I could get past opening my mouth. She knows me well.
This is precisely why I prefer working with dogs.
“I’m never going back,” I have heard more than one pet owner say. They are talking about the office of their veterinarian, a person with whom they have built a relationship for years, someone they like and trust. But their pet died there, and the painful memories are too strong. So strong for some people that they go and find a new vet, even if they liked their old one just fine.
It’s one of the reasons I like having the option that I offer, of performing in-home euthanasia and pet hospice with Paws into Grace. Because I know more than anyone that as much as the client hated the office that one time, many pets hated it every time. That can be pretty upsetting for some families.
Which leads to the next concern, one I hadn’t thought of until a client voiced it to me. “I don’t want to go to the vet office, but I can’t euthanize my pet at home,” she said. “I can’t have that memory associated with my house.” So sometimes those clients end up decamping to a third party location, a park or a beach. And I respect that decision, though I would encourage those who feel that way to think on it a little while before making up their minds. Here’s why:
1. The precedent has been set in human hospice for staying at home.
The gold standard in human hospice, for those who have adequate support systems in place, is for people to pass at home whenever possible. That is by far the most comfortable place for a patient, in familiar surroundings. I was with my grandfather when he quietly died on a rented hospital bed in the living room he called his own for 40 years. He hated hospitals and I’m pretty sure had we put him in one, he would have haunted us all.
2. Moving an ill pet can be a challenge.
Pets who are very ill can be nauseated, painful, disoriented, and uncomfortable. This goes for people, too. How many times have we been down with the flu and known that we should probably go to the doctor but we feel too rotten to move? Same goes for pets. Add in mobility issues and it is just one more stress for owners, especially with very large pets or very upset cats- no matter the destination.
3. Your home is deafeningly, loudly, overwhelmingly a place of comfort.
This is the place Kekoa died:
But unlike a vet office where I might only have a handful of memories, I see this place every day and I don’t look at it as the place my dog died. I look at it as my living room, the place we opened Christmas presents, the place Brody plops down while I’m writing. It also happens to be the place Kekoa chose to settle down and leave this earth, because she knew as well that this is a happy place.
And you know what? It still is. I am glad she chose our sun dappled living room. At home, when I administer a pet’s sedation, they choose where they want to be: outside, in the kitchen, in mom’s lap. People find comfort knowing their pet selected the place they are most at home.
I’ve only been in this house a year and it’s had more than its share of sadness. I am looking at the floor where Kekoa died while sitting on the couch where Apollo died. I actually drove him home from the specialty hospital as quickly as I could- after he got lots of pain meds, so he could curl up on my lap after everyone got a chance to say goodbye.
But right now, it’s the place my dog is chewing up a toy and my son is doing his homework. This is our home, where life happens. And I feel good about that.
Want more info or to know if anyone in your area provides this?
Not all veterinarians even know this service exists, and information can be hard to come by. Here are two national databases of veterinarians that offer this service:
The International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care
Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
Here in America’s Finest City of San Diego, you can of course reach me or my wonderful colleagues through Paws into Grace.
I was debating going to SXSW this week, but as it didn’t come to fruition I needed to rely on my husband’s reporting back to let me know all the stuff going on and if it was really worth the four figure ticket price.
“They have animal stuff here,” he said. “You can get your picture taken with Grumpy Cat.”
Really? I asked him.
“Yes,” he said. “There were lines out the door last year. She’s here again.”
“The cat is at a tech conference?” I asked again, trying to get my brain around it.
“Yep,” he said. “They swear she is fine with it, though.” Oh, OK then. Have you ever been to a show like this? I’m a primate and I barely escape without an anxiety attack.
Now look, I try to remind myself not to be the hand wavy finger shaking vet, and those of you who know me, know I tend to give a lot of passes to people when it comes to doing things with your pets. Dress up your dog here and there, OK. Have a pet who likes to show off and skateboard or whatnot and clearly enjoys the bonding time? Go for it. And I would even try, within reason, to understand an occasional appearance here and there for a specific purpose. Within reason.
She’s Fine With It
At what point does ‘occasional’ become too much? I guess it’s an individual thing. My definition of within reason is different than other people’s, sure, but I suppose that is why the internet is such an interesting place to hold discourse. I’ve found a line I would not cross.
Let’s take a look at Grumpy Cat’s Wikipedia, “According to the Bundesens, Tardar Sauce is a normal cat “99% of the time”. Photo sessions are only once a week, and handling by strangers is limited. At SXSW (2013) Tardar Sauce made limited two-hour appearances each day as Grumpy Cat.“
Aaaaand she’s back again.
People tell me all the time their pet is happy when their ears are plastered against their head and they are 2 seconds from snapping. Just because you say it, just because you believe it, doesn’t make it so. The absence of actively trying to escape doesn’t mean you’re fine with it; I once saw a rabbit sitting on a red carpet surrounded by cameras and dogs sitting stock still while it waited to get eaten. I wasn’t thrilled that time, either.
If you’re going to exploit your cat’s genetic defect for millions of dollars, I’m not going to stop you, but at least be honest enough to say yes, this is what I’m doing. Because you can swear this is to the cat’s benefit all you want, but truth of the matter is I can’t think of a single feline I’ve met in my lifetime who would enjoy getting passed around to strangers while on a boat ride. Come on. This does not require an advanced degree to know. It simply involves having met any cat.
I know I’m not the only one who is a little skeeved out by this, and it’s not just people in the animal profession going “ummm…”. It’s too bad that every time someone tries to say, “Hey, you know…?” they’ll get drowned out by people calling them crazy animal activists or whatever similar marginalizing thing they can come up with, but I’m OK with that. When tech guys are telling PETA, hey, I think you got this one wrong, you know something very Carroll-esque is going on. We’re all mad here.
Not Neglect, But Not Exactly Altruistic Either
Let me be clear: I do not think the owners are abusive, or neglectful, or horrible people. I do not think the cat is being pushed to death’s door and needs to be removed by animal control. Compared to all the real and horrible animal abuse going on out there, this cat has it made. But let’s not kid ourselves and say this is the life she would have chosen or even that this is not stressing her out.
Thanks to reddit, we’ve seen all sorts of strange-looking animals launched into internet stardom, from shepherds with 2 noses to cats with no faces. Strange sells. Sure, altruism abounds and people’s hearts are in the right places generally speaking, but let’s not pretend this is anything other than what it really is:
Our generation’s circus sideshow.
So go enjoy the show, I told my husband, but I don’t need a picture of you with Tardar Sauce. One less person she has to ‘meet’.
On March first, I hit ‘send’ and the first draft of my manuscript went flying through the ether to New York to land in the capable hands of my editor. It was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. If any of you watched the Oscars and heard De Niro deliver this little nugget:
The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.
That pretty much sums up my experience of churning out a manuscript. It lifted my spirits to know I was in such good company in my certainty of inadequacy. I’m still not sure of the publication date yet; it depends on a lot of things, such as Grand Central’s current catalogue and how many rounds of editing the book has to go through before it’s whipped into shape like a perfect meringue. I’ll be sure to keep you posted because I did guarantee AT LEAST 25 copies sold and my mom can’t buy them all.
In the meantime, I set myself to a side task which turned out to be rather entertaining. As part of my contract I get to submit about 15 black and white photos for the book, covering my life with Taffy, Emmett, and Kekoa. The latter two I’m set on, but finding old pictures from my childhood was a bit more of a challenge.
My father, like my husband now, was an early adopter of new photo technology. This is all fine and good if the technology sticks, but of course as we’ve found it usually doesn’t. This resulted in two major problems:
1. 1975-1983 exists solely on old slides.
2. 1997-2002, the early digital age which also coincided with vet school, ended up on an old-school iOmega zip disk. The whereabouts of said discs are unknown. They may be floating in a box that’s been packed since the day I left vet school, or in a Goodwill store somewhere, or maybe Brian put them on an old PC that is also dead and gone, who knows. It is possible the pictures could be recovered if I actually HAD them, but at this point I would need a genie and a committed tech nerd.
Fortunately for me, my father kept his slides miraculously intact, and spent the last year faithfully transferring them into a digital format. It was crazy to see what he delivered, keeping in mind the last time my father actually set up the projector in the house was 1983. I hadn’t seen any of those pictures since then, kindergarten, first communion, all those moments from decades ago. Taffy as a puppy.
I chose one or two of Taffy looking cute then a few more of me looking as dorky as possible, which meant pretty much all of them (I had a very extended awkward phase.) So because I love you all and I thought it was funny, I wanted to share one of the pics I didn’t end up using but is very illustrative of my formative years:
I’ll need my sister (the elegant brunette in the back) to chime in on the age of this one. Mid 80s for sure. And there’s me, the love child of Sandy Squirrel and Benny Hill:
It was a bad time for fashion in general.
And of course Taffy, who was as always plotting her escape. Or perhaps planning where in the house she wanted to pee next. I owe my dedication to the newest odor removing technology to years of following her around with an ineffectual roll of paper towels and whatever carpet cleaner they had in the 80s.
Your turn- who was your first pet? What is your most clear memory of them?
Veterinary medicine, the happiest field on earth, land of puppy butts and kitty snuggles and Pet Doctor Barbies in hotpants, or so they told me when I was 10.
Or perhaps it is the land of crushing student debt, clients frustrated that they are priced out of affordable care, and the unending mental strain of not being able to make every client happy and whole at the price they want you to provide it for.
Maybe it’s somewhere in between, but to be honest it seems to me like it’s leaning a little more towards the latter than the former. It wasn’t always this way, and yes, there are plenty of vets who still tell you they couldn’t imagine doing anything else, but for many, they can. And do. I was shocked to see how many of my colleagues- good, smart, compassionate veterinarians- have left the field. It happens a LOT.
Kitty snuggles may not solve all the world’s ills, but it does help a whole lot.
Burnout rates are high, depression is rampant, and though the world was shocked to learn veterinarians have the highest suicide rates of medical professionals, no actual vets seemed too shocked by the news. The truth is, this is a tough, tough field, and the toll it takes is financial, physical, and mental, each and every day. We are expected by society and each other to buck up and put your own needs on the backburner, day after day after day, and it. wears. you. down.Justine Lee has a great article on the topic: one in four vets have considered suicide.
Last week, a colleague followed through, and our field is all the less for her loss.
It might surprise you to know that while our field tiptoes around the concept of compassion fatigue, it’s not regularly acknowledged as an almost inevitable part of what we do. Those who feel the strain are often left to feel guilty and disappointed in themselves for feeling that way. When the timing is wrong, when the wrong case hits at the same time as a broken water main or someone delivering a court summons, it can be very easy to forget that there is a way through that mess.
Animal lovers are deeply sensitive by nature, and I think both animal care providers and clients may be prone to those intensities of emotion that can veer into unhealthy places. I’ve dedicated my work the last year or so to acknowledging we need to do a better job supporting the emotional needs of our clients, but the truth is we need to so the same for our own.
I sincerely hope our field is able to provide better support for our own in terms of learning to cope with the unique stressors of this career, that those support groups that exist within the veterinary community are not kind of shoved in the corner to be sought out in desperation but held up as a standard for healthy venting and encouraging each other to live well and live outside the clinic.
I bring this up for several reasons, namely because I was very saddened by Dr. Koshi’s death and the circumstances surrounding it. I want my colleagues, especially those of you who are young and still learning how to do this vet thing and do it well, to understand that we all know how hard it can be. The internet has not made this easier. We need to be able to rely on each other and on the profession as a whole.
If any of you are struggling, please reach out, to your friends, to a hotline, to me, I don’t care who you reach out to but just stick your hand out and wave and we will take it. I am happy to hear multiple veterinarians including Dr. Lee, Dr. Myers, and others at NAVC met up to discuss what we can do to be more organized in our support of each other and stop being ashamed of admitting sometimes, this field is HARD.
And for you non-vets, because I know many of you are amazing clients, I want to thank you for being the kind of people who make going to work worthwhile. You are the reason we continue to pull our lab coats on every day.
RIP Dr. Koshi, and know that we will acknowledge and remember the wonderful work you did in this world.
One year ago today, we said goodbye to Kekoa. After a month of bucket list indulgences going from kale to turkey and then, that day, chocolate chip bacon ice cream, I said I love you one last time.
We pet owners talk a lot about heart dogs, that dog who just ‘got’ you, the dog who changed you and will never, ever be replaced (you can substitute dog for any pet, of course.) And once you have a heart dog, once you lose a heart dog, you may wonder if you will ever have another one again.
I’m here to say yes, you can.
Emmett was my heart dog, the dog who taught me fierce love and how to be a family and how even the best of us were allowed our jealous moments but we’d get over them eventually. He taught me forgiveness. I loved the other dogs I had before him just as much, Taffy and Mulan and Nuke, but he was the dog who spoke to my soul.
Kekoa was brought into our lives furtively, a sneak adoption if you will. We were supposed to adopt a different lab, a younger one, one glossier and with better teeth, but as I didn’t realize until after she was gone, she spoke to my daughter’s soul, and there it was. She was the shoe that fit. That was a February as well. This is her month, the month of heart.
Kekoa lived without a spiteful bone in her body. I think she growled once in her life, when Apollo tried to steal a bite of her food, and even then it was more indignant than menacing. She loved food, almost as much as she loved us.
When she died, when I made the decision to euthanize her when her bone cancer was causing her pain I couldn’t control, I wrestled with the same emotions every pet owner struggles with: uncertainty. Is it the right time? Guilt. I’m acting too soon. Pain. I don’t like seeing this. She was bothered by none of this internal turmoil, choosing instead to just trust us and sleep in my daughter’s room at night. I was so busy thinking of my own distress I really missed the boat on thinking about how the kids would be affected, but Kekoa stepped in- completely unaware she was even doing it- to be there for them.
Many things happened afterwards as a direct result of her death. I began working with Paws into Grace. In the midst of my mourning, her story wrote itself into the book proposal I was working on, which will be a forever monument to her. I committed to getting certified in pet loss counseling, which I completed last week, in order to give a voice to those who are sad and suffering so they know: NO, you are not alone and your grief is real. They don’t call them heart pets for no reason. They take some of it with them.
She was a heart dog too, and I never even gave her credit for it until long after she was gone. This sad, head hanging little black dog with terrible head/chest proportions and bad gas taught me how to take care of others just by being true to yourself. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.
Miss ya, girl. Thank you for everything.
Yesterday, I was working on a homework assignment for a course I am taking on pet loss and bereavement. I was reading about the guilt so much of us feel after losing a pet, and one of the exercises they recommend we do is imagine a conversation with our pet. I decided I would try this with Kekoa, as I struggled- like so many people do- with knowing if it was the right time to say goodbye to her last year as she dealt with bone cancer.
Me: Kekoa, I’m sorry.
Kekoa: I love you.
Me: I feel like maybe I let you go too soon.
Kekoa: I love you.
Me: Do you forgive me if I made the wrong choice?
Kekoa: I love you.
I kept waiting for her to say something else, but that was all she ever had to say. It’s been almost a year, which is hard to believe. February 10th. A Valentine’s Day with a massively broken heart.
But now, I can think of no better way to reflect on this anniversary than to be with all of you, my friends, who can all relate to the special sort of sorrow this kind of loss rains upon us. The first- and hopefully not last- online pet memorial candle lighting ceremony is tonight, February 5th, 6 pm PST. I will be joined by several wonderful friends and we are so honored to be sharing in this event together.
How to Participate:
This ceremony, and this hangout, is for you and all you find meaningful. I encourage you all to participate to whatever degree you wish.
If you like, you can watch the Hangout right here, no special account required.
(Crying along at home is fine, by the by. I wish we let ourselves do that more often.)
You can also watch the Hangout at the Google + Event page here. You do not need a Google account to do so, but there are two ways you can participate there that will require an account.
Share a memory: You can click on the Q & A button and write a memory of your pet.
Share a photo: You can post a picture of your pet by clicking on the camera icon next to the “say something” box. If all goes as planned, I can incorporate those into the ceremony too.
Tweet a memory: If you post on Twitter using the hashtag #petcandle, I should be able to incorporate those tweets into the ceremony as well.
Above all else I want people to feel included. This is a group-owned event. Feedback after the fact is welcome as well. If you’re not up to watching, we’ll be sending much love to you. And if you know of anyone who might want to watch, I would love it if you could share this with them.
There is something vastly powerful about going through grief with friends. It validates, it resonates, it comforts. When it comes to losing a pet, too many of us are forced to endure the pain without that camaraderie of a circle of friends.
To that end, and because I know so many people continue to hurt and feel alone in their grief over the loss of a beloved pet, The Tiniest Tiger and I are hosting a Pet Loss Candle Ceremony next Wednesday, February 5th, at 6 pm PST.
What Will Happen
During this Google Hangout, we will be lighting candles to remember those who have left us, and to comfort those left behind. It’s open to all- kids can participate too!
How To Participate
1. Watch at home: at Google +, YouTube, or here.
The main Google + Event page is here. You do not need to RSVP to watch it, but if you do you will be sent a reminder through your Google account.
You can also watch at light your own candle at home without a Google + account. It will stream live, and also be up later as a recorded event, on YouTube. All you need to do is click on this link at the time of the hangout, or simply come back here and watch it here on this post.
Date: Wednesday, February 5th
Time: 6 pm PST (Click here to convert to your time zone.)
2. Watch and Chat
If you’d like to type in a question or memory during the Hangout, you’ll need a Google + account at plus.google.com.
3. Be an Online Candle Lighter
If you would like to be online with us as a candle lighter, we will have a limited number of spaces. You will need a Google + account as well as a webcam- and a candle :). If you’d like to be a part of that, please contact me here or through my Contact Page and I can give you more information.
We are very excited to be doing this event as so many of us have known this sadness recently- or even not so recently. We hope you can join us!
This morning, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Joanne McGonagle over at The Tiniest Tiger for a Google Hangout on the topic of pet loss. I had this whole long post about how easy it is to get wrong and how hard it is to get right, but rather than go through the long sordid tales of all the times I’ve said the exact wrong thing I thought I would instead sum up what we, along with all the wonderful participants, concluded during the course of the talk. Some of the statements are specific to pet loss, but really, most of them are pretty universal when it comes to grief.
WORST THINGS TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO HAS LOST A PET
1. How old was he?
While it may be an innocent question, it sort of implies a gradient of allowable grief depending on the age of the pet. Three? Tragic. Thirteen? Well, he was old, so it’s not quite so sad. Losing a pet is sad and awful no matter the circumstances; pets who lived a long life had that many more years to seal into your heart.
2. Aren’t you over it yet?
Clearly, they’re not. Making a person feel like there is something wrong with them for feeling sad will only force their sorrow into isolation. There’s no official grief timeline.
3. Come on, it was just a dog/cat/bird. I can get you another one this afternoon.
A pet is not a yoyo, an easily replaceable object. Nor is the pet a human, but that does not mean the attachment the person felt to their pet wasn’t just as deep, nor their grief easier to bear. And that individual will never be replaced.
4. Too bad you didn’t try fish oil/more chemo/crystal therapy.
Second guessing what a person did in the days leading up to a pet’s passing serves no purpose other than to add guilt to what they’ve already piled on themselves. This is not a teaching moment; nothing will change what happened. If you can’t say “You did the right thing”, don’t say anything.
5. My dog had cancer too- all of my dogs! And my hamster!
While it’s human nature to want to empathize through sharing similar experiences, beware of the Pain Olympics- being the person who has to turn someone else’s grief into their own, and then top it. “Oh, you’re sad? Well, not as sad as I WAS back in 08! Boy was that a doozy!”
6. He’s in a better place.
The only place we wanted him was here, with us.
BEST THINGS TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO HAS LOST A PET
1. I’m so sorry for your loss.
Simple, right? Just acknowledge their pain. Those around a bereaved owner may hesitate to say anything out of discomfort, not knowing what to say, or trying to avoid having the topic come up at all. Make no mistake, they haven’t forgotten that they are sad, they’re just stuffing it down as hard as they can because that is what one is supposed to do.
2. My favorite memory is:
I love this one. Share a memory, something their pet did, or how their fur felt, or how they always leaned up against your leg. It is so lovely to have another person share with you an impact, no matter how big or small, your pet had on them too.
3. (Silent hug)
If you can’t think of any words, just go for the hug. It is another form of powerful acknowledgement.
4. Take as long as you need.
Grief is not a straight line that decreases in a defined percentage each day. Think of it more like a receding tide, waves roll in, then go back out, then roll up again, and pull back, a little bit further each time. There are good days and bad days, and having a meltdown 6 months after the fact in a Barnes and Noble just happens sometimes. It just does.
I’m happy to explore this topic more, as I think there is so much to learn to help us be better pet care providers, better caretakers, and better friends. If you have more suggestions as to things you’ve heard that were good or bad, please share them below.
I have no one to blame but myself, of course, for the events that have transpired since Christmas.
I was the one who brought her in, invited her to come into our home and get to know the place. My husband said it was the only thing he wanted this year, so I went with it, albeit with some trepidation.
You should have seen his face when he realized what I had done. “Wow!” he said. “Finally!” The children looked on in confusion. Brody ran away. Only Penelope, the newest addition to the fold, approached her with anything resembling curiosity.
Her name was Rosie, and she was here to stay.
I don’t consider myself a jealous person under normal circumstances, but it’s hard to compete with someone who plays their role with such aplomb. I even took out my Thomas Keller Bouchon Bakery cookbook and made what may be the most amazing chocolate chip cookies in existence in an attempt to regain my rightful place in his affections: “See!” I say, holding one out. “Aren’t they wonderful?” He takes a bite, nods in assent, and before I can say another word in she comes, swerving around me to clear the floors. She’s loud in her approach. You can’t miss her. Immediately his attention is gone, focused now on something newer, shinier. He smiles in admiration as she saunters away, the crumbs vanished.
Rosie is, if you haven’t figured it out yet, our new Neato robotic vacuum. I thought I was buying a household appliance. What I was getting was an obsession.
Every day, my husband greets us after work: me, the kids, Rosie. “What did you get done today?” he asks, then turns to Rosie. “And how did she do?” He surveys the house. “Wow. Wow. This is, like, the best thing ever. Is the dustbin full? Is your brush stuck?” He turns to me. “Did you check if she was OK and if she needed anything? Did you check the dustbin?”
She is thorough, I’ll give you that. She follows Brody around and grabs more off the floor in one afternoon than I seem to manage in several gos around the house. She doesn’t get annoyed at and ignore the space under the coffee table where furballs go to retire. She flushes them out like an angry beagle.
Living with her is sometimes a drag. She drones on and on, vRRRrrrRRRRRR. She always seems to be underfoot right where I need to be. Brody is petrified of her. My husband won’t stop talking about her. One day, when I lost all patience for her and her distracting antics, I hissed “Choke on a carrot, you dumb robot.”
Later than day, I came home from the grocery store, expecting the usual roar but instead being greeted with a disquieting sense of silence. The floor in the entryway, sparkling clean since her arrival, had the thin sprinkling of daily dust we were accustomed to in our pre-Rosie days. Brody looked at me with an expression I couldn’t read. I heard her, finally, a quiet, desperate chirping. I followed her cries for help to the kitchen.
She had choked on a squirrel.
Immediately chagrined, I disentangled the two battling toys and dispatched Rosie to the entryway, while I spent the time I would normally be dragging my Dyson around working on the book. When my husband got home, he didn’t even need to ask. “I emptied the dustbin. Twice.”
My husband posted about her on Facebook a few days ago, and one by one, the men all came out of lurking. “I have one too.” “Me too.” “It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.” Our friend J just bought posted that he bought two. One for each floor of the house, or one for each dog, not sure.
I’d be more insulted at the apparent poor vacuuming skills this implies were it not, if I must tell the truth, an entirely correct assessment. We have come to an agreement, Rosie and I. My husband can gloat and lavish praise all he wants, as long as she keeps those hairballs away.
*No, I have no affiliation with Neato. This post is all me.
One part of being a medical professional that no one really prepares you for is how to deliver bad news. If you watch those who have done it long enough (read: emergency doc) you’ll see the professional approach: sterile, blunt, quick. You have to do it that way, because you have a bunch of patients still alive to attend to. OK, not this blunt:
This approach is frowned upon in veterinary medicine
But that’s a learned skill. Those who haven’t done it as frequently have obvious tells: the grimace when your hopeful face meets their eyes, the sympathetic tilt of the head: I’m not going to tell you what you want to hear. It’s the same in human medicine as it is in veterinary medicine- humans are humans after all- so I’ve become extra sensitive to the way people talk in the confines of the exam room.
Last week I was fortunate enough to experience that singular medical test known as the mammogram, a tool developed by someone who I can say with absolute certainty never actually had to have one himself. If you’re not familiar with the process, fill a Ziploc with jello, place it on the concrete, and drop an anatomy textbook on top of it. That is kind of what it is like. Then do it in the other direction. Anything that has a knob dedicated to “Newtons of pressure” is never something that should be applied to one’s boneless bits outside the confines of the torture chamber. What sicko looked at a trash compactor and said, hmmm, I wonder what would happen if I put someone’s chest in that thing?
Nonetheless, we do it because it’s the best we got right now, and after the first time I went through this and they found all sorts of things they decided to biopsy, one by one, before saying, “No worries, it’s fine” I’m a bit jumpy about these things. Like I said in my post about preventive care, when in doubt, slice some out. So I go through this every year.
Seriously, we can endure this without having to pretend it was a joy. Do you ever see anyone leaving their colonoscopy making this face?
This time around, I had an ultrasound technician and someone else- maybe a trainee- in the room with me, casually discussing the whorls and swirls of my hyperechoic lesions like I was an earless blob of flesh attached to a lump of interest. They took photos of whatever it was they saw and sent me on my way. As I was in the dressing room, I heard a discussion in very hushed tones, the sort you use when you absolutely do not want someone to know you are talking. So I froze, turned on my mom ears, and listened.
brllb lrb whoosh she might have cancer brlb shhhhh
I’m not 100% certain that is what they said, but it sure sounded like it. I mean, what else would one be discussing in a mammogram office? Horoscopes? She seemed kind of moody, she might be a cancer….Or lunch? She might have a Casear but be quiet, they might be hungry out there in ultrasound… It’s not like the office was busy. I was the only patient there when I walked in. Who else were they trying to hide the discussion from?
I pulled back the curtain, and there, two feet away, was a woman probably the same age as me, holding the ubiquitous pink crop top medical shawl thingie tight to her chest as she waited her turn for the dressing room. We gave each other the tight smile of comrades in arms, comammrades, before heading our separate ways.
I looked up, and saw the technician standing in the hallway. She avoided my eyes, the trained response of one who gets asked questions she can’t answer on a daily basis, and said, “The doctor will have the results tomorrow.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Have a good day.”
“You too,” she said. “Good luck.” (note: not the best verbiage in this situation.)
So I spent the next 24 hours jumping at every ring of the phone, certain I was fine at the same time I was certain something bad was going to happen. And then, right at 9:30, my doctor’s office called. I grabbed it on the first ring.
“Hello,” said the nurse, and I immediately breathed a sigh of relief, because no one ever makes the nurse (or in my case tech) call when it’s bad news. “Your test results were fine. Have a great weekend.”
And yaay, now I would, except now I started thinking about the other woman in the waiting area. I can’t say I was hoping they were talking about her and not about me. I actually hope they were talking about me, because in that case they were simply wrong and everyone’s fine. But if they were talking about her, all I can say is, I hope she had the Caesar.
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