Death Is Messy...And That's Okay
No one wants to talk about death. It’s not polite dinner conversation, or something you bring up on a first date in the movie theatre. It isn’t something you bring up at a holiday dinner, or at lunch with your girlfriends; working out at the gym with your buddies, or sitting at home with your cat watching sitcoms. We don’t like thinking about it: the finality, the unknown. It’s scary, sad, and it’s messy, and I deal with it every day as a veterinary technician.
While I am by no means an expert on the topic (I’d prefer to think there are no experts on death, although someone might argue that point with me), due to the nature of my job, and the regular occurrence of planned – and unplanned – euthanasia appointments,
I have seen my fair share of beloved pets pass away. “I don’t know how you do it,” I’ve had clients remark during these appointments, as I’m placing an I.V. catheter in their dog as he lies sedated on the blanket Honestly? I don’t either. If that were my dog, I would be a blubbering mess in the corner, unable to create a coherent sentence, let alone carry on a conversation with the person administering the sedative to my pet, and in all likelihood, I would most likely need to vomit at some point or another during the procedure. So I have the utmost respect for the people that make this difficult decision for their pets, and as I have yet to have a client vomit during a euthanasia, every single one of them is already more brave than I am. It is the least I can do then, to hold myself together and put on a brave face for the people whose pet has become my responsibility in this moment.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you ever find yourself at a veterinary office having to make one of the hardest decisions you’ll ever have to make when it comes to your pets…
Celebrate your pet’s life. Let them eat a burger, run off leash at the beach, have some ice cream, jump on the bed, run through the mud, catch a mouse and bring it to you as a gift, stay up late, rip apart a couch cushion, claw up the easy chair, counter surf, drink out of the toilet, lay in the sun in the grass and look up at the sky pondering all the best doggy thoughts or cat thoughts they can. Let them have the best day of their life, surrounded by the people they love, doing the things they love the most. Take photos, write down memories, and don’t forget to tell them you love them.
Be prepared for paperwork. During the course of a “normal” euthanasia at our hospital, the receptionists will lead the clients and their pet to a quiet, comfortable room, and quietly make sure the appropriate paperwork is signed, and the bill is settled up before the technician enters the room. Rarely, a client will vocalize their distaste at the way this part of the process is handled, “You’re going to make me pay ahead of time to kill my dog? What kind of place is this?” has been heard a time or two. In reality, we get the paperwork out of the way up front because we know firsthand how hard the next part of the process will be, and we don’t want to add that stress on to an already stressed family AFTER they have had to say goodbye to their pet. We do NOT do this to upset you or to offend you – we’re not truly all that worried that you won’t pay your bill, but we want to make sure you don’t have to worry about it afterwards, when you will have other things on your mind.
Pay attention to what the technician or the doctor tells you about the procedure: Different hospitals have different policies when it comes to death, and I find it extremely helpful to explain to the clients how it happens at our hospital to dispel any misinformation they may have heard, or fears they have of what a planned death looks like. We almost always use a sedative with the pet first, to allow them to relax and fall asleep peacefully. Believe me, the entire process is so much easier for everyone involved – it’s less stressful for the pet, and their people, when they are able to just slowly stop breathing in their sleep, rather than have the reactions you can get when you administer the euthanasia solution without a sedative first.
Preparing for death is not pain free. The sedative stings. Boy, does it sting. The needle is big, the solution is chilly, and it has to be given intramuscularly for it to work effectively: usually in the hind end, or along the spine. Pets that have hardly moved for days will react – they jerk their heads up and around, looking for the offending pain giver. They scratch, they bite, they try to get away. This reaction is often harder to watch than the actual act of euthanasia later on, as their pet is still alert when the sedative is given, and the idea of inflicting pain in their last moments is no easy one.
Please allow us to work safely. If your pet was a “caution” animal before, please don’t be offended if we ask to muzzle them prior to administering the sedative. The last thing we want to have happen is a dog or cat bite – even a pet current on their rabies vaccine would need to be prepared and sent in for rabies testing if they are being euthanized and have bitten someone within the past 10 days. That’s a nice way of saying, the animals brain has to be sent in for testing – just their brain. Please don’t put us (or yourself) in an unsafe situation because you don’t think Fluffy will bite anyone because she hasn’t in the last year.
The sedative is fickle. If my needle stick was true, and deep – the pet sick or very old, it can take just moments for them to fall asleep. Sometimes they are asleep before I have time to shut the door behind me. If the pet is seemingly perfectly healthy, it can take longer, and in some cases, I have to administer a second dose to the pet if the first dose hasn’t been able to sedate them. I always let the family know it can take a bit to kick in…it could be a few minutes, it could be ten – so much depends on the pet and their “readiness.” What a horrible word. Readiness. For a pet who doesn’t know they are sick, they don’t have any wish to die. They want to be out of that stinking room, (because I’m sure no matter how much we clean it, to them, it stinks of death), they want to be back at home with their people, playing with them, snuggling with them, and loving them.
Waiting is not easy. Please pet them, speak softly, rub their ears, hug them, hold them, and love them. They know something is different. They can tell you’re sad and stressed, so show them that you’re there to support them. Tell them the story of their “gotcha” day, remind them of all the things they chewed to pieces and how you forgave them anyways; tell them how you will remember them forever, and one day will meet them over the rainbow bridge to run and play once again.
It may get messy. After the sedative kicks in, it can relax your pet so much that they lose control of their bowels. This is not unusual, and while it may be a bit disgusting, it’s a normal part of the process. We try to make sure every pet is on a blanket or towel before we administer the sedative to help prevent them from soiling your clothes and distracting you from reminding them how much you love them.
Not all pets are beloved, and even if they are, not all owners want to be present for their beloved pet to be euthanized, so sometimes (more often than I would hope) clients leave the office before their pet has been sedated and it falls on the technician to stay with them, sedate them, place an I.V. catheter, and stand by as the doctor gives the final injection. This is the hardest test. When the family leaves, the pet doesn’t understand why. If they are healthy enough to be aware of what’s going on, they strain at the leash to follow their people, they bark, they cry, they whine. They jump at the door after they leave and try to go with them, back down the hallway they came in, back to the lobby, back to the car that brought them to this place. But I have to hold them back. I have to say, “No, shhhhh, handsome, it will be okay. It will be okay mama, don’t worry, they’ll be back.” I have to lie. I have to calm them, to quiet their fears so I can administer the sedative. I’m the last person THESE pets see. Not their family, their people. Not their hearts. Me. No matter how hard it may be for you, it’s harder for them. They can’t understand what’s going on and for you, not seeing the relatively peaceful transition from wake, to sleep, to passing, is harder as well. The unknown is scary, and clients have come back and told me they have had nightmares about the process because they weren’t there to see it happen. If you must leave, please try to stay until they are sleeping. They will be more comfortable with you there, and it means the world to the technicians as well – that you care enough to fight YOUR fears to be there for your friend.
Please, please stay with them. If you are afraid to let the technicians and the vet see your tears, don’t be. We have seen it all, and death is not pretty. We’re not there to judge, or to condemn. We are there to make this as “easy” as it possibly can be for everyone involved, and to allow the peaceful passing of your best friend. Do we care that your mascara is running all over your face, or your nose won’t stop dripping? No, we don’t. Do we care that you’re a tough biker and haven’t cried since you were 6? No, we don’t. Because we’ve been there too. Whether we show it to you in the exam room or not, we cry. We bawl. We lose it entirely, and we get messy too. But we know that if we are strong for YOU, we can help to make this less painful, if only by a tiny bit, a bit more smooth, honorable, and peaceful. So we hold back the tears. We speak softly, we move quietly, and we act with as much quiet peace as we can during the process to allow you to grieve, and allow your pet to pass on surrounded by the people that love them.
If you don’t remember anything else, remember this: you took responsibility for your pet, this furry family member that has chewed, scratched, snuggled, and sang their way into your heart. It may be the hardest thing you have to decide in your life – the decision to take the life of another. But it may also be the kindest decision you may ever be able to make. It will be messy, you will cry, and it will hurt, but that’s okay—because you loved them so much, and they loved you so much in the short time they were with you, that it will take you a lifetime to remember them, and by then, you’ll be back with them again.
By Megan Angstadt-Williams - Vet Tech
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