The Melody Between Life and Death
I gently place my stethoscope just behind the elbow on the side of the chest, hearing the familiar slowing of the heart until it gracefully fades away turning into a peace filled silence. It is the same melody I have heard over hundreds of times as a veterinarian having helped many pets pass from this world to the next when it was most needed.
It’s a song that never grows old, never taken lightly, and truly respected as the pet is allowed to pass with dignity and peace. It is during this time that I find myself kneeling in the chasm between life and death. I feel the weight of the sorrow in the room as the family’s tears and sniffles tell the story of the great love they have for their pet. Each tear representing a special memory, favorite pastime, or special grin that the person shared with their furry friend that will always be cherished but now will be no more in this lifetime. I also feel relief for the animal, knowing that their discomfort will be no more or go any further because their family made the tough yet compassionate decision to let them go.
It is during these moments that I often hear, “This must be the hardest part of your job.” I am always amazed and humbled that in their moment of suffering that families have the compassion to think of me and how I must feel about this moment. I used to just mumble something like, “Yes, it’s hard because these animals are just so wonderful…” But the more years I’ve been in this profession, and the more experiences I’ve gained around saving a life and ushering one into peace, the more I’ve begun to really ponder how I feel about this particular aspect of my job.
I’ve seen pets who have suffered with owners suffering alongside them, and witnessing that truly is the hardest part of my job. I got into this job to be a healer, a fixer, to save the lives of so many. The reality is though; that I take so many more lives than I am able to heroically save. It’s just the nature of the job and with such a short life span for these animals; it is simply just the way it is. Once I came to accept that reality and stopped seeing euthanasias as a burden or failure, I was able to see them as what they truly are: a final gift to a beloved pet who deserves a peaceful end. They no longer bogged me down or threw me into a spiral of “compassion fatigue”, instead they gave me purpose.
It’s a time where the family, if they wish to be present, gets to spend their final moments with their pet in perfect peace. Where they get to say their final goodbyes and where I have the great responsibility of making sure that their pet passes in the most comfortable way possible. It is also where I am allowed into the families’ most vulnerable spot: their suffering. It is a privilege and an honor to suffer with others: to kneel with them before their pet and get a lump in my throat as their eyes start to glisten. It is a great privilege to accompany them in this final leg of their journey with their pet. I don’t take this lightly, I never get used to it, but I do deeply respect this precious time.
This special time usually ends in a familiar beautiful tune. It’s a mixture of what I’d expect to be the pleasant sounds of a “major” melody as families laugh about some of the memories and troubles their pet gave them, then gently switch over to the “minor” keys of more serious interludes of grief stricken loss. Then there’s the undertone: usually a steady beat of relief. No more fearing for the worst or worrying that their pet may be suffering. The end was peaceful and now the families can breathe slightly easier while they grieve together. All of this honors their beloved pet to the fullest and I truly feel blessed to get to witness this precious moment. The song playing between life and death is one filled with deep respect, sorrow, and a whole lot of love and I am blessed to sit and listen to a tune such as that.