Saying Goodbye to Virginia - Thoughts on Mourning our Pets

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Virginia found me 15 years ago. She was a scruffy stray who stared into my windows in the evenings. Each time I saw her, I ran outside with a can of cat food, and Virginia promptly ran away. It took weeks, but she eventually trusted me enough to come up to me. After a bit of petting, I swept her into my arms and took her inside; she was happy to go.

Virginia was more than a pet to me. She accompanied me through multiple moves and job changes. She was there at the start of my marriage - eyeing my husband suspiciously for years. She meowed insistently from sunny windows, inviting me to slow down and join her. She slept with her back pressed against mine on chilly nights. She was a constant companion and a friend. 

When I had to euthanize her 6 months ago, it was intensely painful. I was lucky enough to be able to take that day off - to cry, and to tell funny stories about her, and to cry some more. But, after that, things pretty much went back to normal. Normalcy was hard. I would open my closet or drive down my block and be startled to see that nothing had changed. I would remind myself that Virginia and I were the only things that had changed. She was gone, and I was grieving. Everything and everyone else was going on as usual. 

I have been thinking about how I felt after Virginia’s death, and what contributed to it. When a person dies, we have rituals. We have acts of mourning, dictated by culture and religion, that help us make sense of our loss. They give us a path to move forward, and they can be healing. We don’t have these prescribed steps for mourning animals, and this can leave us feeling disoriented and alone in our grief.  

But, as animals are increasingly being considered as family members, we are beginning to recognize that marking their passing can be an important step in the healing process. Because we do not have societal expectations for mourning our pets, we have the freedom to get creative. We can choose actions and memorials that reflect our unique relationships with our pets. Journaling or writing a letter to the pet, selecting an urn, planting a tree or flower, having a piece of art or jewelry made with the pet’s ashes, taking a dog’s favorite walk, holding a memorial service, or volunteering at a local animal shelter in the pet’s name are just a few examples of mourning rituals. Big or small, private or public, it doesn’t matter as long as it has meaning to you. 

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I had not really thought about these ideas before Virginia died. I was unprepared. But I knew that I wanted a special urn for her. My husband is a carpenter, and he designed an urn. When it was completed, we quietly placed Virginia inside and had a long cathartic cry. We chose a spot for the urn on our credenza, where it can be in the sun for much of the day. This simple act of remembering helped me find the peace and connection that I was missing. It felt like I was honoring her, recognizing my grief, and acknowledging the impact that she had on my heart. 

 

Adventures in Animal Acupuncture!

Yesterday I saw one of my favorite patients, a 14 year old lab mix with arthritis named Ribbit. Ribbit’s original name was Scout, but his owners changed it when they discovered his passion for the frogs, turtles, and (unfortunately) koi in their backyard pond. On good days, Ribbit does still track the occasional turtle, but for the most part, he is now living a life of indoor pampering.

His owners have rearranged their lives around Ribbit’s needs. They never leave him alone in the house because they don’t want him to fall and get stuck somewhere. They sleep in the living room with him because he can no longer make it up the stairs to the bedroom. They cook his meals and run out for sushi-grade salmon when he needs a special treat.

I see Ribbit weekly for acupuncture which, in combination with his conventional pain medications and supplements, keeps him comfortable and as mobile as possible. Performing treatments in his house feels like working in a spa. We sit on a very comfy orthopedic dog bed, the lights are soothingly low, and there is gentle music playing in the background. Ribbit always greets me then makes himself comfortable in the den. During the 20 minutes that his needles are in place, he either falls asleep or places a persistent paw on my arm to indicate that I should continuously massage his belly.

The whole experience is very relaxing for both of us. This, however, is not the norm.

For one thing, the environment is not always peaceful and quiet. I used to practice in a traditional veterinary clinic, and it was hard to get patients, particularly cats, to relax with other animals barking in the lobby and machines beeping and buzzing in the back. It is generally easier in the pet’s home, but not always. I have performed acupuncture with toddlers chattering away and builders stepping over us with supplies for the bathroom cabinets. I have played ball with the exuberant housemate of a patient with one hand while trying to calm my patient with the other. And I have come to dread landscapers. I can’t tell you how many times an otherwise peaceful treatment has been interrupted by the arrival of the “lawn guy”.

Another challenge is keeping my patients still. I have one patient, a feisty 16 year old, who allows me to place her needles and then walks a circuit around her house for 20 minutes. When my 15 year old chihuahua patient has to go to the bathroom, there is no stopping him. His mom and I follow him around the yard and watch for any needles that fall out along the way. The needles I use are designed for moving patients. They have brightly colored handles that show-up well on most flooring surfaces. Finding them in grass, however, is challenging.

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Lastly, not all of my patients love their treatments. To be fair, these are typically pets that do not like being handled by anybody but their owners; I respect that. When I was studying acupuncture and somebody asked my teacher how to place needles in an aggressive cat, he answered, “Use the flying needle technique. Just place it as fast as you can and get out of the way!”  I believe that stress mitigates the benefits of acupuncture, so if a pet really seems uncomfortable with the treatments, I recommend discontinuing them. Most of my skeptical patients can, however, be won over by a sufficient amount of attention and treats. I see a Bernese Mountain Dog named Vuitton who has never liked veterinarians. His dad and I have figured out that I can do his treatments as long as he gets one treat per needle. Vuitton has gotten used to this arrangement and now seems genuinely happy to see me when I come over!

It might seem like I am complaining about my job;  I am not. I love what I do. It is a challenge to learn the idiosyncrasies of each patient and to find the best way to get them the treatments they need. It’s rewarding when the treatments go well and the owners see results. And it’s good for me physically. Who needs yoga class when your job requires you to contort between 100 mastiffs and recliners on a regular basis? Not me! Well, I could probably use some yoga - but you get the idea!

 

The Heart of Hospice

Unlike human hospice, which typically begins at the very end of life, animal hospice can begin when a pet has years of expected life ahead. This is because animal hospice begins whenever our focus shifts from diagnosing and curing to managing the pet’s condition and maintaining comfort and quality of life.

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