Lessons from Pet Loss

I lost five of my pets in the past 2 years.  I said pets to make it easier for me to write this but those who have lost a pet know, they were more than pets, they were family and each had a special place in my life and heart.

From left to right: Elaine, Kobi, Lana, Sariah, and Xander.

The 3 cats, Lana, Xander, and Sariah, were littermates abandoned in a grocery bag in our waiting room in September 1998.  They were only several days old, eyes not yet opened and umbilical cord stumps still present.  They were too young to be adopted out and rescue groups were unable to take them in until they were older and eating on their own.  One-year out of vet school, I had worked with cats but had never been owned by one.  Dr. Grant, the owner of the practice at the time, was generous and allowed me to take care of the kittens until they were old enough to be adopted out.  For the next 4 weeks, those kittens were never far from my side. They were nursed back to health, bottle-fed or tube-fed, until they were old enough to eat on their own. 

Never having had the pleasure of living with cats before, I was quickly introduced to the joy of kitten antics -- and how to care for them.  Oh, I was well trained in the medical aspect of kitten care --- deworming, vaccination, flea control, what to feed them, how often and how much, etc. --- all that were learned in vet school.  But everything else, from how to hold the 3-ounce squirming bundle in the palm of one hand, stabilizing his head between your thumb and index finger, while the other hand passes a feeding tube down his esophagus, to how to stimulate him to defecate and urinate, all that and more could only be learned through experience.  And those 3 kittens gave me a crash course in newborn and kitten care that have served me well over the years.

I do not know if I ever really seriously planned to adopt them out.  I think everyone in the clinic and at home knew those kittens were not going anywhere but we continued to joke about it.  Years later, I recall telling a client that I was still trying to find a home for them.  Right :)

Just as they taught me about kitten care, they continued to educate me in the art of feline medicine.

Sweet Lana was the first to depart, succumbing to kidney failure in September 2014.  Regal Xander followed 6 months later in March, heart failure.  And aloof Sariah 9 months later, in December 2015.  Even near the end, they each taught me how to traverse that difficult path of knowing when to let go.  Both Lana and Xander took a sudden decline and more-or-less helped me make the euthanasia decision.  Petite Sariah was a fighter and had rallied over the years through inflammatory bowel disease, hyperthyroidism, arthritis, and intestinal lymphoma.  She was stubborn and hung on but, as she withered down to under 5 pounds, I was reminded that the kindest loving decision made at the right time and for the right reasons, can still hurt and bring doubt to any of us.

In my mind, I know how fortunate I was to have had them in my life for almost 18 years.  In my heart though, I wish I could have had more.

Kobi was a Toy Poodle that my mom took in when her co-worker was unable to keep him.  He was my mom's dog but he soon made it clear that he was mine whenever I visit or stay over.  I have since believed that my mom secretly taught Kobi to be attached to me so that I would feel motivated to visit more often.  Messages of her missing me soon became "Kobi misses you" and "Kobi is looking for you."  Over the years, he conspired with my mom to show me how things are often not as I learned in school.  To this day, I imagine he took great pleasure in being the vet's dog that needs to be sedated for nail trims.  Thanks to Kobi, I learned all the different ways of training dogs to accept nail trims -- and how to be humble and sympathetic to families with uncooperative pets.

He was not quite 16 years old when we had to say good-bye to him in the end of May 2016, just five months after losing Sariah.

Less than a month later, I had to say good-bye yet once again.

It is not true that losing loved ones get easier with experience.  If it was true, the series of loss in the past 2 years would have prepared me for Elaine's death.  Prior to their loss, I had also lost other pets that were also dear to me --- my family of Chihuahuas got me through vet school, big aggressive diabetic Tyson taught me that kindness from a human touch can turn even a mean Rottweiler into a trusting soul, Panacea reminded me that cancer does what cancer wants, and Sammie taught me the tough lesson that sometimes we have more regrets from hanging on too long than from letting go too soon. 

Past loss may have taught me coping mechanisms and how to deal with grief and loss.  But it does not make it any easier.

Losing so many pets in succession also made me realize that the amount of grief I feel with each loss is not necessarily a reflection of how much love I had for that pet.  Grieving more for one does not mean I loved her more than any of the others.  The grief and how I deal with the loss and sadness may have more to do with what was happening during the time a particular pet was in my life.  In some ways, pets are the physical embodiment of my emotions and feelings --- my hopes and dreams, my experiences and memories.  And when I lost pets that had a strong presence in my life, I used to fear that I would also lose those memories, that I would forget the way loving that pet made me feel.

Elaine was brought to our clinic on her birth day, February 14, 2002.  Her umbilical cord was not even dry yet.  It was fitting that it was Valentine's Day for she wormed her way into my heart and never left.  Maybe one day, I will tell her story.  Suffice it to say that I am a better human being, and definitely a better veterinarian for having had her in my life.

Another day at the clinic: baby Elaine with Dr. Tran working in the background, 2002.

Another day at the clinic: baby Elaine with Dr. Tran working in the background, 2002.

She was such a huge part of my life.  I learned so much about myself, some lessons I rather not have had but know they were necessary for my personal growth.  Even in death, she helped me realize that I had nothing to fear about losing loved ones -- that the influences she had on my life do not end with her death.  The lessons she and all my other pets have taught me are part of who I am now.  And in some ways, how I affect others in my life will reflect their influence so the fruits of their existence outlast their physical presence in my life.

Dr. Tran and Elaine, July 2003.

Dr. Tran and Elaine, July 2003.

It is comforting to look at it that way. I think I used to grieve and fear their loss because it seemed what we shared was lost forever.  I still grieve for them but I no longer fear losing them as much.  I may have lost their physical presence but I can never lose what we shared.  That lives on in me and, if I'm lucky, in the lives I touch, both in and out of the clinic.