BY AJ TRAGER
ROCHESTER HILLS — It's never easy dealing with the death of a loved one. With loss comes the restless thoughts, sleepless nights and the inevitable wait for the passage of time to ease the pain. When the loved one is a pet that was under our care and protection, this time can be even harder.
Many people struggle with deciding when to let a pet go. Whether they are suffering from a terminal illness, old age or attempting to recover from an accident or medical emergency, caregivers often wrestle with the question of when is the time to finally make the call and assist in ending a pet's life.
"I think we all have a hard time letting go, whether it is a family member or a loving pet. And for many people, that is their family member. Many of my clients are alone and their animal has been their sole companion for 15 years. It is incredibly devastating and very difficult for them to sometimes wrap their minds around the fact that they are going to lose their family member," says Dr. Courtney Graham, a Lap of Love veterinarian who spends her days assisting pet owners in the most difficult time: hospice and end of life care.
Graham, a practicing veterinarian for 16 years, works in in-home euthanasia and consultation and sees the effects of caregiver fatigue daily. While the time she spent working in the veterinary clinic was enjoyable, she found the clinic atmosphere to interfere with making the end of life process as personal, quiet and peaceful as she could. She wanted to find a way to make it more intimate for the family.
Filling A Need
"I just saw a need for it, I think. At the time I was debating about doing this as my cat was terminally ill. I knew that when it was time for euthanasia I would be doing it at home so he could be where he is comfortable. It started like that, and I was at a big national veterinary conference and met the organizers for Lap of Love," she explained.
An average consultation call lasts 15-20 minutes and most people just need someone to talk to and have someone tell them, "It's OK to make this decision," Graham told BTL. She says that many people suffer a great deal when making end of life decisions. It can be hard for someone to grapple with making the best decision for their pet while anticipating the grief and guilt following the end-of-life choice.
"They just want me to tell them, 'It's OK if you've decided it's time. I'm going to support your decision,'" she said.
The best way to figure out if it's time, Graham told BTL, is to take a look at their past week. She talks about good days and bad days and which type of day is outweighing the other. If a five minute tail wag is all the excitement the pup expresses and the rest of the time they are tired and laying around, she said, it may be time to assess the pet's quality of life.
Pain and anxiety also factor into the calculations. Many pet specialists believe that cats and dogs feel anxiety stronger than they do pain. But both cause a shift in behavior and can greatly affect the quality of life.
"Everyone's barometer is different," Graham said. "We use budgets. How much time do you have to care for an ailing pet? What about a monetary budget? Some clients feel guilty when they don't have the money for veterinary visits. We all have these different budgets, and you can't forget that you've given your pet a wonderful life. What you've done is enough. They're happy."
Other "budgets" to consider would be if one can physically lift their pet in the event of an emergency. There is also one's emotional budget to consider, factoring in the anticipatory grief that accompanies caregiver fatigue. Graham says that she sees some clients stay by their pet's side for years, often times not taking a vacation because the pet is diabetic. Owners often stress all day about if their pet is happy at home, if they've remembered to administer medications, if they're eating, etc., which can add great stress to someone's plate, regardless of how full it is.
"The biggest thing with caregiver fatigue is that it's normal to feel overwhelmed. It's normal to feel the stress and worry and guilt and all that — it's all normal. People feel that every day. All you can do is work your way through it, just like you would another loss. It's OK to feel that loss very acutely and to have a hard time making the decision," Graham said.
Despite the difficult nature of her job, Graham says that this is the least burnt out she's been since working in veterinary medicine. It's not easy, but it is rewarding to her to know that she's helped bring loved animals to peace in a gentle way. Graham admitted that she does cry a lot and empathically feels the sadness from her clients.
"I tell my clients, 'I'm not crying for your pet, because they're free now. I'm crying for you because I know how much that loss hurts.' But I only feel it when I'm there so that when I leave I don't take it with me. I try to think, 'I did a good job. I helped their beloved pet and grieved with them, and now you have to move on.' That's how I can do this. If I carried all that with me, there's no way," she admitted.
Graham is the only certified Lap of Love veterinarian in Michigan. She is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association as well as a member of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care. On her profile she lists the usuals: her contact information, professional history, availability and reputable mentions.
"I feel there is no greater gift that I can give to my clients than a peaceful goodbye for their beloved pet," she says on her Lap of Love profile. And she certainly does give this gift.
For those struggling with deciding if "now is the time," Graham recommends visiting http://www.lapoflove.com/Quality-of-Life/How-Will-I-Know-It-Is-Time. The site provides many resources and helpful points for those who are starting to have this conversation with themselves and their partners.
To contact Graham, go to http://www.lapoflove.com/Locations-Michigan-Southeast.