The Well-Meaning Words of Friends

Posted on March 2, 2018 by Lynn Henderson

This is not meant to be a medical, fact-filled essay in an attempt to educate you on the complexities of any one disease or drug. Panic not! I do plan on boring you with many such articles in the near future. Today I felt inspired to pen a few words about the well-meaning words of friends and family when dealing with an aging or handicapped pet.

Some of you may have direct experience with this topic, and know too well how many times you are/were offered ‘advice’ from loved ones about what you should do with your  companion animal. Now we all know that this is not often intended to be hurtful or judgmental, but given as helpful ‘guidance’.  Much like pregnancy horror stories (every mother remembers these), when we are enmeshed in an emotionally-wrought situation involving a loved one (this case, an animal), more often than not these well-meant words are hurtful and can lead to self-doubt.

Case in point an elderly golden retriever belonging to a client of my hospice practice. This pet had been diagnosed with elbow dysplasia at a young age, and as she aged her hind legs began to weaken and lose muscle mass. This beautiful blonde girl was left with no perfectly comfortable legs to stand on. For many her situation would have prompted a euthanasia decision, or at least the idea would have been thrown around a time or two. My client, however, opted for aggressive pain medication, rugs and soft beds throughout her house, and amazingly – a custom-built elevator from the lower level to the upper level using a garage door opener! (Not at great expense, but simply creatively-conjured with great love).

Things were progressing well and our lovely golden girl’s discomfort was managed as best it could be for a very long time.  Then one night during a dinner party a close friend pointed a the dog laying next to the table, and casually asked my client ‘When are you going to deal with THAT?”.  I can only imagine the air was immediately sucked straight out of the room. The dog had been limping for several years intermittently, and to onlookers without an understanding of the depth of the veterinary involvement in her care, she might appear sad and painful.  This story was relayed tearfully to me days after the party. I heard doubt and shame in the owner’s words. After so many years of careful decision-making, money spent, physical effort and support for this animal, this woman was now questioning every bit of it.

I don’t tell this tale to give my opinion on what the ‘right’ choice was in this situation, but to shed light on how hurtful the comment was to my client.  There are times when it is right and needed to speak your truth to a friend or neighbor with a pet that is in obvious distress. How then, do we judge ourselves and act appropriately? I guess the best advice I can give, would be to try to understand the situation – hear the whole story. Say less and listen more.  As a hospice veterinarian I know the greatest questions my client’s struggle with are  ‘How much is too much?”, “When have we gone too far?”, “Who am I doing this for?”. To finally come to terms with your personal plan on how to manage such an emotion-wrought time in your animal’s life, and then blithely have that plan thrown out by a loved-one’s careless statement can be devastating.

I try to advise clients with palliative pets to choose their support people appropriately.  This doesn’t mean cutting people out of your life during this period – or maybe in some extreme instances it does. You know your ‘people’. Your aunt and uncle might be amazing individuals with big hearts, but they have four un-neutered farm dogs that have never seen a veterinarian and will likely meet their end on the farm when ‘it is their time’. Not saying this is right or wrong – (that’s another essay entirely), but they are unlikely to understand your decision to pursue chemotherapy for your 14 year-old spaniel.  

Your sister may have been in-and-out of work for months and is a single mom of two kids. She may have a hard time supporting your decision to pay for both swim rehabilitation and acupuncture therapy for your old dog because she’s lost some muscle mass in her hind end with age, and ‘just likes swimming’. Again, her position makes sense from her side- Life is a beast sometimes and people make their choices.  

So perhaps we don’t let those people know all of the details? Your aunt and uncle might be like second parents to you and your sister is your best friend, but just for this situation maybe they get to hear that “Biscuit is getting older and we are dealing with it”.  It is a statement, not an invitation into a conversation about what they think you ought to do.  

This advice follows through to end-of-life decision-making. I have met people who have made shrines for their pet in remembrance, and those who have held beautiful memorial services in their backyards. Balloons are released, poetry read aloud, the deceased animal may be on display for visitation. This can seem ‘out-there’ to some – To each his own.

Only allow those people who will support your choice into your plans. Protect the fragile part of yourself that is trying to muddle through the heartbreak. It need not be for all to see.

My advice to pet owners is to make conscious choices about who you share you pet-story with. Who do you allow in to your decision-making circle in the really hard, scary times near end-of-life? The journey is hard enough; It can be terrifying, lonely, and filled with self-doubt. Know that there are never concrete ‘right answers’ – only right answers for YOU.  Choose your army wisely and move forward with purpose, perhaps purposely avoiding the well-meaning advice of all others.

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