Walking With Death

I grew up around death. While my immediate family was relatively healthy, as the daughter of a vet I began my understanding of death at a fairly early age.

When my dad became independent, starting his own business, it meant my sister and I became little tag alongs. My dad narrowed his business to beef cattle exclusively and many of his ranchers and farmers welcomed us onto their properties with open arms.

When we were young we only went on select calls–fun ones, where there were other kids play with. I remember climbing round bales to watch the animals move from a higher vantage point and giggling with other kids.

Even selected calls aren’t sterilized for children every time though. It’s hard to know exactly what you may encounter and what might have started as a calving becomes a dead calf delivered, or a calving and a quick look at a dead cow, or a diseased animal becomes a lead treatment case and so on,

Dead things just sort of were when I was a kid.

Death never interrupted my life in a significant way and I walked beside it, without apathy, but with a deep consciousness of it as a natural part of the process of life.

As I got older calls stopped being sterilized for me, and I went onto more and more ranches and farms and saw more and more animals: healthy, sick, dead, dying. All this was normal, the healthy ones were always better though, or the ones you knew could be fixed: Calves with broken legs, calvings that just required a bit more finesse, prolapses that were caught early, twins that are tangled up with each other, abscesses, bull testing, preg-checking.

Walking beside death wasn’t entirely bad either though. It was an end to suffering for some, it was an untimely but quick solution for others, it was a gradual process of many years for others still. Altogether death was, not a friend, but a teacher and a necessity.

I knew this was not the way most people saw death. I was very aware that most people shied away from, or postponed death, some people even feared it. What I didn’t understand is why?

My great-grandmother died when I was in my late preteens or early teens (this estimate might be a little off, but there about). It was the first death I experienced that was directly connected to me.

My great-grandmother lived into her nineties (again, an estimate) and saw a lot of life. She was under relatively low care up until the last couple of years of her life, and I remember having tea with her, and her baking all sorts of goodies for us.

She was a sturdy woman who (in most of my memories) possessed a stooped back, eyes that saw very little, a good nature, and a smile. Her hands were knarled from knitting, crocheting, and who knows what else over the years. I remember her very fondly.

I remember her funeral as well. I remember sitting there, wondering if this was truly a moment to be sad? My great-grandmother was a faithful woman who trusted God would take her home. It seemed to me that she lived well until her final days, and suffered for a very short period of time (not that she didn’t have some health concerns prior but she had remained a relatively active woman for her age). I honestly couldn’t conjure up a tear, or a particular emotion that seemed to line up with what I knew I was supposed to feel.

Does that seem callus?

I loved her, but each person, each animal, each spirit in this world has a limited time to be with us. Great-grandma had lived long and well and I accepted that almost immediately, all the while knowing that it was odd I did.

So life went on. A friend of my moms, who lived too far away for me to feel the fallout, passed away from stomach cancer which metastasized. We saw her previous to her death, she had to spit in a cup because swallowing was painful and was lacking her stomach and a large portion of intestine (if I remember correctly). You could see her bones through her skin when I remember it. She was a doctor.

Her kids had been friends with my sister and I. I remember the couple of days (maybe it was a week) that we spent during our holidays with them. She had seemed so tired. I was too young to really keep in contact with her kids (I mean, maybe it was even previous to my great-grandma dieing, my timeline isn’t great), but I sometimes wonder how they felt about things. This may sound terrible, but was it a bit of a relief?

I suppose for me, having walked with death year after year, I see prolonged suffering and I wonder when a compassionate death will finally come. It’s not my mother though and I would never down play the pain this event must have caused for these kids. I was just on the outside looking in.

Then, in high school, at seventeen my spirit died. Odd phrasing yes, but my horse Smokey was… he was my first horse, maybe I’ll post about him another time. Let me just say, he was my lifeline through middle school and high school. I rode for hours, every day, no matter the weather. Smokey was the reason I got out of bed some days, and the reason I bothered to care other days.

Smokey was almost the same age as me when he died. Just after my birthday and just before his (we were only days apart) Smokey dropped out of my life. We had a final ride that… talking about it to a friend recently (six years after the fact) still made me tear up. He passed suddenly, most likely of massive multiple organ failure (I just didn’t have the heart to approve an autopsy to find out).

I cried about it the morning I found him. When a piece of you just breaks off it’s hard to know what to do, but the next day walking past his body (under a tarp), out to the fire that burned for three days to allow us to unthaw the ground enough to bury him on property, I knew he wasn’t there anymore. Even the morning I found him he was cold, and though his body looked little different from normal there was nothing of my old friend left there.

Three days later, most around me would say it seemed like nothing had happened. Today though, writing this, I have tears in my eyes because I still love him but, I have no regret. I am happy he went fast, I wouldn’t have been able to watch him suffer. I count his swift death a great blessing.

My moms dog passed a few years later while I was in Australia.

This Christmas (during my time off from school) my dog, a beautiful twelve year old (approximately) border collie, after slowing down significantly over the summer, seizured. I came out to see her struggling, flailing to get up, drool dripping from her jowls. Up until that point her quality of life had been good, but I couldn’t justify waiting things out over night to see if there was improvement. I could see.

My darling dog was done, she was ready to go. I gave the go ahead and my dad called a vet friend (he chooses not to euthanize small animals). I held my pup while we waited and she calmed down in my arms. I held off her vein for her injection and stroked her head while her heartbeat faded.

She’s beside Smokey, on the back hill and now I’m really crying.

She was ready though, and that’s what mattered. Two months later my seventeen year old cat, still healthy and happy, passed in her sleep. So now all three of them lie together.

Recently, my walk with death has obviously become much more personal and our encounters much more intimate. This week though, I faced one of the most difficult encounters I’ve ever had with death, and it wasn’t because the death was abrupt, or unnecessary. It was because the death was so necessary that it broke my heart.

A dog was brought in, we’ll call him Love. Love was in bad shape, and as animal care professionals my colleagues, boss, and I tried to provide the best care possible.

It became clear that Love was on borrowed time: his paws were cool to the touch, he was devoid of colour in his tongue and gums, and he strained for every breath.

As the vet had the dreaded conversation with the owner, who kept suggesting/asking: “He’s going to be all right though… right?” I held Love as he flailed his paws about and heaved in laboured breaths. I cooed to him, and told him what a good boy he was and finally the decision was made and I helped move Love to where he would say his goodbyes.

For Love though… I can’t imagine how painful these moments were.

In a culture where humans prolong life as a matter of course, we see this in the treatment of our animals as well. I went home very angry after this encounter because I couldn’t imagine leaving things to that point and I called my dad. We talked for a long time.

The fact is though, I can’t be angry with people who haven’t walked the path I have, for not accepting this. We live in a world were death is so sterilized and separate from most peoples every day lives that it is impossible to blame them for being shocked when it becomes the only option. I just wish there was a way to normalize death without people becoming apathetic towards it. So that we all could recognize when to start preparing ourselves and find a healthy way, and a good time to let go so that it minimizes the suffering of the one saying the final goodbye.

I smiled thinking about my great-grandmother today (I wish you could hear her voice in your head saying all her funny little quotes), and I didn’t cry because she had really hilarious things to say, and because she went when it was her time.

I cried when I wrote about Smokey, I cried when I wrote about my dog Niki, and reflected on my cat Angel’s passing. One went too soon, one went too traumatically, and one went peacefully.

I cried hardest for Love though because Love was so far past ready to go but, Love’s people were not ready to let him go.  And that’s not their fault. And I can’t be angry. Yet I feel his pain acutely and he will weigh on my mind as I move towards being a vet.

He will be a part of every end of life discussion I have, not as an example but as the picture in my mind that drives me to provide the best palliative care I possibly can.

Maybe Love will teach us all an important lesson, in letting go, in quality of life, and in dealing with death.




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