One of the great opportunities at Tufts is the option to staff a pet loss hotline during the weeknights. Many vet schools also offer this community service, because it not only fills a need for providing comfort to those grieving the loss of a pet, but it also provides veterinary students with invaluable experience. Many of us vet students are interested in having discussions about death and the grieving process, because most of us have observed a euthanasia or natural death and been confused about our own feelings. In a few short years, we’ll be assuming a specific role as a veterinarian, and so must deal with our feelings as well as the feelings of our clients. Working a pet loss hotline gives us a good idea of how the death of a pet affects people; how hearing their stories affects us personally; and lets us practice different ways of listening, showing compassion, and providing comfort. Even just approaching the uncomfortable feelings surrounding death and grief can be tough, let alone trying to console someone else experiencing those feelings.
I’ve taken six calls over the course of my three shifts this year. All called for different reasons and at different stages in the grieving process, but there were some commonalities: guilt, trouble letting go, a wish for more time together. I could sense that in several callers, it was the trauma of an abrupt or agonizing death that really stuck with them, amplifying their guilt and delaying their attempts to let go. It was heartbreaking to hear them detail the medical woes of their animals, but even more so to hear them isolate the exact moment when they came undone. For one woman, it was carrying her little pug in her arms during an agonizing walk home from the park. For another, it was uncovering some misplaced cans of cat food in the pantry from a pet euthanized two months ago.
Staffing the pet loss hotline can be difficult, but I’m finding it as rewarding as (hopefully) callers are.