I got a horrible phone call at the vet clinic today. A woman was requesting information about cremation and burial services for her two pets because they had both died in a house fire while she was at work. It was a slow burn so they died from smoke inhalation. One was a puppy and one was a 12 year old cat.
Later in the evening, she came in clutching the two animals to her. They were wrapped in a fireman’s sheet and reeked of smoke. She was covered in ash and barely coherent. We went in a room and tried to talk about how she would like the remains cared for. Her level of shock and grief was so extreme it became obvious to me that we would not be making any decisions that night. I asked her several times if I could take the animals from her and she refused. She could not let them go. When she finally handed them to me she had explicit instructions about how to carry them and to never, ever separate them from each other. I agreed and she kissed them goodbye one final time. Through her tears she confessed that she took all the responsibility for their death and she wished she had never adopted the puppy in the first place; if she hadn’t he would still be alive. Of course I told her it was no one’s fault but I could see the fortress of guilt and self-loathing in her eyes. Nothing I could say would ever change the fact that she would blame herself for the loss of these two innocent lives.
After she left, I broke down. It was certainly the saddest case I had handled and I felt so overwhelmed by her pain. I couldn’t help but compare this exchange with the many other clients who had lost their beloved pet to illness and often euthanasia. This was so much more acute and traumatic. I found myself, once again, appreciating illness and all it has to offer.
We all have to die in this world. If I had a choice, I would much rather have a terminal disease than an unexpected departure. Illness is hard, but there is much to value in the opportunity to say goodbye.
My heart goes out to the woman, her family and those two precious animals. I only hope that she will someday forgive herself and find peace.