How I helped my client let go

Article

Faced with a severe case of denial, one veterinarian shows how client care doesn't end with the death of a pet.

The report lying on my desk sent shivers of disappointment and sadness through my body. I wasn’t surprised by it—in fact, I’d suspected the worst for some time. What made me miserable was the idea of telling Mr. Eskridge that his beloved Missy had only a few more weeks to live.

Missy, a sassy 22-year-old poodle mix, had been an anniversary present to Mrs. Eskridge 21 years earlier. She was also a gift to lift Mrs. Eskridge’s spirits. At the time, Mrs. Eskridge had recently received the news that she was unable to bear children due to a genetic reproductive problem.

The gift worked, and Missy became the child the couple could never conceive. The two doted on their furry bundle of joy, pushing her in a stroller around the neighborhood and making weekly visits to Dairy Queen for Missy’s ice cream cone during the summer months.

Missy was my patient for 21 years, and except for occasional bouts of gastritis brought on from eating people food, she was the picture of health for most of those years. It was with a fit Missy at his side that Mr. Eskridge had told me about his wife’s diagnosis of breast cancer several years ago.

The pleasant visits became strained when only Mr. Eskridge showed up with Missy, or when an obviously weakened Mrs. Eskridge came along. As time passed, I saw less and less of the failing wife, and reports of her illness were increasingly distressing.

After a valiant fight, she lost her battle with a very aggressive form of cancer. Of course, everyone at the hospital was devastated, and the only comfort that Mr. Eskridge seemed to find was in his relationship with Missy.

To say that Mr. Eskridge became a little obsessed with Missy after his wife’s death would be an understatement. We began to see the two on an almost weekly basis. Any minor problem with Missy, real or imagined, brought Mr. Eskridge to the clinic at any hour.

On most occasions, after we determined Missy was fine, he would stay and reminisce about his wife. I felt that this was well worth the time. I had studied grief and knew that Mr. Eskridge needed to talk. Plus the entire staff enjoyed his company, so it was a win-win situation. On occasion, we even solicited his help with minor chores around the clinic, always with Missy at his side.

Mr. Eskridge and I settled into a comfortable relationship, and all was well until Missy began to show signs of real illness. Mr. Eskridge handled the news poorly. In addition to his “child” being in danger, it was as if he was losing his wife all over again.

These were my thoughts as I scanned the definitive report that confirmed what I already knew. Missy had advanced pancreatic cancer and was in the final stages of renal failure. My hands shook as I reached for the phone to call Mr. Eskridge.

To my surprise, Mr. Eskridge received the news in a calm, subdued manner. So calm, in fact, that I began to worry about him being in shock. In the next few days, Missy’s condition worsened, and even with pain control medications it was clear that she was suffering. Mr. Eskridge decided on humane euthanasia but was unable to remain for the procedure. He asked the clinic to take care of the remains and left the clinic quietly.

As is our practice’s custom, we sent a sympathy card several days after Missy’s death, and because of our close relationship with Mr. Eskridge, I followed up with a phone call. An upbeat Mr. Eskridge answered the phone, and in his jovial manner informed me that he and Missy were doing fine. He would be coming to the clinic to purchase her therapeutic dog food in the next few days.

It was a bright, sunny day when Mr. Eskridge entered the clinic to pick up Missy’s usual supply of dog food. I’d convinced myself that he’d adopted a new pet and was prepared to explain that another type of dog food would be more suitable. Imagine my surprise when Mr. Eskridge explained that the food was, in fact, for Missy.

He explained how he awoke each morning to let Missy out and prepare her meal as usual. He even described how she curled up on his bed at night and what a comfort she was to him since his wife’s death.

Unsure how to proceed, I listened patiently and then gently reminded Mr. Eskridge of Missy’s demise several weeks earlier. He became misty-eyed for a fraction of a second. Then he purchased the dog food as if I’d said nothing and left the clinic.

For several days I pondered the situation. It was clear that Mr. Eskridge was in a prolonged state of denial. But what to do? After some time I devised a plan that I hoped would help this dear man accept his pet’s death.

I knew he would soon “need” more food for Missy, and I awaited his call. Sure enough, he called to order more food within the next several weeks. This time I asked if I could deliver the food personally as I was going to be in his neighborhood and had a gift for him and Missy. He reluctantly agreed, and I put my plan into motion.

You see, it occurred to me that Mr. Eskridge had never had a chance to say a proper goodbye to Missy. He’d left the clinic before the euthanasia and hadn’t had the opportunity to observe her final moments and see her peacefully resting for the last time. Also, since she was his final tie to his wife, I’m sure losing her was simply too painful for him to accept.

On the day of my visit, I gathered my items and left the clinic. I was nervous about my plan, but I’d checked with a grief counselor who assured me that I wouldn’t make matters worse. Mr. Eskridge met me at the front door and ushered me into the kitchen. The first thing I noticed was Missy’s food bowl on the floor near the back door and her leash hanging from the doorknob.

Mr. Eskridge approached the package I’d set on the table expecting to find his supply of dog food, and I knew it was time to speak up.

“I didn’t bring food for Missy,” I said quietly.

He didn’t ask why; he just sighed and asked, “What’s in the bag?”

“I know how you must miss her. I do, too. I thought we might say goodbye together today,” I offered.

“I don’t know how,” he said.

“I think I do. Would you let me try?”

He began to weep, but he nodded his head yes.

We entered his backyard and found a beautiful spot next to a bench Mr. Eskridge had built for his wife. He’d planted roses along the side and back of the bench, which was situated next to a large tree. On warm days Mrs. Eskridge would sit on the bench with Missy napping nearby under the shade and enjoy the weather.

From my bag I took out a plaque inscribed with Missy’s name, date of birth, and date of death. I placed it next to the bench nestled among the roses.

“Can we say a prayer?” Mr. Eskridge asked.

“I think that would be nice,” I said.

After a short but sweet prayer, we bid Missy goodbye and sat quietly enjoying the sun and roses. The orders for dog food stopped that day.

Linda K. King, DVM, is a retired veterinarian in Union City, Ga.

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