It seems as though the most common response when I tell people what I do is “I always wanted to be a vet too but I could never put animals to sleep. That must be so hard”. To which I just nod and say yes it is because really that’s the only socially acceptable answer. But is that being my authentic self? No, it isn’t. It’s me being a little lazy and wanting to move on to the next subject because the lay person is going to have a hard time wrapping their head around what I would say if I were talking to you. Another vet.
So to you I say this. Yes, there are times it is difficult to put someone’s beloved pet to sleep and other times it isn’t. To think that compassion fatigue is the only reason we don’t thrive in our profession is misguided. There are lots of reasons and dealing with euthanasia is definitely one component of this.
This biggest thing that has helped me with euthanasia and all of the emotions that come along with it is learning that there is a big difference between compassion and empathy. Stacey Martino* helped me to understand that while empathy is an important aspect of our lives it does not serve others when we are in the position of the one who is helping. Empathy is great for certain circumstances but euthanasia is not one of them if I am the doctor delivering it. By definition empathy is sharing the feelings and emotions of another. Not only is that exhausting for me but it puts me on an emotional roller coaster all day every day. It brings me down and makes me less effective for the rest of the day. THIS is empathy fatigue and it is real. Over the years I started just shutting down during euthanasias. I would still say all the right things and put on the sad face but I was steeling myself against the owners emotions. I wasn’t letting them in and I wasn’t letting myself feel anything. I was putting a mask on during those moments and concentrated only on getting the needle in smoothly and painlessly and pushing the plunges on my syringes. I became focused on only what I was doing and shut everything else out. A defense mechanism no doubt. The trouble was that over years of doing this I had trouble taking off the mask. The mask began to come on during any difficult situation including my home life which is absolutely not conducive to a healthy marriage or a healthy life.
It was Stacey that helped me learn that I could be open in these moments which is more in line with my authentic self but still protect my sanity. With the use of compassion I was able to see this whole thing in a different way. My job in those moments is not to crawl down into the hole of grief with my clients. It was to stay at the top of the hole with my hand reaching down in compassion. To stay present in an effort to serve them. To observe and be ready to help. Do they need a tissue, do they need someone to stay with them, do they need privacy, do they need a hug, do they want to stay and talk a little, do they want me to stand by and rub their back? So many times we flee the room because we don’t know what to do. We leave because we are protecting ourselves from their sorrow. But we don’t need to. If we can embrace compassion in that moment and give them heartfelt understanding and love and stay present to serve them we will be doing so much more for them and in turn we will get so much more of a benefit from that. I have no limits to the amount of compassion I have inside of me. But I only have so much empathy I can manage in a day. By embracing compassion and heartfelt understanding I am not only serving my clients better but I am also serving myself.
So my homework for you is this: the next euthanasia you do, stay open, think compassion not empathy, don’t go in the hole with them, stay up top so you can be there with the helping hand that they need to help them out. Then take a deep breath and give yourself a little compassion. This is life changing work you do. You got this.