Special Quotes to Carry Us in End-of-life Work

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By Lianna Titcombe, International Director for CAETA

When I first became a veterinarian some 20 years ago, I suffered from crippling imposter syndrome. What fool had given me this DVM degree? What bigger fool had given me my dream job? I started out as an emergency and critical care veterinarian at one of the largest referral centres in Canada, and I was massively unprepared. I cried every day for 6 months. I would crawl into the cages with the animals, curl up around the dogs, and pray my mentors wouldn’t find me.  At night alone in my tiny apartment I didn’t sleep. There were animals crashing all around me, fluid pumps going off, code reds called all night long. I was drowning. Then a counsellor said to me, “Sometimes happiness is just around the corner”. I clung to that simple sentence like a lifeline. And it was true. It was a very distant corner, but it was there. 

Fast forward several years: I’m a new mom and I’m drowning again. When they handed the baby to me, I said, “Don’t give him to me! I have no idea what I’m doing”. Truer words were never spoken. I was an imposter again. Then came my sister’s death. As I sat by Leslie’s bedside, knowing the leukemia had won, looking at her frail body, I thought, “Death is OK, suffering is not”. This is the quote that has carried me into a specialty in end-of-life care for animals. And now the quotes are everywhere, and they are still seeing me through some of my darkest days. 

One of my favourite poems about grief came to me early in my career, when I was still a vet student. When my first-ever dog Jack died, I received a card from the clinic where I had taken him only once. Inside was this poem by Isla Paschal Richardson:

Grieve not, nor speak of me with tears.
But laugh and talk of me as if I were beside you.
I loved you so…
‘Twas Heaven here with you. 

I used that poem in my work for years, in sympathy cards, printed on fancy cloud paper, added to online memorials. I loved that poem. I still do. But I don’t use it anymore, because I have come to learn that you really should grieve, and talk, and shed tears. I can’t tell my clients not to grieve their beloved companion. That would be crazy. 

My latest quote is one that I wrote myself. It has come from ten years as an end-of-life veterinarian, and what I find to be the hardest part of the job. It’s not the death. Remember death is OK. It’s the suffering we avoid.

When someone you love is dying, you need to put your own life on hold for a while. Give this profound moment the time and attention it deserves”. 

So, I ask you my friends, colleagues and allies, what is your favourite quote? And tell me what it means to you.

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