In Reverence to Nonhuman Hospice and Palliative Care

“An anniversary is the date on which an event took place or an institution was founded in a previous year, and may also refer to the commemoration or celebration of that event.”

Anniversaries are remembered for all sorts of reasons. And, something I find at this age is that I have quite a collection of anniversaries. This year it’s time to honor and close the chapter on records from my days of delivering end of life care to pets. An anniversary.

What keeps you up at night?

How hot the fire that motivates someone to act on a spark that ignites them? For me, developing a program that provided hospice and palliative care to nonhumans was the fire that kept me up nights and stole conversations.

I dove into study to prepare for that program’s development. From there, study into grief and bereavement was added. I dug deep into lessons and books and I found mentors who are masters at their work. I felt this study was so important to be able to provide end of life care to pets at home. Later on we offered much needed pet loss support groups.

Who would have expected the catalyst for that deep study would be a sturdy, but failing calico cat. I wrote about her a couple years ago in this article:

To walk hand in hand

In the early days, like most professionals, I’d answered the often asked question, “What would you do?” many times. It often seemed like there was a need, at times, for more care, not less…. more compassion, more understanding, more time. There was such a need to slow the leaving process down just a bit when possible. And, it is very often possible. People were so grateful for someone to walk alongside of them.  It can feel so isolating. We were walking a path with a little angel in the middle.

Family members can be hard on each other. So many are judged and deemed crazy for their deep devotion to their pet. “You’re going to spend how much on your dog/cat?” “S/he’s old! For pete’s sake, how long do you want him to live?” With one collective voice these families shouted (under their breath), “Forever, of course!”

More care, not less

Hospice and Palliative care was in its adolescence when I first became aware of the concept in the eighties. Our beautiful, athletic sixteen year old niece was dying of brain cancer. This would be my first touchpoint.  Dying in human medicine can feel like a ping pong game until someone walks away from the match. The spectators sit on the sidelines and watch.

Toward the very end of her days, one very tentative nurse came to help us occasionally. Today, the human hospice and palliative care model utilizes a team approach to provide a circle of care. Their growth has been amazing.

Back to the classroom

When I took the course, Education in Palliative and End of Life Care (formerly Education for Physicians in End of Life Care), I thought I’d found a hidden treasure chest. I was so stoked after taking the course. I vibrated at the end of each class. The course was given by doctors, nurses, social workers and clergy. There was so much information and it was presented in such a great way. I was hooked and couldn’t wait to find a way to offer this to our families. There was so much information that I ended up taking it again two years later. And, I felt every healthcare professional, human or nonhuman, should take this course.

Walk with me

I wrote in my article about the clergy that taught one of my EPEC classes. He gave me a gift when his opening line was, “Every time I walk into the room of a dying person, I sit at the feet of the teacher.” (Thank you profoundly, Jordan). He blew me away. I knew I found where I needed to be.

The academics gave me the confidence to deliver end of life care with the high standards we intended. But the intimate soul connection with families, the understanding we all mutually felt, was a gift to all of us. A loved pet had a little team ushering her/him out of this world with as much love as they had experienced in life.  I’d tell them, I can’t know your personal walk, but I’ve traveled this road all the same. There’s a kinship and a trust when you’ve walked a mile in another’s shoes.

Looking forward

Nonhuman hospice and palliative care is still in its infancy. I love that it continues to move forward. I feel so special to have had the opportunity to experience giving that care.  What beautiful souls. I think they gave me much more than I ever gave them. And, this chapter closing at Thanksgiving time is perfect.