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Tuesday 16 September 2014

New puppies represent the 'other side of the coin'

Pete Wedderburn

Published 26/07/2014 | 12:00

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New puppies are one of the highlights of my job as a vet

I met two gorgeous eight week old puppies today. One was a big, gentle, floppy-eared Labrador who sprawled on my consultation table as if it was the most relaxing place in the world. The other was a bright-eyed Cavalier King Charles Spaniel whose tail continued to wag enthusiastically as I injected him with his first vaccine.

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New puppies are one of the highlights of my job as a vet, but these two animals had an extra depth of significance: they were brought in by families who had lost their elderly pets in the previous six months. The last time I had met the parents and children who came in with the pups, they had been experiencing the devastation of having to say goodbye to a much loved pet that had been a part of their family for the previous fifteen years.

The arrival of the puppies marked a stage in the recovery from this grief: they'll never forget the animals who are no longer with them, but some sort of acceptance has settled in, and they are now ready to move on, with a new emotional commitment to a young life.

Some people never recover enough from the grief of losing a pet to take this step: I know individuals who are so devastated that they have made a decision never to keep another animal. For them, the grief was so intense that they cannot bear to contemplate going through it again. They take the attitude that it's safer not to love again than to commit their affection to a pet that they know they are going to eventually lose.

I will never forget one caring man who was so upset after his dog died that he decided to buy two parrots rather than another puppy: his logic was that there was a good chance that the parrots would outlive him, so that he would never again have to endure the pain of loss.

Vets probably witness human grief more frequently than almost any other career. Recent research showed that a typical GP medical doctor experiences the death of around twenty patients every year, while on average, a vet witnesses the death of a hundred animal patients annually. It isn't easy to compare the quality and depth of grief at the loss of a human compared to the death of a pet, but the principle is the same: saying a permanent goodbye to a loved one is never easy.

The sadness felt on losing a pet varies hugely. Some people are able to come to terms with it quickly: they rationalise that while it's sad to say goodbye, it's an unavoidable part of the cycle of life and there's no point in being overwrought.

Other people are almost beside themselves with distress on losing a pet, sometimes needing to visit a bereavement counsellor to talk through their feelings. There are no rules about how a person "ought" to feel in this situation: emotions like grief just seem to happen more to some people than to others, and each of us has to find a way of dealing with our own reaction.

CS Lewis, the author of the Narnia chronicles, experienced more emotional pain than most people in his life, with the death of his mother when he was young, losing close friends in world wars, and ultimately, the loss of his wife to cancer.

He wrote many books, and in 'The Problem of Pain', he contemplated the meaning of it all. As a Christian, he believed that suffering has a God-given purpose: he wrote 'God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.'

When experiencing severe grief, it can be hard to imagine what God might be shouting about, but the emotions are certainly part of a profound, deeply moving experience that affects the core of our human nature.

I find it easier to understand the other way that CS Lewis rationalised grief: as the necessary 'other side of the coin' to the joy and pleasure of love. If you love someone (human or animal), then it is certain that you will experience the pain of loss (unless you happen to be the one to die first). It's just not possible to have the positive side of a relationship - the enjoyment, the shared times, the companionship - without the negative side of the sense of loss when it all eventually stops.

In the good times, it can be worth reminding ourselves that it's all temporary: this awareness can help us savour the moment even more. And in the bad times of grief, it can be worth remembering all the good times of previous months and years, reminding ourselves that it's only because we were blessed with such a positive relationship that we now feel so sad.

In my job as a vet, I rarely pause to reflect on these things: it's often a case of just going out to the waiting room, calling 'next please', and dealing with the next patient.

But on days like today, with those adorable puppies bringing such obvious pleasure into the lives of their families, I am reminded of the pure joy of pet ownership when it's at its best. These occasions are the perfect antidote to the gloomier days when pets' lives come to an end. I guess for vets too, in our daily jobs, both sides of the coin are equally necessary.

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