Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I work in the animal health field in a large, progressive city so I don’t often get faced with situations like these, but when I do I’m never sure how to respond. Once upon a time I was a theist, but that way of thinking is so far behind me that I can hardly understand it anymore.
No small part of my job is discussing the quality of life of people’s beloved pets and helping guide them to what is right for them and the animal. Often this means discussing euthanasia, when it is appropriate to decline further diagnostics and/or treatments, and what to expect as death, natural or not, approaches. Most of the time religion doesn’t come into the discussions, which is fine by me. However occasionally people have asked me to pray or light a candle for their pet, and out of compassion for the person I will tell them I will keep them in my thoughts (which is true) but I cannot bring myself to lie to them and say yes.
On two memorable occasions I was confronted by clients who chose to keep their pets alive under palliative care (hospice) because they believed in miracles and thought that god would help them. Both times I was so floored I could make no response for a moment and then simply chose to ignore the comment in favor of repeating the veterinarian’s medical advice.
In other cases people have actually asked me if they will see their pets in heaven, or told me that the pet will be reincarnated and return to them. I never know how to respond to this and it is usually followed by awkward silence.
Other times I’ve come across clients who believe in woo woo “alternative” medicines, and these I actually find easier to deal with since I can say that I prefer to go with evidence based medicine. I usually elect to leave the doctor to discuss it, and make sure the client knows there are evidence based medical treatments available.
So much of what I do is based on not only the technical skills I employ, empathy for the animal and understanding animal behavior, but also in communicating the animal’s needs both psychological and physical, to the client. If the client feels that there is this awkwardness between us, I become a much less effective communicator since they now think they have a reason to not trust me. It is my duty to advocate for the animal and be its voice, but when people know or suspect you have such a radically different world view from them how do you do this? I simply can not connect with their worldview and do not know how to respond. The only thing I have I come up with is that for those who I now know are of the very religious mindset I do try to suggest to the shift leader perhaps one of my religious coworkers takes the case, but sometimes I still get thrown a curve ball.
Do you have any suggestions for how to handle these situations?
I thank you for your time and consideration.
You’re already doing much of what I would suggest. You’re showing exemplary caring and sensitivity for the people whose pets are in your care. The fact that you feel awkward in these situations shows your desire to respond in honest yet helpful and compassionate ways, rather than sparing yourself that discomfort by being cold or indifferent.
People can worry and grieve over their pets just as intensely as they do over their family members. Very often their pets are family members as far as they are concerned, and in many cases pets are the only family that people have. The presence of pets to love and care for has long been observed to benefit the health of their owners, so in a very real sense, your patients are both the animals and the people who bring them to you.
Grave worry and grief sometimes bring out child-like emotions in adults. They feel helpless and vulnerable like children, and they want reassurance that they would otherwise not even consider to be important. The best way that other adults can respond is to suspend making any value judgments about that, and to simply attend to the temporary neediness with patience and kindness as best they can.
You are very skilled at recognizing animals’ needs and feelings. With language, people can be more directly expressive of their needs and feelings, but at the same time they can have conflicting motives that cause them to be reserved about expressing themselves clearly and frankly. Sometimes we have to guess more about our own species than we do about other species. So the challenge for you, which you’re already handling better than many people, is to look for the needs and feelings that are implied by their words, and not just the words themselves.
When people ask you to pray or light a candle for their ailing pets, they’re expressing their need to know that someone caring will be close to their pets when they cannot be. They hate having to leave their sick or dying pet in a veterinarian’s clinic overnight, because they’re accurately empathizing what their pet is feeling, just as you do as part of your job. Telling people that their pet will be in your thoughts is a good balance of honesty and diplomacy. To respond to the need that is implied by their words, you could add that you’ll make sure that their pet will be comfortable and will have caring attention from you and other staff while they’re there.
When people ask you if they’ll see their deceased pets again in heaven, they’re expressing their grief and longing. Your response can be both honest and compassionate. Say something like, “I don’t know, but it’s very clear that (your pet) was well and deeply loved while in your care, and I’m sure (your pet) loved you very much in return.” The “I don’t know” is your honest answer to their question, and the rest is your giving them what they really need, what is implied behind the question. They need to express to someone how much they loved their pet, and how much they already miss them. In the process of grief, simply being heard and understood by a receptive person is an important part of healing. By the way, this is one reason that we love our pets. They never tire of listening to us pour out our feelings.
I think you handle the people who talk about alternative treatments very skillfully, and I have nothing to add except to look for any implied needs similar to those that I’ve described above, which you could briefly acknowledge. Remember, you don’t have to fulfill these needs by actually solving the problem. Very often you can’t. You only have to acknowledge their needs and validate their feelings.
You can preserve the trust and rapport with your clients by focusing on the “worldview” that you do share; the emotions you recognize in them, your need to love and be loved, your familiarity with grief, and your instinct to comfort others who are in pain. Your and their differing opinions about deities, souls, and an afterlife are mere effete abstractions when compared to these primal and far more beautiful attributes that you and they have in common. Look for, listen for, and feel for those deep human commonalities, and I think your responses will be less awkward and more effective.