I wanted to share my experience of trying to work full-time in small animal practice while losing both my parents in quick succession.
When I look back, they were extreme circumstances – my father died twelve days after my Mum due to a serious brain injury resulting from a fall. I had no idea how overwhelming grief and shock could be – if life was a game of football, someone had shifted the goal posts and changed the rules – I didn’t know which direction to go in.
Being an assistant in a four person practice, time off just to deal with the practicalities alone was difficult and guilt ridden. While veterinary training is as much about being methodical and in control, I felt anything but and my GP advised “if you can’t separate your professional life from your personal you should not be at work”. I was signed off work on several occasions and for a time was on anti-depressants.
Coping with euthanasia was especially difficult; I was struggling to contain my own grief and also resented the fact that owners were so upset about a mere animal, not a human. It is what I would now think of as compassion fatigue.
Looking back I was lucky I had the right people around. My husband was very supportive but often said he just didn’t know what to say or do, although just being there was a huge help; the hospital Chaplain was truly a godsend – I could just turn up whenever I didn’t know where to else to go.
My mother’s hospital team also put me in touch with an NHS counsellor. I was unsure about this, but I think I had tried hard just to keep going. I had lots of techniques/tips to hand and felt exercise made me feel better but I really needed to get to the root of the problem as to why several months later, I felt my inner resources were still so low.
I felt burnt out, and the decision I came to eighteen months after my parents deaths was to resign from my job. Ironically, due to their deaths, I had the financial security at the time to do so, and other doors opened: I continued to treat my acupuncture patients one day a week and six months later I was self-employed, running an acupuncture clinic which has developed into a successful business. Ten years on, I am still self-employed, and also treat people with massage and acupuncture in addition to doing regular locum veterinary work.
The challenges of veterinary practice are ever-present and I feel that the additional impact of bereavement cannot be underestimated. The question of how much time off a person needs is difficult to answer, as everyone is different and circumstances differ, but it is important to address the issues at the time and it may be that seeking advice and counselling will help people cope better in the long term. The right people are out there. If in doubt pick up the phone or email Vetlife Helpline.