Confessions of a hospice worker

I have the best job in the world except for on the days when I want to go become someone’s secretary, when I would do anything to not have to be a responsible adult anymore. These are the days that I can no longer deal with one more animal I love dying, one more person I care about losing their best friend.

A long time ago I was told about the basket. The basket is where you put your own emotions, your own problems while you work. It is a common thing for anyone in a health profession. Every morning I get up and I put my own problems in the basket, I put my sorrow for the lovely golden retriever and the Irish setter with the great sense of humor who I both knew for six years who recently passed away, I put my fears over if the 16 year old dog I am seeing that morning will be here next week, I put my worries about if I will be able to help the little dog newly diagnosed with cancer, I put the frustration and unfairness of seeing so much death, I put the guilt from when I can’t help. It all goes in the basket.

They say at the end of the day you take that basket down again and you face everything you have put in it. But you know the truth; most days I can’t face it. Most days I go from work to being a mother to my son, to feeding and loving my four feline companions, to supporting my partner, to making sure we are all feed. Most days by the time I get to a point of taking down the basket I decide I would rather bury myself in a good book and ignore it all.

People talk about compassion fatigue. When I worked at the shelter we had workshops on this. You know when you are the one sticking the needle in and killing healthy cats and dogs while trying to save as many as you can there is a lot of that. We all suffered from it. Some days I would go home and lock myself in the bathroom and cry my eyes out but the next day I would get up again, pick myself up and go back to work. I believed that the good I was doing outweighed what we had to do everyday. I still believe that. But there are still nights I have nightmares about all the animals who died at my hand.

My work now is different. I no longer have to see animals die because we have too many. I know it happens, just not in front of me. I no longer allow myself to be the one holding the needle in the end. The last euthanasia I did was almost six years ago and with it came up every animal I had put in the basket while I was at the shelter and I vowed that I couldn’t be the person holding the needle any longer. I learned sometimes if you fill it too high the basket will overflow when you don’t want it to.

I know it is the time of year when this always comes up for me. I know once we get to summer things will get better again. Less animals die in the summertime. Fall and spring are the hardest for me, for them.

I have people ask me why I don’t see more animals, why I only work four days a week. I think what they don’t realize is I need time to get the basket down, I need time to be sad, I need time to not have to keep it together. I need time to curl up in a little ball if I need to or go down and sit by the sea. I need time to love my family, be a mother, be a partner. In doing this I am able to be more present in everything I do.

And in this all, the basket is really quite helpful. Because of it, when I am at work, I am able to be there fully.

Let me tell you about my work. I love the animals who I work with, I don’t know how to explain how much they touch my heart and teach me. But the part you may not know about is I also get to meet and know some of the most amazing people, people who know the true meaning of love. I feel like I become part of their family and they become part of mine.

I have watched children grow up, I watch people navigate through career changes and jobs, I get to hear about the joys and sorrows in people’s lives, I hear about people’s dreams and what they want, I see people grow and change alongside their animals. I see the incredible love that passes because a dog, a cat, a rabbit and their loved human family. I hear when they feel all alone and feel like no one understands how hard it is and what they are going through and their friends say, “its just a dog.” It and not he or she. I get to see the best of people, I see their love, I see how much they care, I see their true essence of who they are shine through. My heart opens every day as I see the care and love people give their animal companions.

My work is about loving and sadness, joys and losses, miracles and death. Most people only touch death a few times in their lives. I touch it daily. Sometimes I feel alone because of this. The key is in learning how to touch death and still stay alive inside. The danger is in closing down. I know it is better to feel like I can’t do this anymore than to feel nothing. I know that feelings pass and change. I know that after every hard week or day there are easier ones. After every difficult appointment there is someone who makes me laugh, some dog who kisses me on the face, a pug who comes in dancing, a poodle who comes in laughing, a mutt with the funniest ears and expressions. Of course let’s not forget the cats who spring up on the couch and declare that they are king of the universe for that hour as we blink at each other and pass cat kisses back and forth. I ask myself how could I possibly not do what I do. I would miss all this so much. This is what keeps me going day after day. This is what gets me up in the morning.

So it’s strange that the same thing that makes me think I can’t continue is the same thing that makes it so I can continue. It is what I get every day from those I love and work with both human and animal. In love is sorrow, in sorrow is love. This is the risk we all take in loving.

Sometimes I just need to remember that I am human.

I can’t save everyone, there are too many animals for me to help them all, I can’t be two places at once and sometimes it’s ok to lose it, to let the basket overflow. Sometimes it is ok to cry especially when I have loved. After all there is always a fuzzy being there to lick away my tears and make me smile. And in this comes healing.

Did I mention that I have the best job in the world?

2 Responses to “Confessions of a hospice worker”

  1. Linda Troup Says:

    Thank you for such a heartfelt post. I have also spent time in shelter work. I was a volunteer for many years and worked with dogs that failed their temp test and were getting another try. I’ve seen dogs that were there at the beginning of my shift and gone before I left. They weren’t adopted.

    Now I have a business teaching owners how to incorporate holistic options in everyday life. My local hands on bodywork brings me lots of geriatric, hospice and cancer dogs. I love working with them and their owners and I totally understand the worry that I’ll be losing another dog I love and will be seeing another client’s heart break. By this time they are so much more than a client, they have become dear friends, or family.

    I pray for strength for you, and for me. There are few that have what it takes to continually put their hearts on the line. Then there are some that doing this, and giving all they’ve got, feeds their soul. I’m one of those and accept the tears and heartbreak in exchange for making a dog feel better and being there for that owner. You are one of these people too.

    Bless you.

  2. Lena Says:

    Thank you Linda – I wouldn’t give it up for the world but sometimes it is hard. It tears at your heart and fills you up at the same time:-)