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Remembered: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
The first pet I ever loved was named Lucky. She got that name because it took some seriously hard work to get her. My sister and I had a piece of construction paper taped up to our wall for years, counting up all the piano practices and math workbooks necessary to earn our way to getting a puppy. Lucky and I grew up together — I took her on neighborhood walks with my first middle school boyfriend, cried into her fur when my sister went away to college and everything in between.

When I was 21, and living halfway across the country in my senior year of college, my parents called me one day to let me know it was time. And it gutted me to not really get to say goodbye. Since Lucky, my parents adopted, loved and lost another pup, Simba, who they put down last year.

Since snowing Lucky and Simba, I've also brought another dog into my life: a scruffy, bearded terrier named Ollie. I know future grief won't be easier because of past experiences, because pet loss is deep, hard loss. But, it doesn't hurt to make a little more space to talk about.

This is Embodied — our show about sex, relationships and your health. I'm Anita Rao.

Dr. Satish Rao
There was a huge void after we lost Simba and, you know, it was hard to replace. And each pet you have, they have their own character. And there's a whole lifestyle for the day that revolves around the pet, but all of that is gone.

Sheila Rao
He was very, very active. He also was super affectionate. And every day, at some part of the day, he would come and sit next to me on the sofa when I would sit for a few minutes and, just, put his head on my leg. And that was just so lovely, so we miss him terribly.

Anita Rao
In case you're new around here, that's my mom, Sheila, and my dad, Satish. They used to be Embodied regulars, and I am so happy to bring their voices back to the pod. It has been too long. My parents don't come from cultures or families that usually talk openly about this stuff — my mom's a Brit, after all — but there's something about pets and the unconditional love they bring to our lives that open up a floodgate of emotions in all of us.

Angela
When I lost my dog Bailey, I was utterly shattered. He was my companion for nearly 16 years through numerous ups and downs, new beginnings and roller coasters. When he passed, I was so overwhelmed and overcome with grief. Just like in life, how he broke my heart wide open, the same happened in his passing.

Christine Stone
In those last moments that I had her in my arms, saw her take her last breath, it was devastating. She'd been through all kinds of major milestones in my life — job changes, divorce, finding a new husband, moving to different states. She was just my rock. I felt very lost and empty in those weeks and months following.

Haley
Because of that diagnosis, I really pushed to have the fullest life with him possible. I created a bucket list, which I highly recommend. And we went to the mountains a couple of times. We went to the beach and rode in the sand. And I think that fullness that I created because of, kind of, that urgency really helped me, just, be at peace with what happened inevitably.

Anita Rao
That was Angela, Christine and Haley. They're all people I reached out to for this show, specifically because I admired how openly they each grieved their pets. Angela is actually one of my favorite yoga teachers. And I vividly remember taking a class of hers not too long after she lost Bailey, and being struck at how open she was with all of us about just how much she was struggling. It may have made me shed a tear or two in child's pose, I'm not gonna lie. But not everyone feels as comfortable being open about pet grief.

Corban Smith
I had this concept of what I should look like after Dallas passed. Well, I wanted to be, sort of, this strong stoic presence in the household, but he really broke me down. And I regret letting that not show as much as it should have.

Anita Rao
That's Corban Smith. He's an adjunct professor at James Madison University who penned a beautiful piece about pet grief. Despite his background in social work and intellectual comfort with grief, he saw how toxic masculinity crept into his grief process and held him back from his own pain. And he's not alone. For many, pet grief in particular is uncomfortable to talk about.

Sarina Manifold
A lot of times, there's a discomfort with sharing it, because there are people out there that they might share it with who are like, "It was just a dog, it was just a cat." And then it's like, oh, you shut down.

Anita Rao
That's Sarina Manifold. She's a licensed clinical social worker with a specialized training in veterinary social work. We talked about how pet grief is disenfranchised.

Sarina Manifold
I'm so glad that you use that word "disenfranchised grief," because putting a label on it can be really helpful for folks to know, when they go through a loss that is — any kind of loss. I mean, our society does not do a very good job of supporting grievers. And when we have a loss that is not generally supported, it adds another layer of complexity, because sometimes we just want to talk about it. And a lot of times that's a big part of healing, is grievers want to be heard. They don't need or want to be fixed — they want to talk about it.

Anita Rao
A big way to talk about it — like really let people in — is to tell the story of who your pet was, and why that relationship in particular was so unique. We'll get back to Sarina in a minute. But first, here's a story of when a young man named Corban met a dog named Dallas.

Corban Smith
I got him when I was pretty much a puppy myself, I was a very young adult and very — if I'm being honest — irresponsible as a 19-year-old guy. He had the largest paws, and he used to parade around the room. And my parents kept telling me that he's going to be very large and should be well disciplined. But I was a 19-year-old at the time, and he basically grew up in a no rules fraternity house of sorts. So he was — he was very boisterous. He was half boxer and half lab. And I always said that he inherited the bad qualities of both of those breeds, but it made him even more lovable. He liked to chew on things, and he was very hyperactive. And he was just a high energy and, just, a very good companion animal.

Anita Rao
So having him through those, kind of, that big formative stage of your life — really becoming an adult, and figuring out how to make it on your own and growing up together — how did that shape the nature of your relationship with him?

Corban Smith
He was always there, he was a very lovable constant, I would say. And my — my development took a little bit longer than I'd planned. So pretty much the entire time I had Dallas, you know — he was 12 when he passed — I was still forming my self-identity throughout that time. And you know, no matter what was going on, he was always there. He always had these sort of droopy brown eyes that were always looking at me.

Anita Rao
You mentioned that he was boisterous and got into a lot of trouble, but he lived a pretty healthy 11 years. And then, one day when he was 11 years old, he started having seizures, kind of out of the blue. You took them to the vet immediately to figure out what was going on, and tell me a bit about what the vet told you that day.

Corban Smith
Yeah, so that was, you know, an awful experience, honestly. That morning he had seized, and it's just really strong sense of helplessness, because there was just nothing I could do about it. My wife now is a veterinarian, and she was in vet school at the time. We took him to the vet clinic, and I can't remember, if I'm being honest, the options he gave me that it potentially could be. The only one I really remember is he specifically said, "or it could be something more sinister," and that it could be a brain tumor. And that — that really scared me. Because, you know, Dallas, he had survived a lot of mischievous acts up to that point. And I knew, logically, eventually he's going to be gone. But all of a sudden, there really was, you know, a definite end to our time together. So the first pangs and fears sort of crept in.

Anita Rao
So you all were, kind of, at a decision-making point then about what you were going to do. Tell me about what you decided and what that next year of your life looked like.

Corban Smith
Yeah, so I was not financially comfortable enough where I could afford a lot of diagnostic type work or the treatment. So, my vet at the time, he knew my circumstances. He said, you know, you can get a diagnosis going, but I would say just treat him symptomatically, since you likely can't afford the treatment options as well. And that hit some guilt on my part — or the first, sort of, sense of guilt and shame that, you know, I love this dog so much. If I had the money I would have given everything I could to him, but I didn't. And that was — that was a hard pill to swallow.

Anita Rao
As a pet owner, I know how complicated financial decision-making can be. When my pup Ollie was just one and a half, he got bit by a copperhead in my backyard. I rushed him to the emergency vet only to be stunned by the financial costs of making sure he didn't lose a paw or worse. For Corban, acknowledging his financial limitations meant that the best thing he could do for Dallas was give him seizure medications and a good quality of life for as long as possible. He and his now wife spent a year taking care of Dallas and managing his medication. And then, at one point, it became clear that it was time.

Corban Smith
I think at that point, honestly, I was just emotionally exhausted. It was just a very long year, in sort of, I spent it on edge. But one night a seizure came, and we were maxed out on his dosage for his anti-seizure medication. I just didn't want him to suffer anymore, because I was just — wanted him around. And there were just, you know, very real limitations to what we could do.

Anita Rao
So you made that decision, and then you had a little — a little bit more time. Tell me about how you all spent your last day together and then what your intentions were for that day.

Corban Smith
Yeah, so I really just wanted to spend it — the best Dallas day as possible. I really wish — my wife is a veterinarian, and we euthanized him later that day at her practice. I wish she could've stayed the day, but she had to, you know, go in and work. So I stayed with Dallas, and I just fed him everything I could get my hands on. I distinctively remember and just, like, frisbee-ing pieces of bologna at him. He would just inhale them. And, just any — any food I could get my hands on, I gave to him. We walked around a little bit, and he kept having seizures as well. So it was, you know, very sweet moments where we would watch TV, and he'd lay on the couch, and our other companion animal, Willett, would lick at his ears. And then, he would have a seizure. And yeah, I just had to hold on to him and, just, that feeling of helplessness. It was a beautiful day, but it was challenging as well.

Anita Rao
Corban and his wife took all of Dallas' toys and donated them to his wife's veterinary practice, so other dogs could use them. They gave the house a good cleaning so that Dallas' hair wouldn't be everywhere and make their grief extra hard. And then later, they took his ashes and spread them around a lake in Alabama where he'd always been his happiest. Sarina has helped other pet owners through their grief, facilitating memorialization and remembrance ceremonies, depending on the owners wants and needs.

Sarina Manifold
Not everyone grieves the same way, so some people can't stand to have the reminders around, while some people really do need to have something that they can hold or look at. Or sometimes it's donating time. There are a lot of people who end up going and, like, volunteering at animal shelters, or volunteering with a rescue after their animal's death, as a way to honor what their animal did for them and give back to one, because they're not ready to adopt another one yet. But they do want to still give love and show love to another animal. When I was at the University of Tennessee, I facilitated a quarterly memorial celebration where we invited people to come, and they — we did an art project. So, there was a memorial art project — everyone made the same one, but we changed it up every event. And so, things like memory boxes, making a memory candle, doing picture collages, just things like that can be really helpful for people. Gets them in touch with their creative side, they don't have to necessarily talk about it.

For me, some of the animals in my life, I've got a clay paw print, which a lot of veterinary practices are offering after your animal is euthanized or dies. So I have the clay paw impression next to the urn, and I've got a candle beside that. And it's just a sort of a space where if I really want to stay connected with my animal, I go there.

Anita Rao
I love that. Yeah, and figuring out, you know, what is going to be meaningful in terms of, you know, that specific dog and their energy and their relationship. And I think, I mean, you — you mentioned the question of, you know, not feeling ready to — volunteering — if you don't feel ready to adopt again. And I know that a question that comes up a lot from people when they're mourning the loss of the pet is, when's the right time to get another animal? Coban, I want to put that question to you, and how you and your wife were thinking about that after Dallas died.

Corban Smith
After Dallas passed, I didn't think I was gonna be ready for another dog anytime soon. We lost him in October of that year. And then my wife's — one of her first cousins — has a golden retriever that we're very fond of. And we knew that he was going to have another litter coming eventually. I think we discussed it a few times, and I was just like, I'm not ready, I — another big dog, that's a whole thing. So and, I was still, sort of, grieving Dallas and that big, empty, furry hole. And then, we suddenly got a text message, and were basically asked, "Do you want one for your wedding present?" And I had mixed emotions about it. I did, but there was still a sense of guilt or questioning like, "Is this right? Like, am I — am I really ready?" But, we did, we said, "Yes, we do." And he's — he's different than Dallas. He's a golden retriever, not the boxer-lab mix. And Pavlov is very relaxed, he's very docile. He's — he's kind of derpy. But yeah, we've just really enjoyed building a new relationship with Pavlov.

Anita Rao
Sarina, I know you spoke about this field of veterinary social work that you're in and how helpful it can be to have someone who knows all of this in that space. But that work is also really taxing, to bear witness to grief. So how do you support yourself through doing this work day after day?

Sarina Manifold
Yeah, first and foremost, I check in with myself at the end of the day and ask myself, "Alright, how are you feeling?" Because my feelings are gonna give me a cue as to, what do I need? Which might be, I need to go for a walk and move my body, I might need to eat, I might need to sleep, I might need a hug. I might need to go hang out with friends and, just, be around people and laugh. I might need downtime and, just, quiet time. It varies from moment to moment, day to day. And I think it's really, just, having that awareness and practicing that awareness, that one of the reasons it's important for me to take care of myself is because I value the work I do. So I just keep reminding myself: I can't do this work unless I'm taking care of me.

Anita Rao
If you're in a caretaking profession like Sarina, figuring out how to meet your mind and body's needs is the only way to make that job sustainable. But no, it shouldn't be on you to figure it out yourself. The veterinary industry, in particular, is in the throes of a mental health crisis. And systemic change is needed urgently.

Dr. Erika Lin-Hendel
We, as a profession — the entire team — have higher rates of suicidal ideation and risk of suicide compared to the average population.

Anita Rao
Meet Dr. Erika Lin-Hendel. They're a relief veterinarian and a board member for Not One More Vet, a mental health advocacy group for veterinarians. They mentioned the disproportionately high suicidal ideation rate in their profession. And y'all, the data is really staggering. A 2015 study found that one in six veterinarians has considered suicide, and the rate of suicide in the veterinary profession is more than twice of that in the medical profession. The root causes of the mental health crisis are many. Vets have constant exposure to death, work long hours and have to make complicated ethical decisions every single day. Erika saw those factors take a toll on them and their peers early — starting in vet school itself.

Dr. Erika Lin-Hendel
I both experienced personally and witnessed a lot of mental health challenges — as far as depression, anxiety — an absence of resources and accessible resources, as well as, kind of, this pressure to perform. I think that learning how to navigate that space — to create space for oneself when you're in a service-based industry where you're caring for other living beings and being stewards of the emotional processing of other individuals — it can be easy to pour all of yourself into that without giving back to yourself. And I — there's not a lot of space for that at the educational systems that I went through. And that is thankfully changing slowly but surely, in that students are getting some of this information earlier on. And again, this is not something that is unique to veterinary medicine as a medical practice. So we see this also in nursing and in human medicine. And often some of the mental health struggles that have been researched in that area can be applied or inferred until we have our own research.

Anita Rao
Yeah, and I mean, you're making, you're making parallels between your work and the work of other folks in medical professions. And it reminded me of a lot of conversations that I've had with my sister. She's a pediatrician, and one of the things that she talks a lot with me about is the challenge of having a job where the client is the kid, but you're doing a lot of interacting with a parent. And as a vet, you're experiencing this a lot, this dynamic that causes a lot of challenges. What's in the best interest of the pet? What do they need? But how do you manage that with the emotions of the owner? Can you talk about some of the challenges of that for vets, and how that, you know, shapes their experience of the job?

Dr. Erika Lin-Hendel
That is a very, very excellent and complex question. It's going to vary from person to person, because it all goes back to communication and how we interface with other people. There are some studies to suggest that veterinary medicine has a higher rate of introverts compared to other spaces. There's, you know, an anecdotal joke that, like, people are like, "Oh, I got into veterinary medicine because I would prefer not to interact with people." But it is a heavily people-centered profession, and sometimes that can be difficult. Because communication skills — when you think about that — is not something that is really centered in a lot of education. And it's like doing complex social calculus all the time, and that can be pretty draining.

Anita Rao
Yes, it sounds very draining. And yeah, you can turn to your peers for support, and peer-to-peer support is a big thing in veterinary medicine. But Erika's organization, Not One More Vet, is trying to help create more structural resources to support veterinary mental health. They're piloting a new training program for vet clinics to use to think about how to maintain a healthy workplace, be trauma-informed and have conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. As a relief vet, Erika spends time in a variety of veterinary clinics, which gives them a bird's eye view of different workplace cultures and necessary change.

Dr. Erika Lin-Hendel
I think that for me, it really comes down to compassion for each other, and also compassion for people who are going through really difficult times. I think, at times, it can be challenging to hold space for the different types of emotions that exist with people that are ostensibly strangers at certain points in time, right. We have issues that have come up over the last several years of client aggression, you know, paired with what we're already trying to do with supporting clients through grief. Like, all of these things can be really, really, really difficult. So I think that the check-ins, creating space for and the awareness within the veterinary community about how do we check in with ourselves, communicate about it to our team, support our team. And then, of course, also thinking about issues of like, pay equity for our support staff, and how our whole team, you know, has a living wage and can find supportive space in work. So that whatever is going around around work that we still carry in with us as whole people — that we can still function as whole people overall, for the long-term thriving rather than making it work day to day.

Anita Rao
You mentioned this, kind of, growth of online bullying of vets and harassment on social media and review sites and all of that, which kind of brings me to where I'd love to close with you, which is, what do you want animal owners to know and be considering about mental health in this field the next time they go see their veterinarian? As a pet owner myself, I'm curious to know, like, what's a — what's a way to be supportive?

Dr. Erika Lin-Hendel
I think engaging in, like, a meaningful dialogue, like recognizing that dialogue has to happen, while also recognizing the fact that your veterinarian has to be in multiple places and multiple emotional places, that what you're experiencing is a part of that person's day and that they might have, you know, 15 other appointments and pets that they're navigating — some of those might be euthanasia, some of those might be critical cases — and trying to create space for patients. Grace and respect is really, really, really important. Really coming from it — from the perspective of recognizing that the relationship that you have with your veterinarian is one of many. And to also, when you have the space, to express gratitude — that can make someone's day. And you know, just know that when you express your appreciation to your veterinarian about the role that they have in your life and your pets' lives, that is something that really contributes to why we do the work. So that type of expression really has a big impact.

Anita Rao
Show your vet some love and STAT. The kind of bullying Erika mentioned has been on the rise at the same time that we're facing a huge veterinary shortage. Tons of people wanted animal companions in the pandemic at the same time that vets and vet techs were leaving the field because of pay concerns, rude patients or burnout. We love our pets, and we want them and their caretakers to be healthy. So let's get some community care going. I trust y'all are the ones to do it. And now, I leave you with some sweet pet stories. Grab the Kleenex.

Haley
After his passing, I leaned heavily on my other horse. And we were out riding one day, and we rode past the pasture where he had last saw his brother, as I called him. And you know, he really perked up, he looked for him. They had been together for 10 years, they were very bonded. When I broke down because of that, I really think my other horse, kind of, understood.

Christine Stone
I've seen a lot of people that, very quickly, after losing a pet, they adopt a new one. And for me, personally, I needed that space to, just, heal and process. But I've been able to open my heart again, and we have a rescue dog. And I'll still always love my first dog.

Erik Magnus
We have a portrait of Frances that we've hung up, so that my 3-year-old can remember what she looks like. And, it's really beautiful, and a lot of times I see our 3-year-old just looking at it, and saying, "That's what Frances looks like." It still makes me incredibly sad thinking about it, but it's nice to see it through my 3-year-old's eyes, and knowing that she still remembers. And what is grief, if not remembering and loving?

Dr. Satish Rao
So, Simba was a very affectionate, extremely clever and highly interactive dog. And I think we loved all of those characteristics in him. He also learned a lot of tricks, and he would have never hesitate to show off whenever we had guests.

Anita Rao
What were his top tricks?

Dr. Satish Rao
Well, his topmost trick he learned, which I've never been able to teach to any other dog, was doing a namaste. Where he would literally go up in the air, and cross his two forearms and hold them together, just like human would do a namaste. And, that was very classic for him. And he'd do all the things like, jumping through a hula hoop. And so he was very good.

Anita Rao
So you mentioned that, you know, he was really, very healthy. And I know that his decline was really painful to watch, because it wasn't quite clear what was happening for a long time, and what he would need, and how much pain he was in and, kind of, what the prognosis was. And I remember the night before you put him down, you called all of us and we were all on FaceTime to say goodbye. And I was — it was just devastating. But I want to know what it was like for you. And Dad, I mean, kind of, what did you all want his last day to be like, and then what did you want for the end of his life?

Dr. Satish Rao
So the critical thing for us was that he should not suffer. He was already suffering quite a bit, and I think we were also suffering. So we made the decision, we went there. They wanted us to spend a few minutes with Simba by ourselves. And then, they said that they would take Simba away and put on an IV catheter. Simba came back, he was still good with us. And then, while we held him, they gave him the injection, and I think he — in our own arms — he, within a matter of 10 minutes, I think he just passed away.

Sheila Rao
You know, we — we wanted to bring him back and bury him in his only home he knew. I'm gonna cry, I think. So I carried him in the car wrapped in some towels, and we held him. And then, it was pouring with rain. And Dad has never dug or done any gardening. I'm like, "Hurry up and dig this hole." And then we — people said, "Okay, you must dig at least three feet." And there were twigs and branches, so we were literally in our raincoats. And we were sweating while we took turns holding Simba's body, and dug the hole — dug, dug, dug, dug, dug, and we were crying, and it was raining. It was really sad. And then, I immediately made an album — just pictures.

Anita Rao
I think it's, like, a type of — I mean, it's a type of loss. Just gonna snot into my microphone. It's a type of loss that is, like, it's really hard to talk about. There's not a lot of space for it, and I think a lot of people don't understand. And it's — I mean, it's such a significant role that this animal plays in your life. And I mean, I'm curious about, like, yeah, how much space did you guys make for grief? Like, you're — you're both people that are, you know, very proactive and pragmatic, and, you know, move on to the next thing, but do you feel like you did make space for grief? Have you — how have you done that?

Dr. Satish Rao
No, it is a very important part, and it is not easy to overcome that overnight. In fact, it probably remains for a very long time. I mean, I think we still remember — although we left Westlake, we would go back and bike in Westlake. But even that biking became very challenging for us, and we had to stop, and I would cry and mom would cry and so on. We were nowhere near the house, but just entering Westlake. Because we knew where we were walking with Simba — some of the same trails where we would bike now. So, after two or three bike rides we said, "No, no, we don't want to go back to Westlake." So we would bike outside Westlake, and even today, that's what we do.

Anita Rao
Well, I'm glad you have another pet to cherish, but I know that — yeah, we all miss Simba dearly and his quirks and his sweetness. And thank you for — for remembering him and talking about the grief with me. I really appreciate it.

Sheila Rao
You're welcome. Remember you said he was king of the sofa.

Anita Rao
He was king of the couch.

Dr. Satish Rao
Right he was —

Sheila Rao
King of the couch.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

If you enjoyed the show, text it to three pet lovers in your life. You spreading the word about Embodied is how this community grows, and it means so much when you share.

This episode was produced by Kaia Findlay. Amanda Magnus is our editor, Audrey Smith also produces for our show, Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music.

Thanks to Angela, Christine, Erik, Haley and my parents for contributing their experiences to this show.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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