Episode 72 | Losing Willow

In this episode, I share about the recent loss of my heart cat, Willow. I share about what happened, the extreme grief I experienced, how I moved through that grief, and what I learned in the process that can help all veterinary professionals and pet owners who have experienced losses of their own.



  • Pet Loss
  • The Grief Process
  • Lessons Learned


The Grief Process >>> https://joyfuldvm.com/petloss


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00:00:00 Grief and the unexpected loss of my heart cat, Willow, that's what I'm sharing in episode 72. I'm Dr. Cari Wise, and this is the Joyful DVM Podcast. Hi, friends. Welcome to episode 72. Today's episode is going to be a little bit different. I'm going to share with you what happened here behind the scenes at Joyful DVM beginning exactly four weeks ago today at the time that I'm recording this podcast episode.

00:00:40 So exactly four weeks ago today, the seasoning to be exact. When I decided to feed my cat Willow her evening meal, she got, always got a little bit of canned food at night before bed. She was not interested. Now, this set off some alarms for me. This is a cat that always loved her canned food. And so it was quite peculiar that she didn't want to eat her food that evening.

00:01:05 There'd been a lot of hustle and bustle and craziness going on around the house. So I thought, well, maybe she's just off a little bit. And so I just kind of noted it and went on about the evening. But the next morning when we got up, I could tell she just didn't feel well. I took her temperature. She was running a little bit of a fever.

00:01:24 So I went ahead. I drew some blood work on her, and I ran that down to the veterinary school, which thankfully the University of Missouri is not that far from me. So I dropped that blood work off. And while I was waiting for the results, I went ahead and gave her some fluids and some antibiotics because she was running a bit of a fever.

00:01:40 And by the time that I got back home from dropping off that blood work, what I found kind of freaked me out sitting right outside of the litter box was a huge pool of blood. Now I know this is a little bit graphic and I'm going to try not to include a ton of details, but I wanted to include that just so that you knew kind of the significance of how shocking what was happening was for me and probably for her quite honestly.

00:02:08 So over the next few hours, as I work to get some additional samples from her and to try to figure out what the heck was going on, more of the same just kept happening on Saturday. We didn't have any answers other than being slightly anemic at that point. And having some white blood cells that were looking toxic, there really weren't any answers.

00:02:30 I was expecting her maybe to be in kidney failure or to have some kind of urinary tract thing going on. But aside from the blood, there just really wasn't anything interesting there that day, she seemed to feel a little bit better and that was Saturday. So on Saturday, she started to feel a little bit better. She ate for me. She walked around,

00:02:49 she spent most of the day kind of curled up on a blanket beside me on the couch, but I thought we were on the mend Sunday. She started to go downhill again. And by Monday morning, she didn't look very good at all. So that day I took her to the vet school and I had them do all the things, ultrasounds, imaging.

00:03:08 Let's see if we could figure out what was going on, repeat her blood work. I knew that she was in bad shape. I could tell by the way that she looked on Monday morning, that this was not going in the direction that I had hoped throughout the course of the day there, her blood volume dropped down to around six to 7%. Her blood pressure was being maintained with bolus as a fluid and her blood work showed that she was in a complete state of bone marrow shutdown.

00:03:35 Now we don't know why could it be cancer in the bone marrow? Absolutely. One of the top differentials, especially with the way that the cells themselves looked and her lack of regeneration. She didn't have any platelets, very few to be seen at all, which explained the bleeding that we were seeing. And it was shocking to experience this, to see a cat that went from being completely normal on Thursday morning to near death.

00:04:03 By Monday. I wish I could tell you that this story turns out well, but it doesn't sure they gave me some options on how we could keep her going to keep trying to figure out what was happening. But I'm a veterinarian. I know that there's nothing good that comes from this, that the only reason to try to sustain her life with a series of blood transfusions to get to an answer would be only because I wasn't ready to let go.

00:04:29 And I've been in this profession long enough and own pets long enough in my life to know that that's just never the right choice. At least it's not the right choice for me. So with the new information, with the decline that we had seen over four days with a kidney that had gotten to the point that she was just so obviously suffering, I elected to go ahead and bring her home and help her pass.

00:04:53 Since then, it's been an interesting journey. The grief that I experienced with the loss of Willow is unlike any grief that I've experienced before. There've been some lessons that I've learned along the way. The first lesson is a lesson of compassion. This experience has allowed me to have a broader sense of compassion for pet owners. And I'm a pretty compassionate person.

00:05:18 I'm a person that can always see a different perspective. I really work hard never to judge a pet owner harshly, but I remember back in my earlier days of veterinary medicine, how easy it would be to judge a pet owner for how bad of shape their pet was in when they came in. And what Willow taught me was more of a reminder of how well they hide their problems.

00:05:42 Animals are just built to never show weakness. You know how it is in the wild. If you show weakness, he becomes somebody's lunch. And this is a cat that I saw every single day. I work from home. She was right. She was my copilot. She lived my heart cat. You know, I love my cats here at joyful DVM.

00:06:03 And I have more than one, but Willow is special. And as I saw, I just a hint of her not feeling good on Thursday night to getting to the point that we let her go on Monday. I was just reminded how quickly it can all fall apart. And that compassion that I have for pet owners really expanded. And I felt a little bit shameful over how much I had judged some pet owners in the past.

00:06:29 We think when we see them, that there's no way that they couldn't have known, but I promise you, my friend, I had no idea. She showed me nothing, nothing at all until it was to a point that there was nothing we could do. Now, of course, I spent the time since that day, second-guessing, what did I miss?

00:06:48 How did I not see this? And the truth is I have no idea. I've just had to work to forgive myself in this area because I don't think that there's anything that I could have done differently. I hadn't been distracted. I hadn't been unaware. It all just seemed normal. So that has been part of the process is working to forgive myself for what I didn't see,

00:07:14 but really using it as an opportunity to realize that nobody knows that it's very rare that you have a pet owner that comes in with a pet with an extreme illness that has let it go on as long as what many of us would believe that they have. And so that expanded ability for compassion has been quite a lesson that I've learned. Another lesson that I've learned throughout this entire process is that grief just doesn't look the same twice.

00:07:45 I've been a pet owner for pretty much my entire life. And some of you know that my dad was a veterinarian. So I've been in veterinary medicine for my entire life. And I think back, and I compare the experience of losing Willow to the experience of losing Largo, who was the Calico cat that came before Willow. When I lost Largo almost 10 years ago.

00:08:07 Now she was 19 years old. At that point, I had had her for half of my life. It was a hard loss, but it wasn't unexpected. She had lived a long and relatively healthy life. I was really fortunate to have her that long, but Willow was only four and a half years old. We didn't have enough time. This wasn't supposed to be happening.

00:08:33 And it was such a stark reminder of how little control we have over the world. It's the thing we've been talking about a lot here on the podcast and in the world in general. There's just so little that we know. And as I've gone through the process of losing Willow, it's been quite different than what I experienced in losing Largo. Now,

00:08:54 of course, between those times there have been other pets that we have lost within this last year. We lost our geriatric docksin Missy. It was her time. She was really old and she had become very ill and yes, we grieved and we were sad, but it didn't hang around. Like this did that. I think back to about two years ago,

00:09:15 when we lost bud, when we lost bud, he was also a senior cat. He'd been through hyperthyroidism. He was diabetic and it wasn't getting controlled very well. And he was sick. He was ready. And that was very sad, but it wasn't one that came out of the blue. And what's interesting is that after bud passed away, I was left with Willow and Beemer,

00:09:40 who is my senior cat, my most senior cat at this point. And Beamer is 16 years old now. And when it was down to just the two of them, I started thinking ahead to what it would be like when it was just Willow. And I didn't want her to have to be the only cat. So a few years back, we got peaches never in my wildest dreams.

00:10:02 Did I think that peaches and Beamer would be the two of the three still left? It's crazy how these things happen. Also in the time, if I think back to some of the pet losses that we've had, I think about Fremont who had a saddle thrombus when he was only 12, that was an abrupt loss, sudden unexpected, but it was also different.

00:10:23 It was tragic. We were very sad about that, but that loss somehow just made more sense given what he had, you know, I could go on and on about the pets that we've lost because when you have pets, of course, you'll lose them, but this one was just different. And so the lesson that I kind of relearn through the loss of Willow was that grief just doesn't look the same way twice that the loss and the things that happen,

00:10:47 they just don't look the same way twice. And this one has probably been the hardest of any of the pets that I've lost in my lifetime. That happened, her loss was right before the Christmas holidays and I had things to do, but those things didn't get done. I really put a total stop at the beginning of that week. And for me to do that was a really big deal.

00:11:10 I'm pretty resilient. I can push through just about anything, but this completely knocked the wind out of my sails. I took the time that week to process the grief and the loss in a way that I've never done before. And by allowing myself that time and working through that process, it really was kind of a beautiful experience. What was fascinating was how quickly I was able to move forward.

00:11:37 Now don't get me wrong. I'm still terribly sad about the loss of Willow. And there are still times that I get choked up when I think about it, but it's not every day at this point, it hasn't even been every week. I've been able to move out of that. But those first few days, those first few days, my husband didn't even know what to do with me.

00:11:57 And it was quite an interesting place to be because that's not typical of the way that I react to anything. I tend to be the one that's strong and the one that puts on a brave face and that just keeps moving forward. But not this time, as I've shared this story inside of some of the joyful DVM groups with some of our members and our students,

00:12:17 of course, I've gotten a lot of understanding and condolences, but what's been interesting. And what they've been curious about is what was the process that I used this time? How did I process this grief? How did I move through this? And as I've kind of pondered that myself, what I've decided to do is to put together a pet loss, grief processing resource,

00:12:44 really just walking through what I did in those days and weeks immediately following this loss and how those things made all the difference in the world and helping me get to a point that by the Friday, after her loss on Monday, I was able to actually tell the story of it without breaking down. That's fascinating to me that I got there given where I was just four days earlier in the three weeks since then,

00:13:12 it's been an interesting ride every day. There's still a little bit of sadness, but mostly just happiness and so much gratitude for the time that we had together. And we've even added another kitten or two to the mix. I love Calico cats, and I didn't really anticipate that I would be ready for another one. I mean, shoot, after I lost Largo,

00:13:36 it was six years before I got another, but I knew as I got toward the end of that first week, that this was going to be different. And as I really settled into a place of acceptance in that second week, I started to look and as fate would have it, I found not one but two Calico kittens. Now I didn't need two kittens,

00:13:59 but somehow here they are. Now, it's been an interesting ride of its own. As peaches has gotten used to our new friends here and Beemer who could care less because he likes all the cats all the time. Everybody's getting settled into the new normal. And now four weeks out from when this entire thing started, I'm here recording this podcast, sharing what happened over here,

00:14:23 behind the scenes. And just a little bit of what I personally went through in the process, but more importantly, excited to share with you how I did move through those initial few days, what I did to take care of myself and why I think it is so important that you do the same. And then that gentle reminder that we just never know what's going on with these animals.

00:14:50 And if our tendency tends to be toward the judgment of the pet owner, who presents you with a critically ill pet, remember my story, they just probably had no idea. You can have somebody who's been in veterinary medicine for over 20 years, have a critically ill pet, and have no clue. I promise it's happening to our clients. There really isn't any place at all for that kind of judgment.

00:15:17 And as I think back to when I have been judgmental toward clients and to the judgment that I had toward myself around the loss of Willow, what I can see clear as day is that judgment is simply a reflection of me wanting things to be different than they are, that that judgment comes from underneath realization. That no matter how good of a vet I am,

00:15:40 I'm not going to help this one. This one, isn't going to turn out the way that I want it to. And I want it to be better than this. I always want my patients to get better. I definitely wanted the same for my own pet. And in those moments of helplessness, it's very normal for us to turn to blame. I did that to myself over this case.

00:16:02 And as I did it to myself, I could see where I had done it to others. And I suspect you probably have to, I'm not telling you this to beat you up. I'm telling you this, just to share that it's okay, that we can't save them all that it's never been our job. That physiology is something we will never control.

00:16:22 And that as long as we choose to work in a profession that involves caring for animals, we will have heartache, but heartache is only one piece of it. And the level of grief that any of us experience is simply a reflection of the level that we loved. And I don't know about you, but I'm willing to do it all over again. If it means I get to experience another relationship with a pet,

00:16:48 like what I had with Willow and what I had with Largo before her, some of these relationships are just special and it's worth it. It's all part of this deal, all part of this career path that we chose in this life path that we chose when we've chosen to share our hearts with our pets and with animals. So if maybe you've gone through something similar,

00:17:13 if you've lost one of your heart pets, and you've just had a really hard time being able to move forward from it, or you just want to know a better way to help your clients who are going through the same thing, then jump over to joyful dvm.com forward slash pet loss and sign up to get notified. When I release that resource on how I worked through pet grief this time and how you can do the same.

00:17:38 This is part of veterinary medicine and pet ownership that we don't spend a lot of time talking about, but in a profession that comes with an extreme level of stress and extreme level of responsibility that we put on ourselves, if we don't know how to manage our grief appropriately, it can bury us. The truth is though friends. We need to get back up that those of us who hurt so much when we lose our own pets,

00:18:08 are those who have a capacity to help other people in a way that we can't even really realize it is our own experiences that make us better at helping clients. And it is our willingness to do it all over again. That reminds us that it was always worth it, no matter what happened in the end. All right, my friends, I'm going to leave you with that and I'll see you next week.

00:18:34 Bye for now!