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MY mother is a psychiatrist. Her horror stories of the NHS and dire warnings about the life of a doctor were major reasons I chose to become a vet instead. She is also full of pithy insights on matters of human behaviour: sometimes confronting, sometimes enter-taining, but always educational.
During one unforgettable con-versation, discussing how to bring up the subject of death to children without causing them distress, my mother gave three key pieces of advice:
▪ Do it early
▪ Refrain from euphemism
▪ Get a hamster
Now, having spent some time in practice, I wonder if she under-estimated the native resilience of children.
I remember one particular blonde-haired, blue-eyed cherub, accompanying her mother and cat for the latter's annual vaccination. The cat obviously did not appreciate his unceremonious ejection from his box, and sat wide-eyed, ears back, tail swishing and fur on end. My examination over, I drew up the vaccine, while happily continuing my practised small talk: ‘Cats find it so stressful to travel in a cat box,’ I said. ‘They are only going one of two places, the cattery or the vets.’ But this time, my happy patter was suddenly and unexpectedly stemmed. In a loud, clear voice, the child spoke up, ‘or the slaughterhouse!’ Early understanding of mortality? Tick.
On another occasion, our most soft-hearted, cat-rescuing client brought in, alongside a forlorn feline too far gone to be helped, her young nephew. Mindful of my mother's advice, but still struggling to be uncomfortably direct, I explained the gravity of the situation, discussed the animal's welfare, and with heartfelt sympathy, I suggested that it might be time to let the cat go. It was a good speech, and I stood back with the sad satisfaction of having said exactly the right thing. With a roll of his eyes, the world-weary child sighed. ‘Urgh. Not another dying cat.’ Straight to the point? Tick.
I'd always thought that my mother's advice about hamsters was to educate young children about death, but the more time I spent in practice, the less convinced I became. A hamster's passing rocked the whole family – I had never seen expressions of grief that rivalled those seen in the majority of hamster euthanasia consultations. Mum, Dad, teenage children and the family dog, sobbing as the scrap of hamsterhood breathed his last.
The departure of Treacle the hamster was particularly memor-able. Treacle was borne in by a distraught mother and her young son, the mother almost incoherent with grief. After the event, as I tried to offer some gentle words of solace, the small lad turned to his mother. In a tone of happy interest, he asked, ‘So. When are we getting the next one?’ I could see that such an education in the death of a hamster had exacted a substantial emotional cost. Fortunately, I knew just what to say.
‘I think your Mum needs a bit of time to recover from the last one first . . .’
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