The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and the other begins?
-Edgar Allen Poe
Content Warning: This post is very heavy and involves some macabre details of my occupation and practice as well as discussion of suicide. I’ve also decided that this will be a multi-part series, though I have no idea how many.
Many folks that have known me over the years know that I work in emergency veterinary medicine and have been in the industry for 13 years now. It’s an often thankless job, full of blood, violence, tears, and anguish. But hey, someone’s gotta do it.
All jest aside, my work is very dark. Just this weekend, I saw necrotic limbs, flayed abdomens, and patients full of maggots; it’s never a dull moment in the Heart of the Delta. These patients come in screamin, cryin, clawin, and gnashin. In these first moments, it’s part of my job to ease their suffering. Sometimes, that means pain meds and sedation so I can begin to help heal their wounds, but sometimes it means they’ve come to the end of their road – especially if they’re a stray.
A previous roommate of mine did a project when we both went back to college about death and about our role in it; that project has stuck with me. He’s a former veterinary technician and we talked about how many lives we had each personally ended. Not how many we’d witnessed or assisted, but personally ended. This was several years ago and after some basic math, we figured we were each up to at least 3,000. Continuing that math now and makin some minor adjustments, I realize I’m now well over 6,000. That’s 6,000 beating hearts that these hands have stopped, 6,000 lives I’ve watched leave the eyes, 6,000 paws (and a few wings) I’ve held in their final moments in this life. To say this has taken a toll on me is an understatement; there’s a reason you don’t see many vet techs older than 45.
As a testament to this, veterinary medicine has now overtaken all other professions in rates of suicide (X, X, X). And these articles are just about the vets, often completely ignoring the nursing and support staff. Compassion fatigue has become a huge issue, leading my alma mater to do somethin proactive for once and pioneer the field of veterinary social work (X, X). It’s not uncommon to come home, start to unwind, and end up in tears over a soup commercial because I’ve spent all day on the edge of fightin it back. It can lead to very dark places and a lot of prayer and soul searchin to make it through.
As you can see, there’s a lot of trauma in the work I do. Which brings me to the religious component; I’ve been doin deathwork for as long as I can remember, since long before I ever identified as anything but Christian or had more than an inkling about actual magic. And really, it should come as no surprise to me or anyone else.
I was born under the shadow of death. My father was sick when I was born and died six months later. His father followed suit 6 days after my 1st birthday. My life was peppered with death since I was an infant, never goin more than six months without attending a funeral. Comin from a rough neighborhood in a Grit ‘n Grind town, I buried friends, loved ones, and family my entire life. It was so common that when I met people in college who’d never attended a funeral, I was shocked. Death has simply always been there, loomin like a predator and yet a constant companion. Becoming an agent of that death seems like a natural progression.
My work in veterinary medicine is, in retrospect, I think what led me to Flidais, and possibly her to me. The short version is that I felt a presence for years, especially when I’d spend long periods of time contemplating my role as Death. After stumbling upon her name, I instantly knew who’d been there all along. Though not typically seen as a chthonic deity or psychopomp, my own UPG very much sees her with feet in those roles. In my world, she plays this role in conjunction with Manannán mac Lir, Donn, and to some degree Brighid, though that’s long, complex, and very UPG. As for Flidais, I pray each time I take a life, that it be in the creature’s best interest, that she helps them understand, and comforts them. I pray that Manannán leads them gently to the Isle of Donn, that they rest there comfortably, and eventually Manannán leads their souls to the place of their eternal rest.
This past weekend, I faced a particularly hard case. Where I work, we regularly take in strays, often in the form of random pit bulls and kittens. Many of the kittens come in sick, but not too worse for wear. One kitten, one that should have been destined to be a beautiful black domestic longhair, came in weak, thin, and sickly. Many times, that alone leads to euthanasia simply because there are so. damn. many. kittens at any given time. In fact, the city is so full right now that none of the shelters or rescue groups can even hold any more. But I couldn’t bring myself to make that call. Upon tryin to get a temperature on the kitten, I noticed a small wound with little white visitors poppin in and out. This is another point at which most people call the game, but it didn’t look all that bad and I just knew it would be fine. So I gave her some pain medicine, gloved up, got the hot water goin, and began to debride the wound, one maggot at a time. Once I was done, it really didn’t look that bad. The wound was just in the skin, there was no GI, muscle, or body wall involvement, but the kitten’s temperature was low. I settled her up with some warm water bottles and a heating bad, glad that she would make it. At that point, I went to grab a tube of in-house ophthalmic ointment, opened one eye, and my heart sank; the rump wound wasn’t the only place that other creatures had found a home. Her eyes were completely gone and there was nothing I could do. This explained so much else that was happening (that I’ve left out here) and I knew it was time. I swaddled her close and administered the final medication she’d ever need. I whispered to Flidais, finding a moment of silence comforting in a room swarming with chaos, and delivered her my latest soul harvest.