The Last Walk: How a pet's death informs our take on end-of-life care, too

Bauer -1Wu with Irish A Medical Center Hour, John F. Anderson Memorial Lecture Feb 27, 12:30 p.m.

(2-19-13) The loss, for nursing professor Susan Bauer-Wu (right), is still fresh.

Those soulful eyes. The lanky black and white body and gray muzzle, supple with age. The grace and stride of his gallop. The utter sincerity of his love.

“There are real lessons we can learn in the end of life in animals that we can bring to human care,” says Bauer-Wu, the Kluge Endowed Professor in Contemplative End-of-Life Care in the School of Nursing. “For me, the loss of my dog meant enduring much of what we humans endure when it comes to the death of a loved one.”

Bauer-Wu, who studies mindfulness as a route to living fully and enhancing stress  resilience, and is a fervent advocate of compassionate care, lost her greyhound “Irish” last November. With his passing, she explains, she found herself employing many of the same techniques and practices she teaches her nursing students and other health professionals in courses about end-of-life care.

Some of those approaches include quieting the mind and body through breath awareness, which fosters being fully present with an open heart. Also compassion practices, like the ancient Tibetan practice of Tonglen, can help us feel connected and ease a loved one’s suffering, even during those times when we can feel so helpless. 

And what’s nourishing for someone who’s endured losses of human or animal companions is, says Bauer-Wu, often the same.

“Pets in this day and age offer a depth of companionship that many say is as powerful as human connection,” she explains. “One can’t sweep away a pet’s death so easily, as our essential relationship with animals is pure unspoken love and joy.”

Bauer-Wu’s research and scholarship focus on the effects of chronic stress and the use of contemplative approaches to bolster stress resilience and sense of well-being. The author of Leaves Falling Gently, a compassionate guide for those with serious and chronic illness, Dr. Bauer-Wu’s research has garnered over $7 million in federal and major foundation funding and led to thoughtful interventions for those living with cancer and other life-limiting illnesses, as well as for family and professional caregivers.

Bauer-Wu will discuss her personal story – along with author Jessica Pierce, author of The Last Walk, Reflections on our Pets at the End of their Lives – at the next Medical Center Hour, a monthly, hour-long conversation free and open to U.Va. employees and members of the public. The event takes place in Jordan Hall Auditorium. Fee-parking is available near the Medical Center, on Lee Street, across from the ER.