The Inverse Flower Phenomenon

Cards sepia smaller and header size

We do death really well. Cards like these tell me so. And so do the flowers. Any veterinarian will tell you about the flower phenomenon.

Let’s say I do a fantastic job on a case. A complex diagnosis, something rare and generally fatal, and after many hours of research (something that’s never billed to a client) I finally have it figured out. I go out of my way to obtain the right drug from an obscure source at an overseas university, treat the disease appropriately, manage a couple of complications that arise, and save the patient’s life.

The client quietly thanks me. Sometimes more effusively, but by the end it’s like we’ve run a marathon together and everyone is tired. Nobody talks about it again.

Let me take that same patient and euthanize him, though, and it’s very different. The client is sad but grateful for the way it is handled. And about half the time they send me a thank-you card. One in ten actually sends me flowers.

And that’s the flower phenomenon. It’s this weird upside down ratio of

what you expect : what really happens

When I was new to the profession I thought that if anyone ever sent flowers it would be a celebratory thing, like a life saved or a really good job done in surgery. I was puzzled to find that the flowers for death outnumbered the flowers for any other reason by a ratio of at least 20 to 1.

Moreover, they weren’t funereal flowers. We were getting bright bouquets of beautiful blooms that were the polar opposite of mournful. And I realized that these were celebratory occasions after all. They were from pet owners celebrating and commemorating the life of their friend, a life that I shared with them in a small way.

And they were also saying, “Hey, we know that was hard for you, too. We’d send cookies, but maybe you have a nut allergy; we don’t know you that well outside of the hospital stuff. But here are some flowers to cheer you up, and think about Norton when you see them. He really loved you, too.”

How do I know that? Because Norton’s dad wrote that to me. I still have the card. I still have all the cards.

7 thoughts on “The Inverse Flower Phenomenon

  1. It’s interesting that when you are feeling kind of in the dumps, you can look at these cards that were written at a really sad time and they actually make you feel better. Not because you are happy that people were sad, but because we do a really good job of beating ourselves up over things, and these cards tell you that at least for that person on that day you did a pretty good thing.


  2. A fascinating discussion is definitely worth comment. I do believe that you ought to publish more on this subject matter, it might not be a taboo subject but usually folks don’t speak about these topics. To the next! Many thanks!!


  3. I have my stack of cards and letters. I keep them all, the good and the bad. Thankfully, there are more good than bad. The bad keep my head from getting too big, the good keep me sane and bring a smile to my face and help the tears of sadness turn to tears of laughter and rejoicing. One of my favorites was actually a card that was brought in with a puppy. She came in for her third puppy vaccinations on my birthday. At some point in a previous appointment, I must have made a comment about her coming back on my birthday. She brought me a card and flowers. It was nice that someone remembered my birthday!


  4. A client gave me a pencil stand when he returned a few days later to thank me for euthanising his dog. The dog had been suffering from cancer for over an year and had been treated at another practice, I only performed the euthanasia in an emergency. The fact that a man who deeply and genuinely loved his dog would come back to thank the vet who had put him to sleep finally, made me think deeply about our relationship to life and death ,and yes ,though it is over 10years old and faded,I still have that pen stand on my work table.


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