As veterinary practitioners, we are more than just animal doctors. One of the most important among the many hats we wear is that of family counselor. In particular, clients often turn to us to provide support and consolation when they’re faced with the inevitable part of pet ownership we all dread: loss. This can be particularly challenging when the pet also happens to be a long-time patient. If you find yourself struggling in this area, here are a few simple ground rules for helping the bereaved deal with the whirlwind of emotions they’re experiencing.
Treat Them Special
If a client is bringing his or her pet in to be humanely euthanized, you can make the experience a little less painful by extending a little bit of special treatment. For instance, rather than making them wait in the reception area amongst a bevy of other clients and patients, invite them to sit in a private room where they can spend some final quiet moments with their loved one. If possible, offering a separate entrance for grieving clients is ideal.
Offer Support and Guidance
Handling the logistics of pet loss can be overwhelming. Provide guidance on options and offer to assist with making final arrangements if desired. Many pet owners also find solace in the ability to keep a little piece of their beloved pet with them, whether it’s a small clip of fur or an imprint of the animal’s paw in ink or clay. At the very least, you can provide ongoing support by giving out books or pamphlets on grief or offering suggestions for other support resources.
You may have a busy schedule ahead of you, but understand that your client’s world is suddenly standing still. Put yourself in their shoes. Take a breath and practice patience before entering the room. Make sure your receptionist knows to set aside ample time for euthanasia appointments so that the client doesn’t feel rushed. Once the procedure is complete, allow the client a little extra time to say their final goodbyes.
If the client has already said goodbye to their pet, understand that they are probably still dealing with a lot of emotions. You and your team represent a connection to that animal and, as such, may naturally be viewed as a resource for support during this difficult time. Reach out to grieving clients, whether it’s calling to check on them or sending a bereavement card. Let them know they’re not alone.
Listen, Don’t Lead
Grief is a tremendously personal experience. As such, it’s never our job, neither as veterinary professionals nor as fellow human beings, to tell someone else how they should be grieving. Instead, our job is to be there to listen, provide a shoulder to lean on and offer whatever support we can to our clients in their time of sorrow.
Share Your Feelings
While each individual works through grief and loss in a unique way, there is often comfort that can be found in a shared experience. Showing your own vulnerability and humanity as a pet parent by sharing your own story of loss can be tremendously helpful to a grieving client. Again, it’s not about telling someone else how they should or shouldn’t be feeling, but rather letting them know you genuinely understand what they’re going through.
Make it Personal
If the pet in question also happened to be a patient of yours, the client might find it reassuring to know that you, too, along with your staff, have been impacted by the loss. Talking about some positive qualities and/or sharing some of your own personal memories can be incredibly comforting to a grieving client.
Helping clients care for their pets through every stage of life is part of our job as veterinary professionals. This includes the end-of-life experience. But although this may be just part of the routine for us, the way we handle the situation is something a grieving client will remember for many years to come. Having a plan and being deliberate about how you help can make all the difference.