Reach out to grieving pet owners


Whether from accidents, illness, or euthanasia, pets die every day, often in your hospital. Do you know what to say--and what not to say--to clients before, during, and after a loss?

Losing her daughter, Anne, was hard. So when Mackey's daughter's Shih Tzu, Jasmine, fell ill hundreds of miles from home just months after Anne's death, Mackey panicked. She didn't know a veterinarian. It was Sunday night, and most clinics were closed. Jasmine was her living link to Anne. Losing Jasmine while she was still grieving for her daughter was more than Mackey thought she could bear. After a desperate search, she reached an emergency clinic, where Jasmine was treated.

Sharon DeNayer

Mackey, a bereavement support group leader, told me her story the next morning during a 10-minute bus ride to the Center for Loss in Fort Collins, Colo., where we were both attending a class on complicated grief. I'd never met Mackey before, but I learned a lot simply by listening and asking a few questions.

A few weeks later, Mackey called me from her home in Texas in a panic. Jasmine had undergone surgery that day and the practice had released Jasmine to her care. Jasmine was screaming in pain and Mackey didn't know what to do. Mackey's veterinary clinic was closed and no one was returning her calls. We talked briefly, and Mackey took Jasmine to an emergency clinic for treatment. I doubt these healthcare teams had any idea about Mackey's special relationship with her daughter's dog.

Both teams treated the pet, but they didn't take care of the client. Mackey confided to me that although the teams at each of the practices she visited were efficient, they didn't show her any compassion.

You can't read clients' minds, but you can provide a warm, compassionate environment that encourages clients to share their thoughts and feelings about their pets. Are you ready to take the next step to learn how to reach out to grieving clients?

Help them handle the hurt

You work with grieving clients every week, and probably every day. Sometimes you know they're grieving. Sometimes you don't. Sometimes they're grieving for a pet. Sometimes they're grieving for a person. Sometimes they're grieving for another type of loss, such as divorce or a child leaving home. Sometimes they're feeling anticipatory grief because a beloved pet or person suffers from a terminal illness.

Give others a boost

You can't take away clients' hurt. You can't heal their grief. But you can offer friendship and understanding. Acknowledging the hurt and showing compassion will bond a client to your practice more strongly than anything else you can do. So offer your clients the same compassion you feel for their pets. After all, your patients don't request care or make appointments; your clients do. Clients are an important link in the pet's chain of healthcare.

Chapter 11 of Rudolph Giuliani's book Leadership is titled "Weddings Discretionary, Funerals Mandatory." It deals with helping people when they need it most. Your clients need help more when they're distressed than when they're happy. Make the time to listen to their stories. Your clients will appreciate it, and you will never regret it.

Support your team through personal loss

Listen with your heart, even when you've heard the story before. Repetition is part of the healing process. When you understand that, you won't feel your clients are wasting your time when they share those special memories one more time. Tears are a natural expression of mourning, so let them flow freely. Keep tissues handy. Your role is to let your clients express their feelings without fear of criticism or judgment. Encourage personal interaction, but don't expect it and don't try to force it. Everyone's different; let the grief experience unfold in its own unique way.

When people suffer a loss, they'll appreciate a few simple words of support. Even saying the "wrong" thing is better than saying nothing. Don't ignore their pain. Once you've shared your words, be quiet. You don't need to fill every silence. When words fail, a simple hug can tell someone you care.

Here are some helpful expressions:

  • "I'm sorry for your loss."

  • "I heard about your loss. I don't know what to say."

  • "I'm thinking of you."

  • "I'm here for you."

  • "I remember the story you told me about ..." (Shared memories are helpful.)

  • "I've been thinking about you and your family."

  • "You're very important to me."

  • "What can I do to help you?"

  • "You're in my thoughts and in my prayers."

Some expressions can be hurtful. Avoid these comments:

  • "I know just how you feel." (Each loss is unique.)

  • "Time heals all wounds."

  • "You must get on with your life."

  • "It was God's will."

  • "God never gives us more than we can bear."

  • "You're holding up so well."

  • "Think of all you still have to be thankful for."

  • "You'll get over it."

  • "Just be happy he's out of his pain."

  • "At least she's not suffering."

  • "Aren't you over it yet?"

  • "You can always have/get another (child, dog, cat, and so on)."

  • "It's a blessing in disguise."

  • "Now you have an angel in heaven."

If you're uncomfortable talking with a grieving person, practice by role-playing with a co-worker. Talk naturally. Listen actively. Practice this skill until you feel comfortable.

Grief is a journey

One of our clients, Robert, recently died after a long illness. His dog, Jake, was his companion throughout his illness. Jake, however, was old and dealing with his own illnesses. When Robert's wife, Barbara, brought Jake in for an exam not long after Robert died, she said she knew it was time for Jake to be euthanized, but she couldn't deal with his death so close to Robert's. Our role was to provide her the means to give palliative care to Jake and keep him as comfortable and pain-free as possible. A few weeks later, she brought Jake in for euthanasia. She appreciated the extra time with Jake and the ability to take care of his needs while dealing with her own needs.

Because Barbara expressed her needs, we helped her and filled Jake's needs too. She will be grieving for both Robert and Jake for a long time, but we were able to make her journey through grief a little less rocky.

The art of offering companionship to our grieving clients is truly a privilege. It's difficult for team members to just listen and provide support. We're geared to fix things, so we tend to want to fix our clients when they hurt. We must accept that it's not our role to fix them. It's our role to provide support and to refer them to professional counselors when they need more support than we can provide. Just as with animals, the first rule is always do no harm.

We've lost five clinic pets this year: two cats, Scooter and Grazi; two dogs, Cimarron and Otis; and one cockatiel, Natasha. Although we'll be grieving for each of them for a very long time, it has been much more bearable because of the support we've received from our other pets, our healthcare team members, and our clients.

Cimarron was our clinic dog for almost 14 years and was the first of these pets to die. All of our clients knew her. Many of them recalled their own memories of her, and some of them were stories we'd forgotten. We laughed and cried together. We realized how many hearts she had touched beyond our own. Although we miss her dearly in our home and our clinic, the companionship of our clients and friends has helped us as we learn to live with our loss. It's a reminder each day why it's so important for us to support our grieving clients and patients.

Sharon DeNayer is a Firstline Editorial Adisory Board member, a bereavement companion, and the practice manager for Windsor Veterinary Clinic and The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colo. Please send questions or comments to

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