What do you say to comfort and help? How can you be there to talk to and support a client dealing with grief? Use these guidelines to learn how to be more sensitive and helpful during the heartbreak of pet loss.

DO….

  • Provide the opportunity to talk about feelings and concerns before, during and after a loss. Let them tell “their story” as many times as they need to.
  • Educate about medical issues and treatments carefully, using simple wording and layman’s terms. Provide written information whenever possible. Be sure to educate thoroughly about the euthanasia procedure BEFORE it happens. Explain how the sedation and euthanasia solution helps the pet to die and how the body responds to the drugs. Gently describe what you are doing while you are performing the euthanasia as well. With thorough preparation, people are much better able to handle things. Telling them what to expect ahead of time is key so that they are not surprised and left to wonder and question.
  • Share and reminisce about fond memories of the pet. Share stories about what you remember about their pet.
  • Use the pet’s name…even after death.
  • Provide a hug, a squeeze of the hand, or touch on the shoulder-whatever you feel comfortable doing.
  • Listen more than talk. Listen in a non-judgmental manner. Allow periods of silence.
  • Know that depression and anger are normal emotions and expressions of grief. Be accepting and patient. Do not take a grieving person’s negative attitudes or unusual behaviors personally. Give them a lot of room for reacting badly and not doing things “better.” Tell them that there is no right or wrong behavior for grieving. Everyone is different.
  • Reflect on the feelings they are expressing and help them explore them and the reality of the death. Know that they may have emotional set backs. Know that they will always grieve the loss but will learn to live with it.
  • Say, “There’s nothing I can say right now to make you feel better. I wish I could. I want you to know that I am here for you.” Mean what you say. Let them know you are there for them. Be there for them in the days as well as weeks, months, and years following the death. Ask them how they are doing.
  • Cry with them if it feels natural to you while maintaining your professionalism so that you are able to follow through with the job at hand. Allow yourself to be more emotional later. Keep up with your own grief work: visit with a pet loss grief counselor yourself. Veterinarians are exposed to death 5 times more than physicians. Visit the books section of amazon.com. Search “compassion fatigue veterinary”.
  • Help them celebrate the life of the one they have lost. Offer suggestions to help them through their grief: give them ideas for ways to memorialize their pet. Help those who are in the process of grieving to develop the rituals they need to get through those early difficult times: light a candle each day, display photos, clay paw print, fur clipping, write a love note to the pet, plant a flower garden, make a garden stone mosaic, keep the pet’s tags on their keychain, keep a journal, make a photo album.
  • Send a condolence note signed by you and members of your staff, with personal comments about the pet and how he or she will be missed.
  • For  clients you know very well, send flowers and/or make a follow-up phone call: “We’ve been thinking of you here at the clinic and we’re wondering how you are doing?”. Ask them how they are doing, offer to help, repeat your offer to help at a later time: days, weeks, months, years.
  • Send a donation in the deceased pet’s name to an organization that benefits animals.
  • Always give clients information about support groups online such as APLB.org/chat and locally (click your state at Pet-Loss.net). While it is kind to share your own compassion and support, additional support services are beneficial in ways you are not trained for, nor have the time to provide. Make it a habit of giving grief support resources to every client dealing with the loss of a pet. This way you are letting your clients decide if they want to pursue additional help, rather than you possibly assessing incorrectly who needs it and who does not.
  • If the person who is in grief is suicidal, it is your moral and ethical responsibility to refer them to a mental health professional. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255. There is a list of pet loss counselors at Pet-Loss.net

DON’T say:

  • Don’t say, “Everything happens for a reason” or “Time will heal” or “He/ she isn’t suffering any more” or “Life goes on” or “Only the good die young” or “All clouds have a silver lining” or “It’s a blessing” or “You were lucky to have him/her this long”. Most of us have said some of these “don’t say” comments at one point or another. In fact, some of these comments have a lot of truth to them. Life does go on. Time often does heal, or at least lessen enormous heartache. The ending of suffering is good. But these euphemisms tend to deny the extent of the loss. The thing to keep in mind is that when a person is experiencing an acute sense of loss, logic is not comforting. With acute grief, simply acknowledging the sadness and overwhelming sense of loss is appropriate and is more helpful.
  • Do NOT tell them you know exactly how they feel—no one can ever experience pain, grief, and loss in exactly the same way.
  • Don’t say, “You think you’ve got it bad…” or “When my pet died…” Do NOT compare one griever’s loss or experience to another’s. Comparisons are attempts to minimize the loss or to force the griever to behave the right way. Not helpful.
  • Don’t say, “It’s been two months (or however long); you shouldn’t still be so sad.” Do NOT impose a timeline for feeling better—there is no timeline for grief.
  • Don’t say, “If I were you, I would have done it (or would do it) this way.” or “Why did you do that?” It helps to give them a lot of room for reacting badly and not doing things “better.”
  • It’s not helpful to say, “Faith teaches us to be strong.”
  • Do NOT try to ‘fix’ the grieving person or make it all better—no one can ever do that. Do NOT scold, give advice, lecture or pep talks to them when they are feeling down—let the grief process take its course. Do NOT encourage them to make major changes in their life. Do NOT suggest they medicate their pain with alcohol or tranquilizing drugs. Avoiding the immediate symptoms of grief can ultimately lead to complicated and unresolved grief.
  • DON’T SAY: “You should get another pet.” People need time to grieve this loss. They want to be validated for their feelings about this specific pet. It is impossible to recreate a lost relationship with another new pet who is unique. Telling a person that she/he should get a new pet is similar to telling a parent who has lost a child that she/he can always have another one.

Adapted from information obtained by Bonnie Mader, founder of Pet Loss Support Hotline, University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine and Washington State University Pet Loss Hotline webpage.