It’s a Tuesday morning when the dreaded call comes, (my personal belief is that no good can ever come from a Tuesday) it’s Mrs. Browne calling to let you know that Bisket will not be coming for his monthly grooming because after a battle with illness, Bisket has passed. What do you say? What do you do? That’s a tough question, because although death is a daily occurrence throughout the world, most of us spend a great deal of time avoiding the topic. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that one should spend their days in terminal remorse and wearing all black like a Gothic princess, but the way we handle the loss of our clients’ furry family can certainly leave a lasting impression.
Sometimes the passing is the final chapter of a long life, other times it might be from a sudden illness or the result of a tragic accident. Regardless of the reason, in the eyes of the loving guardian, their pet’s life was never long enough. When the client calls they might seem cold or they might be crying their eyes out, either expression is valid. There is no wrong way to grieve, and there is no predetermined time to “get over it”. The five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) are not a laundry list which needs to be done in order, people can go from one stage to another and then back again. Grief is a very complex journey.
You should never say, “I know how you feel”, because one can never actually know how someone else feels, even if you have had a similar loss. Each person and animal is unique, as are there relationships and bonds, what they had with their pet was both personal and private. Saying “I know how you feel” can be considered offensive because it negates the special bond that they had. Next time you are faced with the situation, try saying: “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. Would you like to talk about it?” We can always offer to listen and perhaps share a memory of their furry lost loved one. Over the years I’ve found that the people who seem to be hit the hardest are the ones with no children or empty nesters. Many times these animals are treated with the love and attention usually saved for a child. This is why the loss can hit so very hard. We’ve all seen the 14 year old poodle with two teeth and cloudy eyes that is still referred to as “puppy”.
I always keep sympathy cards on hand; some for dogs, some for cats and others for nonspecific pets. I used one of these cards when “Henry,” a Guinea Pig who I had done nail trims for many years, passed away. It’s important to get the card out as soon as possible. This might not seem like that big of a deal but to the client it will mean a lot to know that you share the loss. I also try to include a picture or two from the photos I have taken over the years of their pets “after” shots. I’ve even had hand written thank you letters sent to me because of the cards.
Thanks to the internet, there are many resources we can provide to help. There is the Association for Pet Loss & Bereavement www.aplb.org, which also provides courses to become a certified bereavement counselor, as well as holds an online pet loss chat room in which people can talk to counselors free of charge. There are also support groups for Pet loss in which people can discuss their feelings in a group setting. The one that I help support is run by an Emergency Veterinary Hospital and holds meetings every other Wednesday. Another online source is www.pet-loss.net. Books on the subject include The Loss of a Pet by Wallace Sife, Ph.D., and Grieving the Death of a Pet by Betty J. Carmack, RN Ed.D.
We can really only offer our condolences and point the client towards the right people and groups to help. Grief is a process which cannot be rushed. When I pick out the pictures to go with the sympathy card I try to find one of the pet when he was young and happy to help remind us that in death we lose all the luggage and are returned to the spring of our youth with no aches or pains. As for the pets, I miss them too. I miss them all, it’s heartbreaking to say so many goodbyes but we learn so much with each hello.