Counselor’s Corner: Comforting Grieving Owners

BJohn Mysz, LCSW – 

While this may not be the primary job description for everyone in veterinary medicine, it is absolutely an essential part of the job that many of you will run into at some point. I understand it’s a very uncomfortable experience for many and wanted to share some suggestions/guidelines for you when you are in the room or on the phone with a grieving client.

There are three basic skills I would suggest trying to learn and keeping in your pocket to bring out during these conversations: Letting the client know you understand their emotions and concerns; empathizing, validating, and normalizing their reactions; and offering ongoing support resources.

The first step, and a step you should be repeating throughout conversations, is checking in with yourself and monitoring your own reactions. Many of us get anxious when we hear others grieve, and we often try to say something that will immediately make them feel better or try and rush them off the phone. Sometimes all it takes is a deep breath while they’re speaking to try and center yourself so you can respond calmly and appropriately. This can mean allowing a few seconds of silence in the conversation.

You’ll likely notice you’ve clenched parts of your body in an anxious response for one reason or another (and this reveals itself through your interaction with the owner who is able to pick up on you “trying to get me off the phone” or otherwise feeling rushed to process. Learning to relax through this moment can help you make the conversation smoother, provide more information, feel less rushed yourself, and make the owner feel heard and understood with a clear plan on moving forward.

The first skill may sound simple, but it is important that you show you have listened to their side of the conversation. Statements like these, while simple, can show the client that you have been paying attention and do care about what they have said. as

  • “I can see you’re understandably upset”
  • “Fluffy was a huge part of your life, and it’s been very difficult to see him struggle over the past few weeks”
  • You’re concerned about his quality of life after this surgery because of the possible complications”.

Try to refrain from using the phrase “I understand that…” as it can often create distance between you and the client because you are telling them you understand rather than showing them through rephrasing or other techniques.

The second step is a very important one, as owners will often experience what  is known as disenfranchised grief. This is the term for any loss that people experience that is often belittled by people in their lives as not being a large or legitimate enough loss to experience real grief. Many are often told to simply replace their pet or “get over it”. If we as their caretakers can’t connect with them on this level, there may not be anyone else in their lives who can. Empathizing, validating, and normalizing emotions and reactions can be as simple as “The guilt/shame/overwhelming sadness you’re feeling is something we unfortunately see quite a lot here. Many people go through this as their loved one comes in for the last time”. Other statements like, “I am sorry you have to go through this” or “This has been a very difficult time for you and we are here to support you” can be emotionally validating for many.

The final step is offering concrete support. This is a simple step that is often forgotten during the chaos of a day. However, many owners sincerely appreciate this as they don’t know “what to do next” or feel “totally overwhelmed”.

Letting them know there are resources for them during this step in the process is vital. You can say things such as “It’s important during this time that you get the support you need” or “I know it feels like no one understands – there are pet loss support groups and other helpful resources to help you learn how to cope with this loss”. Most people are very appreciative of this and if they need more support in the moment, send them my way!


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