Caring for your clients after the loss of a pet

What happens to people after they walk out of the room after euthanasia of their pet? What are they feeling and how are they coping? Only a small number of practices ring their clients after a euthanasia to see how they are going. Some have tried, but given up because they have felt inadequate to cope with the reactions.

Here’s a client describing her feelings:

“It’s been 11 long, gut-wrenching, tear-jerking, heart-breaking days since I said goodbye to my sweet boy. I’m not OK. He wasn’t just a dog to me! He was my baby boy, my confidante, my protector, my goof ball…my reason to smile when I didn’t want to. I’m not OK, I don’t know when I’m going to be OK again.
Everyone, including my husband thinks I should just be OK. I can’t! I miss him! I put on my happy face and go to work and do normal things, but at the end of the day I have to come home and he’s not here. I try to push through the pain for our other Basset because I know she is grieving too. I tell myself ‘she will never
get over him until I get over him and stop crying’. But I just can’t. I miss him so. I picked up his ashes yesterday…I had hoped that would offer some closure. I just want my little fella back, guys. I know we made the right decision to help him cross the bridge, but it still hurts. His pain is over…for that I’m so grateful. Mine began when he left us.”

The close human–animal bond is a key driver for acquiring a pet; it is also a significant reason why many
non-owners don’t currently have a pet, because of the grief they have experienced at the loss of a much loved
family member.

This is also shown in extracts from the AMA Pet Ownership in Australia Report 2016:

“Our last pet passed away from cancer two years ago. I still miss Pippa. I don’t want a dog at present.”

“Our much-loved dog went to doggie heaven and we are still grieving.”

“My last cat died from being run over and I can’t bear to go through that again.”

Losing an animal friend can feel as devastating as losing a human loved one. For many people their animal
friend has been the most significant ‘other’ in their lives and with the animal’s passing they experience a
deep hurt and grief that often their human family and friends do not understand. They might say “Oh, it’s just a pet, you will get over it” or advise that the best cure is to get another animal to replace the one lost.

Your client, on the other hand, is left feeling sad, empty, isolated and experiencing unbearable emotional pain. Their animal companion brought unconditional love, comfort, tolerance, respect, joy and meaning to their life. The empty space left where once there was a rowdy bark and big lick, or a soft meow or the touch of a furry tail, or the loud happy chirpy greeting when the cage is uncovered is almost too painful to endure.

Pet loss counselling can help. Unfortunately, the grief associated with the loss of a pet is often the most misunderstood. Family and friends often mean well, but can sometimes dismiss the pain and distress and not all counsellors specialise in grief and even less so with the grief associated with pet loss.

Counselling with a therapist who understands pet loss and people’s feelings of grief and loss can help. A pet loss counsellor can support your clients through the sadness. Counsellors can provide a secure and compassionate environment in which someone can have the opportunity to share their distress and express not just their pain but what this loss means to them.

Pet loss counsellors hope to provide clients with support and guidance to make the sorrow of losing their beloved pet a little less painful and believing that when they gain an understanding of what they are experiencing they can then move forward to find peace, resolution and healing.

People often tell us that having someone to share their grief, loss and sorrow with, to have someone to walk
with on the journey of recovery, has helped them to experience healing and hope.

Many years ago I visited the vet school at UC Davis and listened to calls on a pet loss support hotline, and that really impressed on me the profound grief that some people experience. I really felt that I needed to do
something for people in Australia.

I met pet loss counsellor Penny Carrol 10 years ago and thought it would be a good idea to tell people about
the work she is doing. Her impending retirement will leave a huge gap in this sector and I have set up a pet loss support phone number 1300 431 450 and a website www.petsandpeople.com.au to help people find a pet loss counsellor close by or appropriate for them.

Michael O’Donoghue
Queensland

This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal

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