The many faces of grief

Understand how clients mourn following euthanasia, death
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Jul 01, 2006

"It's the price we pay for loving them."

Cheryl Weber, JD, a client counselor specialist at the University of Illinois' veterinary college, adds that client grief is real.

Consequently, the range of emotions following a sudden death or euthanasia of a pet is very comparable to the loss of a loved person.

She should know. With more than 10 years of experience in human hospitals and hospice centers, Weber says understanding the faces of grief can help veterinarians deal with clients' suffering from the emotional pain of death.

"So often the pet has helped them get through a rough time in their life or the pet has offered an important source of support," she adds.


Expect emotions in the examination room following euthanasia, says grief counselor Cheryl Weber, University of Illinois.
Some people are surrounded by friends who understand and care, yet "other people go back to a family who just don't get it," she says. They may hear statements like "Why would you put them through that treatment? or "Get over it; it's just a dog."

Client reactions closely model Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' 1969 work on death, including these stages:

  • Guilt. "They could have done everything on the planet to help this pet, but they still feel guilty," she explains. Sometimes the guilt is justified, like when a client inadvertently let a dog outside and it is hit by a car. Don't tell a client not to feel guilty, but the DVM can console the client by saying something like: "I am sorry. I know you didn't intend for the animal to get hurt."
  • Anger. The emotion could typically be a result of a traumatic or unexpected death. Strategy: De-escalate the situation, don't come back in attack mode because it is like "throwing gas on a fire." Instead, acknowledge they are upset, and listen, she says.
  • Depression. Anger turned inward. Offer other resources to help including grief counselors or pet loss hotlines.
  • Denial. Understand that when it comes to euthanasia, some people just can't make a decision when in denial about the severity of an illness. Time and understanding do help.
  • Bargaining. In many cases, the bargain may be with God. If you save her, I'll be a better person."
  • Acceptance. "Expect that all of these emotions can surface in the examination room," she adds.

There are differences in the way humans mourn the loss of people and pets. Consider how many rituals accompany the death of a person. "In human grief there are funerals, visitations, days off of work. Pet owners don't have that luxury, and pet owners end up right back at work where people can say insensitive things."

It's also important for veterinarians to help clients grieve in healthy ways. To this end, one strategy is to build rituals to help clients say goodbye.

Other considerations include:

  • Respect the bond with the family.
  • Educate clients on the process. Acknowledge how hard a decision it is.
  • Offer choices.
  • Allow people to bring in family and other pets before and after the euthanasia.
  • Let children be part of the process.
  • Don't rush people.
  • Sit outside if the weather is nice.
  • Be compassionate.