Helping Them Heal: What to Say, Do for Grieving Clients

Helping clients through the grieving process after the loss of a beloved pet can bond them to your practice. Here’s what to do (and not to do).
Carolyn Shadle, MA, PhD, and John L. Meyer, MA, PhD
Published: September 05, 2018
Veterinarian consoles grieving womanThe death of a beloved pet can be devastating. Because pets are considered members of the family, it is important that veterinary teams are adept at communicating with clients who have lost a pet.

What Not to Say
When people share their feelings about the loss of their pets, they are not usually looking for levity, advice, or a story about another person’s loss. Too often, however, the best-intended responses miss the mark. Consider these common responses:
  • “Oh, I don’t want to hear such bad news!” While intending to offer sympathy, this response shuts off further discussion and may make the pet owner feel guilty for confiding.
  • “That’s terrible! I know exactly how you feel. My pet had the same sickness.” The chances of duplicating the feelings of others is not likely. Moreover, this response moves the attention away from the grieving pet owner to the speaker.
  • “Well, it was God’s will to put Fluffy out of his misery.” Besides the fact that Fluffy’s owner may not agree with the responder’s religious view, this response tends to minimize the pet owner’s grief and explain it away.
  • “I know the perfect place to replace Fluffy with just the cutest little kitten!” This positive, well-intentioned suggestion for quick action is likely to be rejected and, perhaps, resented. People need time to grieve before they can consider a replacement for their lost love. In fact, it’s not possible to replace Fluffy. A child is likely to put it frankly: “I don't want a cute kitten. I want Fluffy back.”
  • “It’s going to be OK. Thank goodness you have other pets.” This attempt to put a positive spin on a sad moment minimizes the pain of the pet owner’s loss.
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Healing Words and Actions
What can be said at a time of loss that will be helpful? Consider these suggestions:
  • Be silent. Actually, it’s OK to say nothing at first. It’s wise to give the grieving pet owner time to talk or just to be present in silence. Chances are the bereaved party is processing strong feelings. While some people may shrug off their loss, others may become depressed to the point of emotional and even physical sickness. Being present as a good listener is valuable at this point.
  • Offer a hug. If it’s appropriate, ask, “May I give you a hug?”
  • Express your feelings. Verbal responses are most helpful if they reflect feelings. Consider simply saying ”I’m so sorry for your sadness and loss,” “You are feeling a big loss, aren’t you?” or “I can see Fluffy’s death really hurts.”

Getting to the Other Side of Grief
In order words, it’s most helpful to avoid religion, suggestions, advice, and moving attention away from the grieving pet owner. Instead, be present, focus on the pet owner, and share their feelings of loss. Grievers need to be sad in order to get to the other side of grief.

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