Dealing with clients’ grief is a regular part of being a vet, but knowing what support services are available can make a world of difference. John Burfitt reports
It can be one of the most difficult times ever in the relationship between a vet and the client. However, it can also be one of the most important.
Dealing with the sudden death of a beloved pet or coping with the decision to euthanise their animal is a traumatic time in the life of a client. It is often just as distressing for the vet in charge, who may face this situation many times a week.
How the vet deals with the client through this time of crisis can signal a make-or-break time for both parties.
“If the client feels like the vet can’t cope and they are rushing them through the process to get them out the door, the client will never forget that,” Perth grief counsellor Tracey Quayle says.
“But if the vet is sensitive to what is going on, allows them time to grieve and then offers referral support, it can make a world of difference to the kind of relationship you have with that person into the future.”
Quayle is one of the referral counsellors associated with the Vetwest Animal Hospitals in Perth. In this capacity, vets refer clients to her when they are in times of distress over the loss of an animal.
Not only is it an added healthcare service offered by the hospitals, but it also saves the staff vets from having to take on the added responsibility of becoming a counsellor through what is already a difficult time.
“Vets need to remember that being a counsellor is not their role, and it should not be expected of them,” Quayle says. “The best thing they can do is to be empathetic with the client, reassure them it is indeed a difficult time and then refer them to someone who can help. It does not mean the vet, on top of all the treatment they have done for the animal, also has to become the client’s main supporter.”
Counsellor Eileen Clark fulfils a similar role through her association with the Brisbane Veterinary Specialist Centre and Animal Hospital. She says one of the most important aspects of her role is not just to work with clients in grief, but to also support the vets dealing with emotional distress.
“I believe it is reassuring for the vets to know they can hand the matter over and say, ‘Here is a person for support if you feel you need it’, rather than feel they need to do it all themselves—which can place enormous strain on them,” she says.
“This becomes a matter of vet self care, as it is so draining for some vets who go through this on a daily basis. It is about being empathetic and sympathetic in the role of a vet, but also knowing how to hand it over so you can cope with the ongoing process of doing this kind of work.”
The issue of timing is, Clark stresses, imperative in handling the situation. “Slow the process down so the client has time to take in everything that is going on,” she says. “I have heard stories of people who felt they were rushed through the process and that made it worse. Others have then told me of good experiences when their vet gave them the time when they needed to grieve and say goodbye to their pet.
“Have a separate room in the clinic so the vet can leave the client and animal alone, and the privacy to sob if they need to. Allowing people to have that time can make it so much easier, rather than rushing because you need the surgery room back for the next round of clients.”
Dr Rod Straw of the Brisbane Veterinary Specialist Centre and animal Hospital has been referring clients dealing with grief to Clark for years. He says it’s imperative for vets, who already record such high stress levels in the job, have this support.
“Vets have a real need for this, as this issue of grief is something not fully addressed in our training,” Dr Straw says. “Some vets feel they need to be everything to the clients, while others are overwhelmed and have no idea what to do.
“Referring them over can be the best solution as the counsellor is a professional who is independent and can help facilitate their emotions through the process with an impartial point of view. It is involving the people who know this area well to help our clients through this difficult time.”
The issue of grief has been of particular interest to Queensland’s Australian Veterinary Association president Dr Michael O’Donoghue since he was completing his training in the US in the early 1990s. He recalls being allowed to listen in to the callers on a pet loss support telephone hotline, and was astounded by the level of distress expressed by the callers.
“I realised then that grief over pet loss is substantial and some people really battle with it,” Dr O’Donoghue says. “I also understood why this kind of care is something we need to offer, as a pat on the back and saying you’re sorry as they walk out is not enough for a lot of clients.”
About a decade ago, Dr O’Donoghue began two services to offer such support. One is the website, www.people-and-pets.com, which offers specific information for vets dealing with this issue, while his other site, www.petsandpeople.com.au, is for pet owners grieving for their pets
His other initiative is Pet Sympathy Cards, which allows vets to hand grieving clients a gesture of support that also contains a list of referred counsellors. Last year, Dr O’Donoghue distributed 20,000 cards around the country.
“It seems a lot of vets like this idea as it allows them to refer the client onto someone they recommend, rather than tell the client good luck as they try to find a counsellor on Google,” he says.
“It also shows the vet takes what they are going through seriously and that can mean a lot in that really difficult time. It is an attempt to handle this the right way, rather than be awkward in a grief situation and not know what to do.
“Throw in the fatigue of being a vet, then expect them to also deal with grief, and that combination can overwhelm some vets. This is a way of giving clients the care they deserve.”