When grief comes to work. How animal care professionals cope with grief and loss.
19th September 2019
When a companion animal dies, the level of grief experienced by the owners that are left behind can be painful and overwhelming.
Those who care for animals in a professional context grieve too. A recent survey of practicing veterinarians, for example, found that 87.6% reported experiencing grief due to the death of a patient and 40.2% reported that animal death had a negative impact on their mental and physical health (Dow, Chur-Hansen, Hamood, & Edwards, 2019).
Whether you work in a veterinary clinic, animal shelter, research centre, zoo or sanctuary, working with animals can mean you’re exposed to multiple losses and losses can build up contributing to an increased risk of compassion fatigue (secondary traumatic stress and burnout).
To cope, balance must be achieved. As one animal care professional puts it… “resisting the urge to retreat in the face of grief takes work. Avoiding either going numb or being overcome by emotion also requires mindful effort” (Jones & Gruen, 2016, p. 187). One must be connected enough to provide authentic and compassionate care and support but not connected to the point where your pain and the pain of others is blurred, and you become overwhelmed by grief.
Life circumstances, your relationship with the client or animal, and the circumstances surrounding the loss may mean that some deaths are more difficult to cope with than others. It has been over 15 years since I was a veterinary nurse and particular cases still come to mind when I write this. The boxer with a blood disorder that would come in regularly for transfusions only to die of cancer leaving a young family behind who adored him. The older man who lived with his terrier and traveled by train with her to the clinic. I remember them. I’m thankful to them for letting me share a part of their lives and provide them with comfort when I could. It is a privilege to witness such bonds and provide support. I also grieved with them and for them. As you do for your animals.
What we must do is to give ourselves time and permission to process the losses. Accept your grief. You may also like to choose to say farewell. This can help to promote acceptance and closure. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. Some professionals find writing about their losses can help make sense of the death, others find talking with supportive friends, family and colleagues or a counsellor helps. Other ways of saying farewell include sharing a memory of the animal with the client or with colleagues, lighting a candle, or sending a sympathy card (White, 2018). Remember to take care of yourselves. Grief can affect us physically and mentally so look after your body through a well-balanced diet and regular exercise and know your limits by taking breaks when you need to.
Create a resilient workplace
As a workplace, we must recognise grief. Animal care professionals must create trusting relationships with animals in order to do their work well and when the bonds are broken, grief can be a natural consequence. Create a resilient workplace by acknowledging loss. Some professionals may fear that acknowledging and accepting grief and resulting feelings of sadness or anger may open the floodgates so to speak and lead to people being overly emotional to the detriment of work performance. While it may be true that there are appropriate times and places to grieve at work. For example, while it is acceptable to show sadness in response to a loss in front of clients, being overwhelmed by grief to the point where a client feels the need to care for the nurse or veterinarian rather than cope with their own loss may not be entirely appropriate. Active denial of feelings can have a rebound effect and prolong grief.
Formal debriefing has also been found to be beneficial in a number of human healthcare settings and my personal experiences with running bereavement debriefing sessions in a number of animal sectors show positive outcomes. Debriefing sessions are useful as a means of maintaining compassion towards clients and animals, learning from the experience, and fostering coping skills. Sessions provide those attending with an opportunity to express their personal and professional responses to the death and have been found to be effective in promoting employee wellbeing and resilience (Keene, Hutton, Hall, & Rushton, 2010). If you’d like more information on running debriefing sessions in your workplace please contact Dr Vanessa Rohlf at firstname.lastname@example.org
Grief is a natural response to loss and while we all grieve differently, we do not have to do it alone.
Dow, MQ, Chur-Hansen, A., Hamood, W., & Edwards (2019). Impact of dealing with bereaved clients on the psychological wellbeing of veterinarians. Australian Veterinary Journal, doi: 10.1111/avj.12842
Jones, P., & Gruen, L. (2016). Keeping Ghosts Close Care and Grief at Sanctuaries. In M. DeMello (Ed.), Mourning Animals (pp. 187-192): Michigan State University Press.
Keene, E.A., Hutton, N. Hall, B. & Rushton, C. (2010). Bereavement debriefing sessions: An intervention to support health care professionals in managing their grief after the death of a patient. Pediatriatric Nursing, 36(4), 185-9.
White, S. C. (2018). Veterinarians’ Emotional Reactions and Coping Strategies for Adverse Events in Spay-Neuter Surgical Practice. Anthrozoös, 31(1), 117-131. doi:10.1080/08927936.2018.1406205