Dr. Lianna Titcombe, BScH, DVM, CHPV
As more and more animal shelters across Ontario are offering client-present euthanasia, you may find yourself having more interactions with the owners of the pets in your care. This may come with some initial worry and stress for you, but more than likely you’ll experience relief and satisfaction instead. Preserving the human-animal bond by having a familiar, loving presence next to a pet in their final moments will add comfort and meaning to your work. However, supporting someone during death and loss is not something that comes naturally to everyone. And so, I created this blog and accompanying video to give you just a few tips on what you should (and shouldn’t) say to someone experiencing the loss of their treasured companion.
Grief is such a hard thing. We live in a death-denying society. We hide away our emotions and are shamed into feeling we should be getting over the loss in some well-defined timeline. But grief needs to be witnessed. Grievers don’t want to feel like people are afraid to be around them. They want to talk about their loss and feel cared for and loved.
One of the biggest reasons that people shy away from the bereaved is that they worry that they don’t know what to say. Well, I’m here to tell you – that doesn’t matter. Because it’s actually better to say nothing and just listen. People coping with loss typically really do want to talk about their loved one. It’s not a taboo topic for them, they would welcome a non-judgemental ear to just listen to their stories and let them openly share how very sad they are.
You don’t have to be a certified counsellor or therapist or expert in anything to companion someone in grief and loss. You just need to show up and be present. To help you along the way, and with the inspiration of renowned grief educator David Kessler, I created a list of the best and worst things to say to someone in grief.
- She lived such a good long life
- He’s in a better place
- Everything happens for a reason
- I know just how you feel
- My dog died last year, and this is how I felt
- Aren’t you done with grieving yet? He died a long time ago
- You can get another pet
- At least you still have your other pets
- Be strong, be brave, keep your chin up
- Let me know if you need anything
- This will bring you closure
- Say nothing, just show up and be a quiet, comforting presence
- I’m so sorry for your loss
- This must be so hard for you
- My dog died last year as well but how does this feel for you?
- Whatever you’re feeling is OK
- You’ll be in my thoughts
- I don’t know how you feel but just know that I’m here by your side
- My favourite memory of your loved one is ______
- Tell me a little bit about him/her
- I wish I had the right words, but I don’t. Just know that I care, and I love you
- I’m free on Sunday afternoon if you want to go for a walk
- I’m coming over tonight with a pizza so we can hang out and do nothing
This list is by no means comprehensive, and each phrase won’t be right for every person in every situation, but it’s a guideline to help you feel less helpless and afraid. And that will, in turn, help the grieving person that you care about and wish to support.
Even though there is never really a finish line (that elusive closure that people keep talking about), the overwhelming sadness and heaviness will eventually lift for them, little by little. The days will become brighter and the memories warmer and less painful. In loss, people never really stop grieving, fully heal, or “get over” the death of a loved one. But they learn to readjust their life and carry this grief with them in a way that they can still feel whole, and peaceful, and able to function in life again.
When you stand beside and walk with someone in grief, with an open heart and mind, you give them so much hope and strength to carry on. So, thank you for being that person, and taking the time and energy to read this blog, and to help where help is needed the most.
For our veterinary teams: What about you? Did you know that 50% of veterinary staff in Canada report being in advanced stages of burnout? Alarming, yes. Surprising, not really. Mental health is the number one issue facing the veterinary profession today. We are the ones who may be at greatest risk if we don’t take the time to stop, reflect, honour, and support our own losses and grief.
A grief retreat will give you the time and space to work through your grief, while connecting with other like-minded people in a safe and supportive environment. You will gain coping strategies and self-care ideas, and leave feeling lighter, brighter, and more hopeful for the future.
For more information about a grief retreat for veterinary staff near Wakefield, Quebec in July 2022 please visit: GriefRetreats.ca/Vet2022
For more information and education in euthanasia best practices, including our new shelter medicine modules, visit: caetainternational.com.
Dr. Liana Titcombe is the International Director at the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy