As veterinary professionals, we deal with sad situations at work on a near daily basis. Whether it is delivering bad news, performing euthanasia, or seeing an animal in pain or discomfort, we are generally able to complete our jobs while remaining emotionally intact. However, we are sometimes caught off guard by the intensity of our pain when dealing with hospice care or euthanasia for our own pets.
This experience can be deeply destabilizing to those who work in veterinary medicine. It can feel unfathomable to continue exposing ourselves to the grief that is inevitable in our field after the loss of a beloved animal family member has carried that grief into our home. In order to heal personally and professionally, we must accept and address the depth of grief that can accompany the illness or death of a personal pet.
Many of us are familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While these provide a valuable starting point for understanding grief, not all people will experience grief in this way. In fact, you may feel only one of these things, but feel it very strongly, or you may feel them all at once. These stages may occur out of order and will often repeat themselves.
It is important to realize each time we experience grief it can feel very different, and your grief will likely look very different from another person’s. That does not mean there is anything wrong with the way you are feeling. If you are concerned your grief is abnormal or feel it is severely interfering with your daily functionality, speak to a mental health professional.
You may also experience a sense of loss before your pet has actually passed. It is very common to grieve upon receiving a bad diagnosis or while providing hospice care. This is known as anticipatory grief and is a powerful and valid form of loss. Anticipatory grief may include periods of caregiver fatigue and thoughts of wishing for your pet’s death. You should not feel guilty about these feelings and thoughts; they are a normal part of this process and do not mean you love your pet any less.
Feelings are Not Forever
Feelings—especially those associated with grief—can be overwhelming. When you are swept away by an emotion it can seem like your whole world is consumed by it. You may even wonder if you will ever feel any better. It is important to remain grounded to the fact that all feelings are temporary. Without devaluing your current emotions, remind yourself that your feelings will shift and give you relief as time passes and circumstances change.
It may be helpful to reframe the way you speak and think about feelings. If you are sad, tell yourself, “I feel sad,” instead of, “I am sad.” This small change identifies sadness as a temporary state rather than a personal trait. While the loss of your pet will certainly affect you, it does not change who you are or your ability to experience a complete range of emotions as you did before that loss.
Veterinary professionals are at risk of complicating their grief by feeling it is somehow unprofessional to be severely affected by a personal pet illness or death. We sometimes think we should be desensitized and do not give ourselves permission to grieve deeply. This kind of self-criticism is both untrue and unhelpful. Speaking with other veterinary professionals may help you realize no one is immune to the pain of personal loss.
While not an emotion always associated with grief, fear can rear its ugly head when we are processing a loss, making recovery even more difficult. You may be afraid your performance at work will be affected by your grief. This fear can be reduced by speaking with a manager or human resource representative about your situation. Together you can arrange any time off or work accommodations (such as a break from assisting in/performing euthanasias) you may need.
If you have a positive relationship with your coworkers, let them know what you are going through. Good communication will allow them to be responsive to your emotional needs, and you will hopefully find them to be a valuable source of support.
You may also be afraid of being judged or dismissed by friends or family when grieving pet illness or loss. Pet-related emotional pain falls into the category of disenfranchised grief, or grief unacknowledged or minimized by societal norms. You may find it difficult to discuss your loss with others—especially those who do not have pets—for fear of having your feelings dismissed because it was “just an animal.”
Disenfranchised grief is more likely than shared grief to lead to anxiety, depression and shame. Find a community, in person or online, who validates your emotions and acknowledges the value of your relationship with your pet.
We have all heard of self-care: taking a bath, getting more sleep or taking time for a treasured hobby. While self-care is important, self-compassion serves a different purpose. It seeks to fundamentally reshape the way we think of and treat ourselves. At its core, self-compassion tells us to treat ourselves the way we would a friend. I personally know several veterinary professionals who, when their pets become sick or have died, have thought or said the following about themselves:
- “I should have recognized my pet was ill sooner.”
- “I should have been able to save my pet.”
- “I can’t believe I didn’t realize my pet’s illness was this severe.”
Practicing self-compassion means asking yourself, “Would I ever speak this way to a friend I love?” The answer is almost certainly “no.” You would not accuse a friend of neglecting a pet, especially when you know the depth of their grief. You would tell your friend they did their best and gave their pet a beautiful life. Remember to show yourself that same compassion when you feel the urge to blame yourself. Even if there is something you could have done differently, remember you are human, you make mistakes, and that does not mean you do not deserve gentleness, love and healing.
Another tenant of self-compassion is remembering that suffering is a shared human experience. Everyone has experienced suffering to some degree; you are not alone in your grief. Emotional pain can feel very isolating, so it is important to reach out to those who can relate to your loss. This may be family, friends, coworkers or online forums. Some pet funeral homes and veterinary hospitals (maybe even your own) also sometimes offer pet loss support groups. Whoever you turn to, make sure you feel validated and visible in your grief. It may take a few tries to find the right fit for your healing process, but don’t be discouraged—no matter how you feel, someone can relate.
I encourage you to take your grief regarding pet loss or illness seriously. It is completely within reason to need professional help. Our pets are a part of our daily lives in a way very few people are. Our relationships with them are often some of the least complicated and most vulnerable in our lives. No matter how long you have shared your life with an animal, be it two weeks or 20 years, you are entitled to whatever degree of pain you are experiencing. Grief comes from love, and veterinary professionals love animals very, very much.⊂
Mental health disclaimer: The writer of this article is not a mental health professional. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please seek professional help. If you are having a mental health crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
- Anticipatory Grief: Understanding Grief Before a Death. Hospice of the Red River Valley. https://www.hrrv.org/blog/anticipatory-grief-understanding-grief-before-a-death/. Published February 11, 2020.
- Definition and Three Elements of Self Compassion: Kristin Neff. Self. https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/. Published July 9, 2020.
- Feldman DB. Why the Five Stages of Grief Are Wrong. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/supersurvivors/201707/why-the-five-stages-grief-are-wrong. Published July 7, 2017.
- Gardiner J. Journey of Grief and Loss. School of Veterinary Medicine. https://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/grief-counseling/journey-grief-and-loss. Published August 24, 2020.
- Raypole C. Disenfranchised Grief: 22 Examples, Signs, and Tips. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/disenfranchised-grief#symptoms. Published March 30, 2020.