Supporting a Grieving Veterinary Colleague

Posted: Apr 30, 2013
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When a member of our hospital experiences the death of a personal pet, we all understand the pain they are going through. We know how hard it is to come to work and focus while feeling sad. And while we do an awesome job supporting our clients when they have a loss, we can struggle when it comes to supporting our own colleagues when they experience the death of a personal pet.

Some folks avoid their bereaved colleague and stay silent because they don’t know what to say or in an effort to give them space. Others hug, express their condolences and ask questions but worry that it made their co-worker cry and feel worse. Everyone handles grief differently so it's difficult to know how best to acknowlege the loss and show we care. We don’t want our colleagues who are grieving for their pet to experience feeling overwhelmed by too much support or isolation and lack of support.

At DoveLewis we resolved this dilemma by creating a ritual which acknowledges the loss of staff pets in a caring and non-intrusive manner. When a staff member’s pet has died I am notified. I in turn reach out to the bereaved staff member, express my condolences by email and inquire if they would allow me to create a memorial table in their pets honor. I explain that the memorial table is an opportunity for their co-workers to share their condolences by writing in the blank journal provided, and that this is a way for their co-workers to learn about the special bond they shared and look at photos.

If they agree to the a memorial table I ask them to write a few paragraphs about the special bond they shared. I also ask them to provide an assortment of favorite photos. Sharing their story, expressing their feelings through writing and gathering photos facilitates a healthy grieving process.

Each memorial table I create is a unique reflection of the pet being honored. In addition to their story and photos (which I display in pretty frames), I decorate a blank journal where each staff member can write a personal message. I invite the bereaved staff member and all co-workers to place additional meaningful items on the table. Sometimes there are flowers, a candle, collar, paw print or a favorite toy. Creating a special table in the workplace that acknowledges and honors the pet’s life brings validation and comfort — a place where everyone can go and pay tribute allowing our bereaved staff member to feel the support of the their coworkers.

The photo is a memorial table in honor of Midnight, our intern Sarah’s sweet kitty.

This is a memorial table for Midnught, veterinary intern Sarah Tauber's cat.



Tienne Garcia's picture

That is a really good idea. Losing a ferret of mine, i was sent home from work because it was difficult to feel people staring at me as i grieved. This is a creative way for people to share and talk without feeling too center of attention.

Enid Traisman's picture

Thanks for that nice comment Tienne. I am sorry for your loss of your ferret. Unfortunately we are a culture that is uncomfortable with grief, loss and sadness - our own and others. In the past 20 years, grief has "come out of the closet" and we now recognize the importance of acknowledging, validating and supporting grief for healthy healing. We, as a veterinary community have come a long way in caring for our grieving clients and now we are on the way to offering that same compassion for ourselves and our co-workers.
Please let me know if your clinic is going to implement a gentle support system for employees who suffer a personal loss.

Martin Appelt's picture

I was hoping to get something more out of this article. It is tactful and sweet, but there is a dimension lacking. Losing a pet is something that we, in our work environment as a veterinarian or tech, have to deal with on a daily basis. We comfort clients in these difficult times and, even more severe, advise them on why and when to decide that a pet's live should be humanely ended.
What is really difficult is to deal with is a colleague grieving over a personal loss involving other causes than a pet - a human, for instance. Would the same proposal apply?

The subject would also touch on the very real sphere of entering a personal dark space - including depression and suicidal thoughts. Looking forward to any advice.

Enid Traisman's picture

Dear Martin,

Grief is the result of a loss, any loss. The more important the loss, the deeper the grief. Grief is normal, necessary, painful and draining, but one must go through these feelings for a healthy resolution. Understandably we don’t like seeing colleagues struggling with their grief. Offering our colleagues support, understanding and validation of their feelings rather than trying to fix their pain is the best gift we can give them. We can support them by writing a condolence card, nonjudgmentally  listening to their feelings, offering to go out for a meal or a walk. The ability of the human spirit to heal from loss is immense, and with support, self-awareness and self-care, people will heal in time.

The subject of depression and suicidal thoughts is out of the scope of this blog subject. Grief over a loss, even a tremendous loss most likely will not lead to clinical depression or suicidal thoughts, underlying mental health issues that have not been addressed is more likely the culprit. Deep sadness, lack of energy and  lack of joy are some of the very normal emotions experienced during the grieving process. If you are worried about a colleague’s mental health you can approach them and let them know you have noticed their sadness and ask if they have resources for mental health support. If you are not comfortable talking to them directly, share your concern with your supervisor. For more information on depression and suicide, there is an article in this month’s Veterinary Practice News.