Your clients facing pet loss will be affected not only by the normal grief that follows loss but also by anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief occurs prior to an actual death. It often begins with the diagnosis of a terminal illness or injury. A client may begin to exhibit any or all of the manifestations of normal grief as soon as they sense that a beloved pet may die.
How Anticipatory Grief May Manifest
As the pet’s condition deteriorates, the client must adjust to the changes. The pet’s appearance, personality, and physical capabilities may change as a result of treatments or surgeries. For example, the client may experience a sense of loss as their pet changes. It may become necessary to give up knowing the pet in the old, familiar ways. During this period of anticipatory grief, clients begin the process of saying goodbye to their pets. Some will consciously or subconsciously detach from their pets and perhaps move quickly to euthanasia. Others may cling even more tightly to the relationship and perhaps have difficulty making a decision about euthanasia.
Anticipatory grief is often characterized by anxiety, worry, guilt, confusion, and indecision. Sometimes the clients who are in the midst of anticipatory grief are misunderstood and thought of as “difficult” or “problem” clients. These are the clients who:
- ask unending questions
- doubt your competency
- exhibit peculiar behaviors
- demand unreasonable access to you or to their hospitalized pets.
However, “problem clients” are often grieving clients. An honest conversation about grief can usually stabilize their emotional state. Your sincere emotional support and compassion are also important during this time.
Give Your Clients Permission to Feel
As a veterinary team member, you can best support your grieving clients by encouraging them to talk openly about their grief-related thoughts and feelings. You can also give a client “permission” or encourage them to grieve by letting the client know that you understand the need to:
- ask questions
- be present at the pet’s euthanasia
- view the pet’s body after death
- reminisce about the pet’s life
Identifying “At-Risk” Clients
It is unrealistic to expect you to provide long-term grief support for clients. However, high-quality veterinary care does include identifying clients who may be at higher risk than others for a more complicated grief response. Read our Staff Handout “Assessing Which Clients May Need Additional Support” for keys to identifying these clients. All grieving clients can benefit from information about pet loss and grieving. But, your clients who may need additional support are the ones who would most benefit from referrals. Be sure to make referrals to credible, experienced grief support programs or mental health professionals in your community. Making informed referrals requires you to be familiar with your local community resources. So, please do your research ahead of time.
For an in-depth Client Handout about anticipatory grief, click here.
Keep up the good work,
World by the Tail, Inc.