While at the Seattle Pet Expo one month ago (June 20, 2015), I came across a booth for a professional pet sitting company in Seattle that was so well put together, and had such great materials, that I just had to stop and compliment the owner. Once he discovered my main occupation (pet after-care), he asked, “What can I say when a pet I’ve cared for dies? What do I say to the client?”
It got me thinking. When a pet dies, there are general guidelines about what all of us should consider saying (and not saying) to a grieving pet parent. However, the pet care provider, especially a long-term pet care provider, may be in a unique position to make a significantly positive difference for the pet parent.
As the pet care provider, you may have been the second most significant human in the pet’s life. The pet parent may respect and remember what you do and say, in reaction to the pet’s death, more than anyone else.
* First, it’s important to acknowledge that you are grieving, too. As a professional pet care provider since 2006, I can honestly say that I often feel deep affection for my pet clients. When a pet I’ve cared for dies, I grieve, and sometimes for extended periods. Most pet parents will recognize that you and the pet shared a bond, but it would be good for them to hear it. You’re not suggesting that you miss the pet more than they do, you’re simply letting the pet parent know that they are not alone in their grief. Something as simple as, “I miss him, too. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to spend time with him,” could suffice.
* Second, you need to be prepared for the death of any pet client. Pet care providers often know all of the pet supply stores, doggie day care centers, veterinary clinics and groomers in their area. You should also know about, and be ready to recommend, pet after-care providers, pet loss support groups, and veterinarians who provide home euthanasia. It also would be a good idea to know what the local laws are regarding pet burial. Here’s related information for the Whatcom County Area: Pet Loss Support, Backyard Burial, In-Home Euthanasia Providers
* Third, you should consider keeping copies of a pet loss publication that validates what the pet parent is going through. (Validating the pet parent’s grief is the single most important thing you can do.) There are lots of pet loss brochures out there, but sometimes it’s hard to tell who authored them. The one that I like, and that comes recommended by the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories (IAOPCC), is “Helping Your Family Cope When a Pet Dies” by Dr. Alan Wolfelt. The brochure is well written, concise, and covers a lot of material. It can be purchased from http://www.centerforloss.com.
Lucy: A personal story
A few months ago, it was my privilege to provide after-care for an old female Vizsla named Lucy who had been a regular dog hiking client of mine for several years. When I went to the house that morning, her human mom met me in the drive way, and said that she was going to take Lucy to the vet. Lucy had been going downhill rapidly, and had experienced seizures the previous night. It was the mom’s way of telling me that this was probably it. At that moment, there really was nothing for me to say. I teared up, hugged the mom and asked to see Lucy, who was already in her crate and in the vehicle. I wasn’t sure if I was saying goodbye or not, but I knew deep down that I probably was.
All during the hike I thought of Lucy.
Later that day I collected Lucy’s body from the veterinarian’s office. Two of the doctors happened to be in the back, and one of them mentioned that he knew about my long-term relationship with Lucy. I started to cry. The vet staff had never seen me cry before, so it was a little jarring. (I think most people assume that pet after-care providers have thick skin, but not really.) The vet apologized and I just kept calmly reassuring him, through the unstoppable tears, that it really was OK. I told him I loved Lucy, and was going to miss her, and that “this was a hard one.”
I cried off-and-on for several days, but especially when I was actively providing after-care for Lucy. While caring for her body it was impossible for me not to think about all of her good, funny, and quirky traits. At the same time, I was grateful that I was the one who got the privilege of providing her after-care, and that I would be the one to personally deliver her after-care package to her home, because I knew that it would make a difference for Lucy’s human mom and dad to have her cremated remains, paw prints and fur clipping.
So…all you other pet care providers out there, research pet after-care options in your area. Read through the website. Visit the facility. Talk with the owners and staff. Get their literature and keep it on hand for your clients when they need it.