In my last blog, I shared more information about the Veterinary Social Work Summit, and two of the four pillars of that master’s program at the University of Tennessee: animal-assisted therapy and the link between human and animal abuse. Next we’ll look at the third pillar, pet loss and grief.
By the very nature of what we do, we are in the position to help pet owners through loss and grief. They come to us when their pets are ill or injured, whether the pet has a chance to recover, or not; or they come to us when it’s just a matter of time left for the pet, whether a day or a month. Most of us, or dare I say all of us, do this work with grief and loss without any formal training either from our schooling or our employers. We learn it "on the job,” because death is a part of our job. We may never slow down long enough to really reflect on how unprepared we are to be helping these pet owners.
At the Veterinary Social Work Summit, there were presentations about how to help families through pet loss and grief. Along the way, a new document called Human Support in Veterinary Settings that you can find on AAHA’s website came up in conversation.
It’s basically a workbook to help your practice find human support personnel in your region to help your clients with loss and grief, among other things. In a chart titled "Human Social Support Recommendations Summary,” this document recommends that for pet loss support, we should contract with a human support professional serving our practice, a group of practices, or a local association. This is a wonderful idea, and I’m sure there are plenty of veterinary professionals who would feel much more comfortable sending their grieving clients to a social worker then be left feeling inadequate in the type of support we can show on the job.
Yet there are issues that surface when we start to look at creating this type of human support in our veterinary settings. I don’t propose to know the answers, and in fact, I can only present the questions right now. But perhaps together, the veterinary profession and the social worker profession can come up with a plan. For now, these are a few things to think about:
- The veterinary professional, whether it’s the doctor, technician or receptionist, often lacks the training or education to provide adequate support, even if they want to … and some do not. Where can we get this training? Who should provide it? How do we incorporate it into our practices? Perhaps this is where the social worker can focus, on educating us to do a better job with pet loss and grief?
- Even those veterinary professionals who do have the training or education often don’t have the time to devote to the pet family that is needed for this type of support. We have other exam rooms full, appointments stacking up, coworkers off sick…we often don’t have enough time to finish all of our work even without a grieving family on the schedule. How do we carve out time for these families? How do we allow time to sit with the family, hear their stories, provide companionship?
- If we want to partner with social workers for them to deliver the pet loss and grief support, how does this look? Do we have the funds to keep a social worker on staff? Can we partner with other practices or associations to "share” a social worker? Can we find or create an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provided by veterinary social work people who understand the depth of the human-animal bond?
- In the meantime, it seems in every practice there is one person that is really good at connecting with the clients. So this person is called in to these types of situations more often than their fair share, and we need to be mindful of our own compassion fatigue that can develop when we care for others such as a grieving family. How do we safely do this work?
The last comment takes us to the fourth pillar, compassion fatigue, which will be the topic of the next blog. If we never ask the questions, we’ll never find the answers.
To read the Human Support in Veterinary Settings document (pdf), click here.
For more information about the Veterinary Social Work Summit, click here.