Handling euthanasias: Tender care for grieving clients
As caregivers in the veterinary profession, we enjoy the privilege of being a part of the end of many pets' lives. To do this honor justice, we created what we call a "tender culture" at our practice. This refers to taking special care of our euthanasia clients from the time they make the appointment to the time the remains are presented. We train our staff to be compassionate throughout the entire process, and knowing about our procedures might be helpful for your team—as well as your clients.
When clients call to schedule a euthanasia appointment, change your voice so they hear a more sympathetic tone.
If there is background noise, such as barking or chatter, put caller on hold briefly and move to a quieter location.
Accommodate the client’s schedule as much as possible.
Be sensitive about surrounding appointments. For example, try not to schedule a euthanasia for a black lab near the time of a black lab new puppy appointment.
So that you’ll be prepared when the client arrives, ask the following questions at the time you make the appointment: Would you like to be present in the room?
What are your wishes for the aftercare? (Private cremation, mass cremation, etc.)
Consider completing a euthanasia house-call for those pets—or clients—who can no longer walk. Some clients prefer keeping their beloved pet at home and avoiding the stress of a car ride.
Alert team members about when a euthanasia patient will be arriving so the hospital can take on a somber, serene atmosphere free from laughing and loud talking.
Prepare the treatment room in advance so the client can go into the room as quickly as possible so they get the privacy they deserve.
When clients arrive for a euthanasia appointment, take care of the formalities immediately. (Sometimes this is best handled in private, depending on the number of other clients in the reception area.) This includes signing the authorization form, taking payment, and reviewing the client’s wishes.
(Warning: Pet owners may change their minds about staying in the room or about aftercare arrangements, so it’s important to make sure there is no misunderstanding about their wishes.)
If you normally announce appointment arrivals over the hospital intercom, don’t announce euthanasias in the same way. Walk back and almost whisper to the team that the pet and owner have arrived.
Photo courtesy of Nancy Cronin Stiff
When the client and the pet go into the room, give them as much time as they need to say goodbye. Let them tell you when they’re ready.
Anytime you leave the room, make sure the doors are closed so other clients don’t hear the crying.
Doctors may hug clients, hold their hands for a moment, or touch their shoulders. Any other employees in the room may also console the client, either by hugs or words of condolence. It’s OK to cry with the clients.
Offer to snip some fur from the pet as a keepsake (see photo above). This is an economical option for clients who cannot afford a private cremation and have no tangible reminders of their pet. You could also offer your clients the purchase of craft boxes to hold their pets’ fur, encourage them to make their own containers, or simply put the fur in a small plastic bag. However you contain the fur, handle it gently.
After the euthanasia procedure, give your clients time to say the final goodbye. Never rush them out of the room.
If the client is too upset to drive, offer to call a friend or family member.
Call the client the next day to offer support.
If the pet dies at home and the client brings in the body for cremation, handle the process with reverence and compassion. For example, hold the body in a cradling embrace, carefully taking it from the client with the utmost consideration and respect.
Photo courtesy of Nancy Cronin Stiff
The follow up
After receiving the cremation remains, prepare the pet to be picked up. One idea is to present the remains in a box inside a gift bag, as shown in the photo above. To do this, create a soft spot, like a nest, with tissue paper in the bottom of the bag and gently tuck in the pet’s container. Cover the container with tissue paper. We usually use blue bags for boys and pink for girls and sometimes we even use breed- or species-specific bags. You can also paste a poem on the side of the bag.
Click here and here to download poems that pay tribute to passed pets.
When a team member calls the clients to let them know the remains are ready, say, “Fluffy has been returned to us,” rather than, “The ashes are here.” Remember, the cremation remains are still your client’s pet.
When the pet owner arrives to pick up the remains, our team members cradle the bag in their arms like they’re holding a baby. They don’t just hand the bag over the counter. Instead, they walk around and place the bag into the client’s arms.
If you feel comfortable, you can touch the pet-owner’s shoulder and offer condolences. You can also ask how they’re doing and offer resources for grief counseling.
Remember to celebrate
Our practice hosts an annual Memorial Night, and we send a card inviting all pet-owners who have lost a pet during the past year. We encourage the attendees to bring photographs of their pets to share.
This night is extremely important to those attending. Many clients develop friendships based on the common ground of losing a pet. What’s more, this night is equally meaningful to the team members who attend.
On the night of the service, we conduct the events in this order:
1. Cheerfully welcome everyone and give a brief overview of the importance and purpose of the memorial.
2. Give everyone the opportunity to talk about their lost pets, sharing a funny or interesting story. Do not require everyone to share.
3. Dim the lights and hold a moment of silence for their pets.
4. Play music in the background, similar to a funeral service.
5. Encourage pet owners to quietly say a prayer or their own private farewell
6. Then turn on the lights and say goodnight.
Nancy Cronin Stiff is office manager at South Shore Animal Hospital in Houghton Lake, Mich.