Bereavement is an issue that all pet owners and animal care staff face. Veterinary nurses frequently face not only the bereavement of clients, but also their own as pet owners, or from taking part in euthanasia. As a result, veterinary nurses are at risk of further challenges such as disenfranchised or complicated grief. This article discusses what is known about the experience of bereavement, methods to support those experiencing bereavement, and how these may affect practicing veterinary nurses.
‘Nothing is certain except death and taxes’; Benjamin Franklin, 1789 (National Constitution Center, 2019). The former is particularly true for pet owners and veterinary professionals; the animals we care for mostly live lives much shorter than our own. Issues of euthanasia and end-of-life care are regularly cited as stressors in the literature on veterinary burnout, compassion fatigue and moral injury (Deacon and Brough, 2017).
Veterinary nurses often experience bereavement from multiple directions; as carers for animals that die, as part of the team responsible for euthanasia, as witnesses and supporters for clients experiencing bereavement, and frequently as pet owners themselves (Marton et al, 2020).
Often terms like grief, bereavement and mourning can be used interchangeably. In studies of loss, bereavement is generally considered to refer to the entire process of loss, grief and mourning (Zisook et al, 2014). It can also include the period leading up to a loss, such as in the case of palliative care when it is known that death will be the final outcome; this is referred to as anticipatory grief. Mourning refers to the outward behaviours related to grief, such as expressing sadness or anger. It also includes personal or cultural actions such as holding memorial services. Grief itself is the normal and natural response to loss; it may take many forms, depending on the people and animals involved.