Ryane Englar’s latest book, Supporting Pet Owners through Grief, has just been released. It explores grief and its impact on the human-animal bond, providing practitioners and students alike with tools to navigate their own mix of emotions as they themselves experience and process recurrent grief.
We have asked the author some questions to provide some context and shed light on the writing process behind this excellent book. Here is what she told us.
- What was your inspiration for the book?
As a veterinarian, I have witnessed the transition from life to death hundreds of times.
Each time, every time is unique.
I have stood vigil as the medical healthcare provider when I have needed to be there for others.
I have stood on the opposite side of the exam room table as a client, grieving the loss of my own loved one.
I envy neither position because both carry immense weight.
I have struggled in both positions because so little information is available to both doctors and mourners — and so often, as is true of me, doctors are both.
As doctors, we are trained to cure.
Western medicine often teaches that death is a failure.
So we don’t always know what to say or do when we reach that symbolic, figurative and also quite literal dead end.
We are trained to use medicine to transition from life to death, but words and actions would provide greater support because the veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) doesn’t end with death. Clients have needs, wants, and expectations of us, and they deserve to be heard.
Western society has not traditionally embraced gaining comfort with the discomfort of grief and grieving, death and dying.
We are trained to express sympathy.
Sympathy is exclusively about feeling sorry that loss happened. It acknowledges loss but falls short of connection. It keeps us at arm’s length and from taking on the feelings of those who are hurting most.
Those who are grieving often feel isolated, alone, and misunderstood. What veterinary clients often want and need from us at those most challenging moments is the feeling that someone else can relate to them. Connecting to others is made possible through empathy.
Empathy is “feeling with” instead of “feeling for”. It is about us trying to relate to another’s emotion, through their perspective rather than our own. Empathy is about tuning into what someone else is going through, and validating what they are experiencing.
I wanted to ignite a change in our profession — to transition from a state of sympathy to empathy – so that our clients can feel heard, acknowledged, affirmed, and validated.
I wanted others to know that they are seen, even and especially during times of grief.
I wanted others to understand what grief is and how it may be complicated.
Most of all, I wanted to be a part of helping others journey beside those who grieve at a time when support is needed most.
- Who is your book addressed to and how might they benefit from it?
This text was originally written for veterinary team members (e.g., veterinarians, veterinary students, vet tech students, and client service representatives) as a primary resource on grief and grieving, death and dying. Euthanasia in particular is a critical procedure that we perform on a routine, if not daily basis, yet according to a 2021 publication by Cooney et al in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education (“Euthanasia Education in Veterinary Schools in the United States”, doi: 10.3138/jvme-2020-0050),” the average number of hours devoted to euthanasia methods and techniques [at ten US veterinary colleges] was 2.8.”
2.8 hours is not enough.
2.8 hours doesn’t even touch the surface of shaping one’s understanding of grief and grieving, death and dying.
I am fortunate to have been a part of the inaugural faculty at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Arizona, and to have partnered with Teresa Graham Brett in the evolution, design, and launch of our Professional Skills curriculum, in which the majority of one of six consecutive semesters concentrate on these vital topics.
Grief and grieving, death and dying, and the ways in which we navigate these processes are the heartbeat of our profession. Clients rely on us during the most challenging moments to be the face of humanity, to walk with, and to sit beside.
We owe it to our clients to do better. To actively listen harder. To explore their thoughts, feelings, and concerns more. To engage in perspective-taking and perspective-seeking. To companion them through grief.
To do so, we need a guide. This was my attempt to create that resource for my profession, so that veterinary team members could have something to lean on when times get tough, when they don’t know what to say, and when they themselves feel “stuck”.
As this text came into being, I realized that the audience could be broadened significantly to include all people — veterinarians and clients alike. Clients may themselves feel comforted in knowing that they are not alone in their grief and that what they are feeling is “normal”.
If we can acknowledge, normalize, and affirm what others are experiencing, then we break down the barriers in veterinary medicine that keep us at arm’s length. We cease to exist as purely clinical – and instead we simply are ourselves. We become less doctorly and more human.
It’s that human connection that is ever powerful in bridging the transitional time after death during which mourners have to come to terms with “the new normal”.
Life as they know it will never again be the same.
They need support and understanding.
They need humans, not doctors.
My hope is that this text will remind us of the human nature of grief, and how we can companion each other through our hardest days.
- You have written several other books for 5m, like The Veterinary Workbook of Small Animal Clinical Cases and A Guide to Oral Communication in Veterinary Medicine – how did you find writing this one compared to those?
This text was the most challenging of any that I have written in the past.
Initially, it did not start out that way.
When I had contracted this text, the plan was for it to be very clinical. Very scientific. Strictly evidence-based, without personal anecdotes.
At that time, I thought it would be the bests way to deliver the content.
Never in a million years did I think that when it came time to sit down and write the text, I myself would be grieving.
Two weeks before I sat down to write the first page of the first chapter, I had to myself make the decision to have my 18-year-old heart cat, Bailey, euthanized.
It’s much less common to hear about someone’s “heart cat”. Perhaps that’s because of the age-old saying that dogs are man’s best friend.
Yet those of us who have been chosen by cats can attest to the fact that there is more to the creature than its aloof reputation might suggest. Cats, like dogs, can also form secure attachments to their guardians. These attachments vary in terms of bond strength as is true of any relationship; however, there are those connections that transcend even death.
Some cats, special cats, can even knead their way into your hearts and in so doing, carve out a space that only they can occupy. It is a privilege that a select few humans come to know and depend upon.
It is an honor that my very own Bailey bestowed upon me.
From the moment I first laid my eyes on Bailey, before hers had even opened, something changed within me. It was as if from that moment forward, our lives were intricately, intimately woven together in a way that only we could ever understand.
She was truly mine. Not mine in the sense of ownership but rather, mine to look after, nourish, cherish, love, and protect.
She was mine to be forever responsible for in a way that I had never known. Perhaps that’s how new parents feel when they hold their infant for the very first time. I don’t know. I’ve never experienced that joy.
She was mine in life, and she was mine in death.
Losing her was the hardest grief I’ve ever faced, and I had up to that point lost many of my beloved pets.
I didn’t think that I would be able to pen this text after her death.
I was lost in my own grief, at a time when I was supposed to be comforting others.
What Bailey taught me in life, she taught me in death. To open one’s heart, no matter how much it may hurt.
When I put pen to paper, I created a fusion of evidence-based medicine and personal anecdotes that I had never envisioned doing.
But something about it felt “right”.
Writing this text was like a tribute to my very best friend.
Writing this text made my fractured heart feel more whole.
If I could help even just one person, by sharing Bailey’s story, then it would be worth it — everything, including the heartache.
Now that the text is in print, and I can hold it in my own two hands, I am grateful that I did not give up on it at the time.
I look back upon the decisions made — the decision to include snippets of my life with Bailey, for the world to see – and I know that it is what she would have wanted from me.
Including her story made this text real in a way that all other texts of mine lack.
All of my other books are strictly clinical.
This one has heart.
More heart than I’ve ever chosen to share on paper.
And because of that, it feels free.
It feels authentic.
It’s what it needed to be.
- What special knowledge or research was required to write Supporting Pet Owners through Grief?
As veterinarians, we are trained minimally with respect to the content areas of grief and grieving, death and dying. To deliver this text required me to partner with someone who had significant training in thanatology, the scientific study of death and those practices associated with it. This text required a fusion between me, the veterinarian, and a human healthcare provider, a grief counselor, my own mother and co-author Jill Englar.
Growing up with a mother who was professionally involved in human hospice and support services, I was accustomed to conversations about grief and grieving, death and dying. Writing this text required me to go back to those roots and to dive deep – and to listen, understand, and apply my mother’s teachings to the practice of veterinary medicine. My mother’s foundational knowledge was vital in the creation of this text because it provided me with the scientific basis for what we know about grief and grieving, death and dying, and how to companion those who grieve through the journey that is uniquely their own.
- What are your thoughts on the human-animal bond and the effects that grief can have on it?
Each grief journey is unique. This journey is defined by who and what (e.g., time, connection, purpose) has been lost.
Grief is a process. It is the mind, body, and heart coming to terms with the reality that absence of a loved one is permanent.
Grief is predictably unpredictable.
Grief is not a race. The finish line of acceptance comes only after hard work is put in— and even then, the ultimate goal is never to “get over” grief. Grief may ebb and flow for days, weeks, months, or years. It may also return unexpectedly, years later, when a client recalls the loved one’s name or a memory that links them to each other, and is instantly transported in time to what once was.
In these moments, it is not that grief is pulling mourners backward. They are remembering. And in remembering, the bereaved experience grief, at times, all over again.
The mourners that we encounter as veterinary teams are often told to “move on” by society because who they lost was “just” a dog or “just” a cat. Just. As if being just a dog or just a cat negates the human-animal bond as a powerful connector.
The reality is that pet loss is loss period, and grieving over a beloved pet is still grief.
As veterinarians, we cannot lessen the loss that follows the death of a client’s loved one.
What we can do is honor clients where they are in their respective grief journeys, and to remember their loved one by name.
Reaching out to clients is an essential part of relationship-centered care, particularly in veterinary practice.
My hope is that this text helps veterinary teams find the words and the actions to stay connected during this transitional, immensely challenging time in the veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR).