Fall 2017

The Grief Counselor Is In

Three questions for Eric Richman, Cummings School's first veterinary social worker.

By Genevieve Rajewski

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The love people have for an animal often matches the love they have for a human family member, said social worker Eric Richman. Photo: Alonso Nichols

After a 25-year career as a clinical social worker in Boston area teaching hospitals, Eric Richman in May joined Cummings School as its first veterinary social worker.

What does a veterinary social worker do?

My job is very similar to the work that social workers perform in human medicine: It revolves around providing compassion and support to families and individuals.

For example, veterinarians are often caring for multiple critical animals with emergencies, but do not want an owner to feel rushed in deciding whether or not to treat an animal. I’ll sit down with the pet’s family for as long as it takes to help them make sense of all the medical information they’ve received and to talk through their concerns and feelings. I’ve also worked with parents on how to help their child face the death of a pet. Sometimes my job is even simpler: Recently, I met a woman who had brought her very sick pet goat to our Hospital for Large Animals. We sat together in the hay, and I just listened while she shared her sadness.

My position also can help support our care teams in the hospitals. Veterinary work can take an emotional toll on both veterinarians and students. I hope they will come by to talk about whatever they’re struggling with—whether it’s that they had to euthanize five patients in a particular day, or that they’re working on becoming a competent doctor in ways that go beyond the hard science, such as learning to deliver bad news in an empathetic manner.

What’s different about working with pet owners versus people in human hospitals?

From what I’ve been seeing in direct practice, the love people have for an animal often is no different than the love they have for a human family member. Yet when they lose that family member, many grieving pet owners are told, for example, “It’s just a dog or cat.” As a result, many pet owners experience something called “disenfranchised grief,” which is pain that’s not necessarily acknowledged by society.

People also tend to take on a lot of guilt. They often say, “What did I do wrong?” And the answer is usually, “Nothing.” However, pet owners have a profound sense of responsibility, so they feel they let their animal down. These feelings of guilt can be complicated by financial limitations. When a patient comes into a human hospital, doctors typically can pursue a comprehensive workup and treatment plan without asking if the person can pay. In veterinary medicine, however, many people don’t have pet insurance and cannot afford to pay out of pocket for that level of care.

What are your plans for the veterinary social work program at Tufts?

Cummings School has run a free pet-loss hotline for more than 20 years, but there’s something very powerful about actually being in a room with other people who are going through the same thing you’re going through. This fall, I started a support group for people who have lost their companion animal or are anticipating a loss, as well as another support group for Tufts clients whose pets are being treated for cancer.

Given Cummings School’s teaching environment, I’d also love to establish an internship program with the five schools in the Boston area that offer a master’s-degree program in social work. Both Tufts and the students would benefit immensely from working together to help veterinary social work gain a foothold in the Northeast.

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