Mental health professionals note that because these mourners lack a traditional path for grieving, they often are not offered social sympathy and support, never mind the ritual of a funeral or time off from work to heal. And because these kinds of loss tend to remain private, those suffering from disenfranchised grief typically experience more intense emotional reactions to their loss. They also may believe the depth of their sorrow is inappropriate, which can lead to feelings of shame.
The hotline volunteers are there to listen.
“Whatever people on that phone are going through is perfectly normal,” says Lindsay. “What callers need is someone to bear witness, to hear their stories in a compassionate way, so that they can feel supported and part of a community of others who know what it feels like to lose a pet.”
The hotline also can help callers think through the therapeutic use of ritual. Hotline volunteers will ask callers, “What are your rituals after a death? Would you like me to talk to you a little bit about some things you might do to help you get through this?”
Grieving owners can memorialize a pet by creating a photo scrapbook, writing the pet a love letter, keeping a journal of happy memories, donating to a shelter or planting a tree in a spot that was special to the animal.
After losing a pet, people usually experience many of the well-documented five stages of grief, including anger and depression. However, Sharp says, pet loss differs from other losses in that “guilt tends to play a bigger factor in the grieving process”—much of it tied to decisions around euthanasia.
Although we may face the choice to end life support for a family member, the difficult decision to end a life is far more common in veterinary medicine.
“Removing life support happens only with people in a terminal state,” notes Sharp.
But with pets, “you can choose to make a decision for euthanasia well before that.”
An owner may opt for euthanasia even when treatment is still possible, because the animal’s quality of life may decline significantly, or because the owner cannot afford the treatment.
“We have a gift that we can give our animals that we can’t give to humans,” says Lindsay, the counselor. “When they are really suffering, we can let them go. But there can be a lot of guilt around making that decision. It’s a gift and a curse all at the same time.”
Owners’ guilt around the timing of the decision to euthanize—whether they let a pet go too soon, or waited too long—is also a common theme among the hotline callers.
“No matter what side they’re on, they’re saying the same thing,” says Kara Palac, the hotline’s student coordinator.
Many pet owners express concern that perhaps their animal had been showing signs of illness, Sharp says, but they didn’t understand the severity of those symptoms and delayed seeking veterinary care. They “contemplate that maybe things would have been different if they had just [seen the veterinarian] earlier,” she adds.
But the reality is that most animals, especially cats, don’t give us a lot of clues that they’re sick. “A pet can go from seeming not quite right to being in a terminal condition over a period of days,” Sharp says. “People are often hypochondriacs. We have a headache one day and think, ‘Oh my God, I have a brain tumor.’ Whereas our pets might go on having a headache for ages when they actually have a brain tumor, and it’s not until they have a seizure that we notice anything’s wrong.”
In addition to helping owners work through their grief, the hotline plays a vital role in veterinary education, says Sharp, because “we get to teach a new generation of veterinarians how to communicate with pet owners.”
“As veterinarians, we tend to talk a lot, advising people on treatments and care,” explains Pierce, the Tufts hotline founder who is now on the faculty at the UC-Davis veterinary school. “Yet listening to people is a skill that must be practiced to be learned. You don’t have to fix all of a client’s problems. In fact, with pet loss, you can’t,” she says. “But you can be there to help them sort through their emotions.”
Jamison still grieves for her cat Danny: “It still hurts very much, but it’s gotten a bit easier.” She credits the emotional support of her friends and the Tufts hotline, as well as her own efforts to work through her sorrow by writing about Danny, creating an online memorial and reading books about pet loss.
She recently adopted Mindy, a 5-month-old female tuxedo cat, in honor of Danny. “She’s quite a handful,” says Jamison. Continued...