Lifelines for grieving pet owners
Danny’s death completely blindsided his owner, Andrea Jamison. At age 10, the green-eyed tuxedo cat was relatively young, compared with his 14-year-old calico housemate. What Jamison initially thought was stress-related hiding from noisy construction in her Virginia Beach home proved a harbinger of something more serious. After Danny spent Christmas Day in the emergency room, Jamison learned the cat was dying of heart failure. Three days later, she said goodbye to her beloved companion.
“When [the veterinarian] gave Danny the shot, I felt something in me die along with him,” Jamison says. “That first night, the pain was almost physically unbearable. I really thought I was going to lose it.”
On the surface, Jamison managed to keep it together. Inside, though, the hurt didn’t wane. “Every time I would look at Danny’s favorite napping places, I would feel a stab in my heart,” she says. “I didn’t want to eat. I had trouble sleeping. I was very depressed.”
Weeks after burying Danny, Jamison began searching online for support groups. She read about the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s free pet-loss hotline. She dialed, and Melissa De Fabrizio picked up the phone 500 miles away.
“Melissa was extremely caring and very professional,” recalls Jamison. “She just let me talk and cry, and she didn’t interrupt me. Getting out the grief helped a lot.”
The student-run hotline (dial 508-839-7966) has fielded more than 2,000 calls since it launched 16 years ago, from clients of the veterinary school’s hospitals to grieving animal owners from around the country.
Tami Pierce started the service in 1996, after reading an article about a similar program at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Now, 23 student volunteers staff the hotline weeknights from 6 to 9 and respond to voicemails left off-hours during the next shift. Their goal is not to provide counseling or medical advice, but to offer emotional support to pet owners as they work through their grief.
Mourning and unmoored
More than 72 million American households include pets, according to the American Pet Products Association. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s most recent US Pet Ownership Demographics Sourcebook reports that about half of those households view their animals as family members.
“Pets fulfill roles in [our] lives much like people do,” says Claire Sharp, a faculty adviser for the hotline who has comforted pet owners around end-of-life issues as an emergency room vet at Tufts’ Foster Hospital for Small Animals. “A pet may be a child substitute, for want of a better term, if people don’t have children or if their children have left the house,” she says. “A pet may be a companion, especially if a spouse has died or a person is separated or divorced. And for some people, a pet is their most reliable friend, one that doesn’t judge or get upset.”
It’s no wonder that the end of such a relationship can cause considerable pain.
The death of a pet also may deepen or re-open other feelings of loss, such as when an animal represents the last link to a deceased family member.
Although the grieving process following a pet’s death is similar to that experienced by people who have lost a family member or friend, the issue is largely ignored by the counseling and medical professions, according to a report in the journal Perspectives of Psychiatric Care .
Unfortunately, the death of a pet often isn’t recognized by family members, friends and coworkers as a real loss, either.
“How other people react can be devastating for someone who has lost a pet,” says Anne Lindsay, founding president of the Massachusetts Animal Coalition, who teaches a course on euthanasia and the human-animal bond at Tufts and leads training sessions for the hotline volunteers. “They may minimize the loss by saying things like, ‘Well, at least you can get another cat.’ Or, ‘Why are you so sad about a dog? It’s not like it’s a child.’ ”
When the human-animal bond is trivialized, a pet owner can experience what’s known as disenfranchised grief, says Lindsay, who has a master’s degree in counseling psychology. Kenneth J. Doka, a leading expert on grief counseling and therapy, introduced the concept in his 1989 book “Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow .”
This kind of grief, Lindsay says, happens when people “incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.” People experience disenfranchised grief for many reasons. A miscarriage, for example, is devastating for the baby’s parents, but is still not acknowledged publicly, she says. Continued...