My rescue cat Cloe was the second pet I’d lost suddenly to undiagnosed cancer in as many years. Still plagued by sorrow a week later, I contacted Jane Nathanson, a pet-loss counselor in the greater Boston area who hosts a support group at a local animal hospital. “Many people consider their animals to be better companions than family members,” Nathanson said, inviting me to the group. So for two Sunday afternoons, my partner and I joined eight similarly bereaved pet parents to share photos, tell stories, and soothe ourselves as Nathanson offered advice for moving on.
Support groups exist for seemingly every purpose, from addiction recovery to weight-loss encouragement. Perhaps not surprising given how we often consider companion animals to be full-fledged family members, there are now pet-loss support groups in nearly every state. This wasn’t always the case. “I lost my dog in a rafting accident in ’78, and there was nothing out there in the way of pet-loss counseling,” recalls Betty Carmack, a registered nurse and pet-loss counselor in San Francisco. As she navigated her own sorrow and spoke to friends similarly confounded by the lack of resources for grieving pet owners, Carmack realized that with her academic and clinical background as an RN, she could help fill the void. She approached the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and asked if she could volunteer to lead a grief group for pet owners. Today, Carmack’s group is widely considered to be the oldest in the country.
Whether through ceremony, private or group therapy, or another self-soothing practice, experts like Carmack and Nathanson say ritual is a powerful way to cope with grief. Consider holding a funeral for your pet. Some families gather the night before a euthanasia to celebrate the life of the pet and to say goodbye. Plant a tree in your pet’s memory. Create a photo album or scrapbook to preserve your memories and celebrate the life of your pet. Be sure to involve your children in any rituals honoring your pet’s life. They need an outlet to express their sense of loss.
Acknowledging grief at the loss of a beloved animal is important for your own healing, and it may also help surviving pets, which may experience a loss or become distressed at your sorrow. Try to maintain daily routines and perhaps increase play times.
Though we were just miles apart when we first spoke, Nathanson says she fields calls from grieving pet owners nationwide. “They just want to talk to somebody,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where you’re located.” Geography may not matter, but the ability to connect with a compassionate counselor or support group and engage in a meaningful act of remembrance may be a critical part of overcoming grief and finding peace.