Lifelines for Grieving Pet Owners

A phone call away, veterinary students help owners work through the heartache of losing a beloved animal companion

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, V15, 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, V97, 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 U.S. 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 advisor 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.

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.

Overwhelming Guilt

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, V14, 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.

“But she’s also a very sweet cat. She loves to snuggle. I think [Danny] would have liked her.”

Empathetic Listeners

The death of a pet is just one reason animal owners call the Tufts hotline. The student volunteers can help answer your questions about a range of issues, including:

Did your pet run away, or were you unable to keep an animal because of a move, allergies or financial constraints?

Do you need to talk through end-of-life decisions for your pet, such as when is the right time to say goodbye and how to handle the remains?

Need information on helping a child grieving the loss of a pet or another pet in the house that is out of sorts because of a loss?

Wondering how to decide when to get a new pet?

When you call the hotline at 508.839.7966, you will speak one-to-one with a student volunteer. There is no formula for any call. The hotline volunteer also can send you a personalized packet of articles and book lists tailored to your specific needs.

The hotline is staffed weeknights from 6 to 9 ET, with more limited hours over the summer. Messages left during off-hours will be returned, at no cost to you, during the next scheduled shift.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2012 Tufts Veterinary Medicine magazine.

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