R.I.P. Fido: Grief groups grow as society views pets as family members

January 19, 2015


BALTIMORE — Their names were Bandar and Pixel. When they died, Bandar in 2013 and Pixel in 2014, Linda Schenk as shaken. She had owned both cats for 15 years. They’d been with her through a move to California and back home to Baltimore and a marriage, and their deaths left her sad and bereft.

"We went through some tough stuff together," said Schenk, referring to her husband, Alex Young, whose own 15-year-old cat, Pogo, died in 2012. "We had three cats die within two years of each other."

Schenk has been a pet-owner since childhood. "Pets bring pure love and joy into your life. They’re one of the things that make it a home," said the founder of a brand strategy company, Virtuallinda Media, who has since adopted another cat.

After their cats died, Schenk and Young turned to the Hunt Valley Animal Hospital. Besides its veterinary practice, the animal hospital offers a unique service — pet grief groups led by a certified counselor. In the local area, only one other venue, Baltimore Humane Society, appears to have a similar service.

Cathy Bury holds dual titles at the animal hospital. She is reception supervisor and pet loss grief counselor. She was certified as the latter in 2012 by the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB), a New Jersey-based nonprofit group that began offering the designation in 1998.

"People grieve for dogs, cats, birds, lizards, snakes — they get attached to their pets. The biggest reason I got certified was because I don’t want them to feel alone. People say, ‘It’s just a dog, just a cat.’ But it was more than that to them," Bury said.

"To most people, especially if they don’t have children," she added, "their pets are their family, even their children."

Bury’s clients are not alone. In a recent nationwide survey, 83 percent of pet owners consider their pets members of the family. The result is growth in the pet industry that is evident in many markets. .

There are dog walkers, cat groomers, house sitters, veterinarians who make home visits and doggy bakeries that turn out custom-made dog biscuits. Resorts for dogs feature individualized gym sessions and Reiki massage. Any number of hotels and resorts will accommodate pets.

The trend extends to pet bereavement. "Pet cemeteries are more accessible. You have pet loss cards, pet hospices, pet grieving groups," said Coleen Ellis, a Texas-based expert on the pet industry.

Ellis is owner of Two Hearts Pet Loss Center, with grieving groups and counseling certification, two pet funeral homes and a pet cemetery. In 2009, she founded and is co-chair of the Pet Loss Professional Alliance, part of International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, a trade group.

In her opinion, two groups are driving the trend: millennials who are getting married later, don’t have kids and get a pet instead; and the opposite, baby boomers who miss their adult kids and get a pet.

"They are significantly changing what is happening in the pet industry," Ellis said of both groups. "They want the same care for their pets as for humans. They want to recognize the human/animal bond."

APLB’s certification for pet loss grief counselor is a weeklong course that covers all aspects of pet grief.

"It mimics every stage of the human pattern," according to Andrew Mazan, the Baltimore Humane Society’s pet bereavement counselor who also holds APLB certification.

"Someone, something important to you is gone," the difference being that it is now publicly recognized and acceptable to grieve for a pet, said Mazan, who offers group and individual counseling. The monthly group sessions are free; the nominal fee for individual counseling benefits the society.

"It’s important for people to deal with their grief. So many times, through no fault of their own, they stuff their feelings and eventually, down the road, it turns into catastrophe," Mazan said.

"Sometimes just listening is helpful," Mazan said. "Some people don’t have anyone else to talk to."

Bury has the same impression. "Every now and then, a person will come in and say, ‘What, grief groups for pets?’ But for the most part, it’s out there," she said.

Bury offers free group sessions the first Wednesday of every month at the Hunt Valley Animal Hospital. She also offers private sessions for a fee but encourages clients to participate in the group because it helps to be with other people.

The sessions are open to the public. In fact, she said, many participants are not clients of the animal hospital but, instead, hear about it from their own veterinarians.

Group sessions typically average three participants. Most participants attend a single session. A few come to a second session, and Bury hopes they won’t need more than that.

Bury said the majority of group participants are grieving the death of a pet cat, then come dog owners and then bird owners.

The animal hospital has a large avian clientele, she said. "People get extremely attached to their birds."

In the group, participants talk about their pet. Often, they are dealing with feelings of guilt.

"As a pet owner, you are responsible for your pet’s well-being. You have to make the decision whether to have a costly vet treatment. Sometimes, the outcome of a vet treatment doesn’t give the desired result," Bury said, "or is harder on the pet than anticipated. There’s a feeling you might have caused the animal pain."

Among Bury’s clients was a couple in their 50s who had no children. When one of their two dogs died, the husband had a hard time with the loss.

"He’d go to the door every day and look for the dog even though he knew it was dead," Bury said. "His wife called me to get him in a group. He felt he couldn’t talk to anyone about it."

Another client was a young woman who, after separating from her husband, got a puppy. One day, though, she came home from work and found it dead.

"Her private life was falling apart. The puppy was dead," Bury said. "It sent her into an emotional tailspin."

Schenk said she found the group grief sessions helpful.

"You talk about your grief. But it’s not like you stop missing them," Schenk said.

"I had a routine with each of them for 15 years," she said. "That’s a long time."

 

 


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