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Pet lovers grieving a loss get help healing

Updated: 2014-01-02T17:39:15Z

By ERIC ADLER

The Kansas City Star

It’s been about 20 years since Nancy Piper began what, until quite recently, was considered an unusual support group. In all that time, the rules have remained the same.

“First thing is that what is said in here of a personal nature stays here,” Piper, 64, tells the group seated around a long wooden table. “Secondly, we don’t judge each other other. … Thirdly, we tell the emotional truth as best we can.

“You have to let the pain in to heal the pain.”

Truth is, the handful of people gathered here on this night are grieving the loss of their pets at the holidays, a time they said is particularly sensitive.

“I’m Dee Burch, and I’m here because I lost my golden retriever last month,” she says of her dog, Annie, then quickly falls into tears. “She was 12 years old; she was my constant companion.”

“I’m Pam, and this is my husband, Mark,” says Pam Schroeppel, who also chokes with tears as she speaks of Schnitzel, their male dachshund, who died just before turning 13. “It’s been over six weeks, and it’s still hard.”

As recognition broadens regarding the deep emotional bonds that exist between owners and their pets, so too do the supports and markets that help grieving pet owners cope.

Hospice care for dogs and cats to ease them through their last days is growing as an industry. Products sold to memorialize pets — such as custom-made urns and caskets, even for gerbils, as well as lockets to hold pets’ cremated remains — have become commonplace.

When Wallace Sife, a Brooklyn-based pet owner with two doctorates in human psychology, founded the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement in 1997, he said his efforts were met with broad skepticism.

Since then, the association has trained more than 3,000 individuals worldwide in how to form pet bereavement support groups. In Kansas City, a second group, led by a psychologist in Brookside after he lost his own pet, opened in 2010. Meanwhile, more than 500 books have been published on grief for pets, including at least 75 in 2013.

Titles and topics include “There Are No Sad Dogs in Heaven” and “Feng Shui for the Loss of a Pet.” One new book, “How Animals Grieve,” focuses not on grief among pet owners, but on what the anthropologist author says is the grief response among pets themselves.

“Because of the Internet, people are now discovering that they are not alone in the grief they feel for their pets,” Sife said. “They are coming out. They’re not hiding their grief. They’re expressing their grief.”

That’s just what some 35 animal lovers did on a recent Saturday night.

Wishing to honor the memories of their deceased pets, they gathered in a chapel at Rolling Acres Memorial Gardens for Pets, the pet cemetery and crematorium owned by Piper and her husband, Gary. It’s also where she holds the monthly support group.

For the first time, they held a candlelight ceremony. They wrote their pets’ names on colored paper tags and dangled them as ornaments on a Christmas tree. Then they lit white tapers.

“God, creator of all living things,” Piper began, “we ask that as we light our candles the healing warmth of love will flow into the brokenhearted. Give us your strength and comfort. We also pray that the soft glow of light will part the cloud of grief and sorrow that surround our fur babies at the rainbow bridge…”

Voices choked and tears flowed with people’s stories.

“I can say that I think this is the most wonderful thing I can think of doing for my pet after she passed away,” Joyce Angerman of Grain Valley said of her dog, Presley, a maltipoo, or cross between a Maltese and a poodle. “When she left a month ago, she took a piece of our hearts, but we know that we will see her again at the rainbow bridge. We know that she is up there terrorizing all the other dogs, because she only liked people.”

“We’re here for Charlie,” one man said. “We only had him eight short years before we lost him. He was a barn kitten when we first got him…”

“We’re here for Jack the ferret,” said another.

“I am here for Abigail. I called her Wags; he called her Abigoose,” said a young woman seated with her boyfriend. “I got her 10 years ago. She saved my life on many occasions.”

She shook and sobbed. “Now she’s left me.”

A formidable man with a trucker’s body, seed cap and sharp Missouri drawl stood in the doorway. His story riveted the crowd.

“My name is Cary,” said Cary Parkinson, 71. “I live in Oklahoma, and I was born and raised up here. I lost my puppy two days ago.”

People gasped.

“My girlfriend told me about this place. And we’re going to bury her here Wednesday,” Parkinson said of his dog, Misty. “She was 15 years old, totally blind.”

And then the topper.

“My wife died 10 months ago,” he said. “I had her in the hospice house. ... The last thing my wife done before she passed away, she moved her hand up over Misty’s head and moved her fingers. Then she passed away.”

Parkinson also began to tear.

“Misty had been by my side ever since, until the other day. It was real nice out and my girlfriend let her out. She got under (the girlfriend’s) car somehow, and she backed over her. … I found her lying in the street. ... Her birthday was the same day as mine.”

Those who attend the pet grief support groups know there are many people, pet lovers and those who aren’t, who see such groups as obsessive and indulgent, perhaps even an affront to people who have lost parents, siblings, children or friends. Even those who are grieving their pets are often in conflict with their emotions.

“A lot of time, most times,” said Raphael Smith, a clinical psychologist at the Struan Center, 6301 Rockhill Road, “I hear from clients that other people just don’t get it. ... They say, ‘I am tired of hearing, “Why don’t you just go get another one?” or “Why should you cry? It’s just an animal,” ’ not recognizing that animals or pets at times play very important roles in people’s lives.”

Smith began his free pet-loss bereavement group, which meets the last Tuesday of each month, three years ago after the cancer death of his dog Winnie, whom he had for 11 years.

“In some cases,” Sife said, “the bereavement for a pet is much greater than for a human being. I had someone who called me up last week because her family is giving her hell because she is grieving more for the loss of her dog than for her father whom she loved very much.”

His explanation:

“We grieve the bond,” he said. “The bond with a beloved pet can go far beyond what it does for a partner or even a spouse. The pet becomes like a surrogate child. We have to provide for it, think for it, anticipate its needs.

“The pet becomes a soul mate. We share things with pets that you wouldn’t dare with another human no matter how close.”

Of course, there is the often uncomplicated love and companionship.

“When that pet dies, you are grieving the death of that relationship. And, in many cases, it can be a much more intense grief.”

Which is why the groups exists.

“Our pets are oftentimes our life witnesses,” Piper said. “They go through marriages and divorces, through parents dying and other pets dying. They’re there to share it with you.”

Over the 90 minutes the support group meets, the conversation touches on many subjects, including how to care for other pets at home that also show signs of grief at the loss of their animal companions.

“I’m a little bit concerned with our other dog,” Mark Schroeppel says of Charlie, a dachshund and companion to Schnitzel before he died. “He’s not as feisty as he was. I think maybe he is picking up on a lot of our vibes.”

Across the table, Burch holds the leather collar that belonged to her dog, Annie. They walked a mile every day for 12 years, she says, more than 4,000 miles together.

“I still walk every morning,” Burch says. “I’ll carry this. Sometime I put it behind me and think, ‘Oh, Annie’s back there.’ 

No more explanation necessary. This group understands.

To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to eadler@kcstar.com.

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