Pet Loss & Pet Illness Support Services
The death of a pet is a significant loss, and caring for a sick pet, long or short-term is often stressful on pet parents. Both of these situations are not always recognized or supported by family, friends, or the work place. Portland Veterinary Specialists and the University of Southern Maine School of Social Work realize the importance of supporting pet families by placing a graduate social work student, Deborah Hamilton, at PVS.
Deborah will provide emotional support, resources and educational programs, including individual and group confidential grief support (in person or via phone), and a Blog with information on pet loss, illness, and other related topics. Deborah is available anytime by email, through her Blog, as well as in-person or by phone during office hours Thursday’s and Friday’s at Portland Veterinary Specialists, 739 Warren Avenue, Portland.
Please reach out – ask your veterinarian, veterinarian technician or any of the staff if you would like to meet with Deborah!
Deborah Hamilton has experience supporting families and children and is currently a concentration year student at the University of Southern Maine’s MSW program. She will be graduating spring 2019 and serves on the Board of Directors for the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Maine Chapter as its MSW Student Representative. She was most recently employed as a Human Services Caseworker at Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services and has volunteered for animal rescue groups for over fifteen years.
Pet Loss Support Services
Deborah Hamilton, LSW-c
MSW Student, Veterinary Social Work Intern
739 Warren Ave., Portland, ME 04103
Coping with Pet Loss: Bereavement and Grief
Deborah Hamilton, LSW-c & MSW student
The human/pet bond is strong. For many, companion animals are loving members of the family – often like a surrogate child. Pets offer unconditional love and acceptance. The relationship with pets parallels that of humans.
What happens when that bond is broken due to pet loss?
The death of a pet severs the human-animal bond. Pet owners can experience significant grief reactions when their pets die. Losing a pet for many is as intense as the loss of a human. The bond can even exceed that of the bond with a person, therefore, bereavement following the death of a pet can actually last longer. It results in a significant disruption to the daily routine.
Attachment & Grief
Grief is a normal reaction to the loss of a loved one. Attachment with a pet and the context of the pet loss greatly influence the intensity of grief. Grief reactions are similar to the bereavement process of humans. Grief, bereavement and mourning are all used to describe the reaction to losing someone you love (human or animal). Both bereavement and mourning are part of grieving and everyone grieves differently.
The way you grieve will depend on whether the death was expected or unexpected, your relationship with the one who has died, your personality and your cultural, spiritual and religious beliefs, how you have coped with loss before, and the support systems in your life (family, friends and spiritual, religious and social communities). It’s important to remember that there is no “right” way to grieve. No one can tell you how you should grieve, when you should feel certain emotions or in what order. Your grief is a very personal experience, and your feelings do not have to follow any path but your own.
Generally, pet loss is a normative bereavement process. Grief over the loss of a pet is compounded, however, by stigma as our culture doesn’t always recognize that grief over a pet is legitimate, leaving owners to hide their grief (disenfranchised grief). Pet owners may be discouraged from openly mourning their loss. They may be told to move on or to merely replace their beloved animal with another. (Imagine telling a parent who lost a child that?). To many pet owners, their animals are like children to them. It’s crucial to know that the feelings one may experience over the loss of a pet are normal and legitimate, regardless of the messages others may give.
Anticipatory grief is a feeling of grief that occurs before an impending loss, as in the case with a terminal illness or an ailing senior pet. Pet-owners often feel grief even though their pet is still alive. The grief can be more for the loss of the way things were – the life before the illness. Not everyone experiences anticipatory grief, but those who do can feel emotions similar to those as if the pet has already died, such as loss, guilt, anger and anxiety. Grieving before a loved one dies doesn't necessarily mean that you won't grieve when they pass away. Reactions vary. While some feel prepared for the death and have closure, others may start the grieving process all over again.
Traumatic injury or sudden loss of a pet due to unexpected events can result in intense feelings of guilt, anger, fear, sadness and powerlessness. Sudden bereavement often means that a person’s life feels ripped apart by the death. Every sudden death is unique. Initially, for the first few days, one may be in shock. In later weeks, common thoughts and reactions can include regret, insomnia, nightmares, physical illness, intrusive thoughts and isolation. The suddenly bereaved person might seek out places, or do things, that remind them of the person who died.
Eventually, through the normative grief process, one will accept the death, and move forward with their life yet still feel sad at times. If symptoms persist (traumatic or complicated grief), then consider reaching out to a trusted friend, family member, talking to a professional, or joining a support group. Again, it’s important to remember that for some, the loss of a pet can be as profound (and sometimes more profound), as the loss of a human, and the grief associated with that loss is normal. It’s generally best to work through the grief over one’s deceased pet before getting a new pet. Quickly replacing a pet can complicate grief. Taking time to mourn is recommended.
Veterinary Social Work
Veterinary Social Work is “an area of social work practice that attends to the human needs that arise in the intersection of veterinary medicine and social work practice.” (vetsocialwork.utk.edu). It merges Veterinary medicine and Social Work practice to support the humans in the human-animal bond. Veterinary Social Workers are there to help. Services include pet bereavement support (see below) and case management.
Support groups: Social support is crucial to healing.
Individual talk therapy: Talking with a therapist can provide a safe place for bereaved pet owners to express their grief.
Art therapy: Art provides a creative way to share pictures & memories of the deceased or ill pet to help with healing. Such as . . . creating a memory book of the pet, keeping a journal of grief and favorite memories, or creating a garden stone or collage.
Bibliotherapy: Self-help books for adults and/or children are available from the library or on-line.
The Pet Loss Support Page: http://www.pet-loss.net/resources/ME.shtml
Veterinary Social Work: The University of Tennessee: http://vetsocialwork.utk.edu/
The Center for Grieving Children: http://www.cgcmaine.org/
Carmack, B. (2003). Grieving the loss of a pet. Minnesota: Augsburg Fortress.
You can heal your heart: healing after pet loss: https://youtu.be/fgFBCu8Mdxw
Cordaro, M. (2012), Pet Loss and Disenfranchised Grief: Implications for Mental Health Counseling Practice. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 34(4), 283-294.
DeSpelder, L.A. & Strickland, A.L. (2005). The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying. (Seventh Edition) New York: McGraw Hill Publishing.
Grief and bereavement: Canadian Cancer Society. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-journey/advanced-cancer/grief-bereavement/?region=on.
Healthdirect: Grief before death – understanding anticipatory grief. Retrieved from https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/understanding-anticipatory-grief
Hunt, M.G. & Dalmau, Y.C.P. (2006). Development of the Pet Bereavement Questionnaire. Anthrozoos A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 19(4), 308-324.
Sudden: Supporting people after sudden death. Sudden bereavement: a traumatic and challenging experience. Retrieved from http://www.suddendeath.org/uncategorised/75-challenginggrief.
Veterinary Social Work: The University of Tennessee. Retrieved from http://vetsocialwork.utk.edu/
Worden, J.W. (2009). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (4th ed.) New York: Springer Publishing.