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Q/A with Pet Loss Grief Specialist

West Bloomfield resident and hospital chaplain offers solace and validation to those who have lost a beloved pet.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START “BEYOND THE PAW PRINT PET LOSS SUPPORT GROUP”? After losing both of my parents—first my dad to cancer, and then, three years later, my mom to heart disease—, I was overwhelmed with grief and unsuccessful in my attempts to “get over” my losses. I eventually entered a Master’s degree program in Hospice and Palliative Studies at Madonna University. My journey along the wild terrain of grief was starting to make sense: I began to discover that grief isn’t linear, [and] there [are] no set stages. In fact, there’s no set time-table for when it begins or ends, and the experience is as unique as our fingerprints! As I settled into the program, I was unprepared for yet another devastating loss: the unexpected deaths of my two 16-year-old cats, Nellie and Pablo. With encouragement from my instructors, I altered the direction of my research to pet loss grief. I thought it might help to attend a pet loss support group. Finding none in my area, I attended a few grief groups for those who had lost human companions but found myself even more isolated. When I shared my impressions with my professor, she said, “Micky, in your search for support, perhaps it’s time to recognize that you are the one to provide it!” That conversation changed everything. 

WHAT DO THE SUPPORT GROUP MEETINGS CONSIST OF? From the inception of Beyond the Paw Print, I was determined to create a group where attendees would discover they aren't alone, their grief is real, support is available, and healing is possible. Beyond the Paw Print is, above all else, a safe haven for attendees to talk about the love and loss of their beloved companions. I serve as the facilitator and host, ensuring that each attendee who wants to share has the opportunity to do so. 

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR BOOK TAILS FROM BEYOND THE PAW PRINT: TWENTY-TWO STORIES OF LOVE, LOSS AND LESSONS LEARNED FROM OUR ADORED ANIMAL COMPANIONS. The idea for my book began to take root after that very first Beyond the Paw Print meeting. I imagined these stories, if widely shared [and] in book form, could assist in changing the perception of pet loss grief from invisible, minimized and misunderstood [to] greater understanding and acceptance. 

WHAT MIGHT BE SOME REASONS PET LOSS IS MINIMIZED BY SO MANY PEOPLE? I think people might minimize pet loss because they don’t understand it, are uncertain how to react, and may be uncomfortable with discussions about death in general. Whether we’re grieving a human or a beloved animal companion, caring friends and family want for us to feel better. In an effort to “help,” we are told, “It was just a cat! Go to a shelter and adopt another…” or “Now that your dog has died, you can work longer hours and...clean your carpet.” They want us to “get over” our grief. But grief isn’t something you “get over,” and these insensitive statements minimize our loss and invalidate our feelings. Additionally, pet loss is misunderstood by people who have never experienced an emotional bond with an animal; as a result, they struggle to comprehend the depth of our grief. For some of us, having an animal companion may be the first time in our lives we are the recipient of judgment-free, unconditional love, loyalty, and constant companionship. So, our grief is, in a way, a combination of the loss of our beloved best friend and the loss of love in its purest form. That’s hard for someone who has never experienced this human-animal bond to understand. 

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO SUPPORT A FRIEND/FAMILY MEMBER WHO HAS LOST A PET? After 12 years of serving grieving pet parents, I have heard countless stories of how otherwise-loving friends, relatives or colleagues struggle to understand the depth of this grief and, as a result, find it difficult to express their support. Here are a few of my dos and don’ts:

  • Dos: Be present and be kind. Acknowledge the loss with a caring online post, a card, phone call, donation or flowers. Express yourself with compassion: for example, “I am so sorry for your loss. I care about you and want to listen.” These statements validate the loss and build a bridge toward understanding. If all else fails, it’s as simple as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

  • Don’ts: Avoid the comparison and judgment of grief experiences. Refrain from statements like, “Enough already…it was just a dog!,” “There are thousands of animals in shelters...go adopt another one!,” “You’ve been grieving for weeks...there’s something wrong with you!” or “You’re crazy! You need help!”

Beyond the Paw Print Pet Loss Support Group has served the local community for 12 years, free of charge. Formerly in-person, meetings continue via Zoom on the second Monday of every month from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Virtual seats are limited and due to demand, there is a one month waitlist. For more information about the meetings or how to purchase a copy of Dr. Golden Moore’s book, visit beyondthepawprint.com.

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