Helping pet owners deal with loss

.@BMoreHumane offers unique service for grieving pet owners

Her name was Obie. When she died in 2013, Martha Harris went into mourning. She had owned the black Labrador for six years and her death left Harris shaken and bereft.

"She was everything to me. She was my daughter," said Harris, a retired nurse and medical office receptionist. After surgery failed to relieve her 11-year-old dog's pain, the Glyndon resident had her euthanized.

"I wanted her to die with dignity but it was the hardest thing I ever had to do," said Harris, who keeps Obie's cremated ashes in a box on a bookcase, surrounded by photographs of the two in happier times.

In her sorrow, Harris turned to the Baltimore Humane Society, a private, nonprofit organization at 1601 Nicodemus Road, Reisterstown. Besides its veterinary practice and animal adoptions, the "no-kill" society offers a unique service — pet grief groups led by a certified counselor. In the local area, only one other venue, Hunt Valley Animal Hospital, appears to have a similar service.

The society's veterinary building and kennel are next to each other. The administration office is in a separate building where Andrew Mazan, who has dual titles of cemetery and funeral director and pet bereavement counselor, holds group sessions.

In 2010, Mazan was hired to oversee and market the Humane Society's pet cemetery, officially the Nicodemus Memorial Park. Up to then, the cemetery had roughly 50 burials per year. In 2013, that number had doubled to 100 burials. He began the counseling service after seeing how distraught the pet owners were.

"The pets were their family," said Mazan who, as cemetery and funeral director, arranges for burial or cremation, choice of plot and headstone, and leads the memorial service for the deceased pet.

The doting pet owners were 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 services industry that is evident in multiple markets.

Beyond dog walkers, cat groomers, house sitters and veterinarians who make home visits, there are doggy bakeries turning 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 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."

It's OK to grieve

In 2010, Mazan spent a week in New Jersey getting certified as a pet bereavement counselor. The course was given by the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, which began offering the designation in 1998.

The course covered the stages of pet grief. "It mimics every stage of the human pattern," Mazan said of a pet's loss. "Someone, something important to you is gone," the difference being that it is now publicly recognized and acceptable to grieve for a pet.

The society's monthly group grief sessions are held in the administration building the first Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. The sessions are free and open to the public. Because not everyone is comfortable in a group setting, Mazan also offers individual counseling in the bereaved person's home. The first session of private counseling is free. The society charges a nominal $20 fee for subsequent private sessions but may waive the fee in cases of financial need.

Group sessions typically average three participants who may attend one or more sessions. Mazan has them talk about their pet and do exercises, such as keeping a journal and writing letters to their pet. Often, pet owners feel guilty about euthanizing a suffering animal or that the pricey operation that might have helped was beyond their means.

"I encourage them to express themselves, to get rid of the guilt. My goal is to get them to accept the loss," Mazan said.

Harris attended four group sessions. She also met individually with Mazan. "The counseling, the exercises all helped," she said. "I'll always love Obie but I feel better about the situation."

Of those whom he has counseled individually, Mazan mentioned a 16-year-old boy, shy and sensitive, who was devastated by the death of the cat he'd had since infancy. Other clients included a couple in their 40s who were so attached to their cat that they took it on vacations with them.

"The husband in particular was having a hard time," Mazan said of the couple. "He didn't think he was supposed to have these feelings of sadness."

Rest in peace

The Humane Society's pet cemetery dates to 1927, the year that the society was founded. In the 1950s, when the society relocated to Reisterstown, the pets were exhumed and moved to its current site. About 9,000 pets are buried in it, mainly dogs and cats, but other animals as well.

Prices for burial, cremation and interment services vary. A $1,095 burial package for a pet weighing more than 30 pounds includes a plot large enough for two pets, a memorial service and headstone. Cremating a pet less than 30 pounds costs $195.

Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, in Timonium, has two pet burial sections and a third section for humans and their pets to be buried in adjacent grave sites. The first section opened in 1968, a new concept at the time. After the first section filled up, the second opened in 2009; the third opened in 2010.

"People really care about their pets," said Amy Shimp, the cemetery's general manager. "I look out on Memorial Day [a traditional cemetery visiting day] and there are more wreaths and flowers in the pet section than the human section."

Buried in the pet sections are dogs and cats, rabbits and guinea pigs, squirrels and a horse. The pet section is so in demand that the cemetery has a dead pet pickup service. "We just picked up a parakeet in Canton," Shimp said. "We have people who visit their pets' graves daily."

Robbie Silverman has two cats buried in the Baltimore Humane Society's pet cemetery. Tweety died in 2006, Sylvester in 2013. "I was a basket case," he said of Tweety's death, his first experience with pet loss.

The Mount Washington resident and clothing retailer spent $175 each on granite gravestones for them. He had engraved stones set in the walkway to their adjacent graves. When he visits them weekly, he brings pet food to donate to the society.

"They were all I had. When I looked in their eyes, there was unconditional love," Silverman said. "It was an amazing feeling."

For information about the Baltimore Humane Society go to bmorehumane.org

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