Low attendance cancels grief sessions for pet owners


For eight months, the Carroll County Humane Society reached out to bereaved pet owners, offering a group program to help them cope with their loss.

At first, a few came. When no one appeared at the twice-monthly meetings during the winter, society Director Carolyn "Nicky" Ratliff blamed the weather. But attendance didn't pick up this spring, although Ms. Ratliff said she continued to receive calls from people who faced a difficult decision to euthanize a pet or were mourning an animal that died.

Ms. Ratliff and Diane Chester Chaney, a licensed, certified social worker retained by the humane society to lead the group, abandoned the meetings late last month. They are now considering a grief counseling hot line, because telephone calls indicate that many pet owners still need help to deal with the loss of a pet.

The fact that the group didn't succeed "doesn't mean there isn't a population out there that needs help with the loss of a pet," Ms. Chaney said.

She said people who came to the group talked about how hard it was to break through the stigma of going to a support group, particularly a support group for people grieving over the death of a pet.

After an article about a similar group in Anne Arundel County appeared in The Sun in 1992, Candi Nilsson, director of humane education for the Anne Arundel Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and coordinator of the program, got some phone calls from radio personalities.

Some laughed at the idea, Ms. Nilsson said. But before she even got on the air to answer one talk show host who had called her, the man took another call.

"Don't you dare make fun of this!" the caller said, and went on to recount his sadness when his dog died.

The Carroll group included a physician whose sheep dog had died. "They love you so much," the doctor told Ms. Chaney.

Ms. Chaney said that in talking with bereaved pet owners, "I try to let them know I care, I'm not minimizing their feelings."

She said many pet owners go through four of the five stages of grief outlined by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, an expert on death and dying. The stages Ms. Chaney has observed are denial, anger, depression and acceptance.

The fifth stage identified by Dr. Kubler-Ross in people facing their own deaths is bargaining, a promise to do something in exchange for being allowed to live.

Ms. Ratliff said calls she gets at the Humane Society often involve people wrestling with the decision to euthanize an aging or terminally ill pet.

She recalls one family who brought a dog to be euthanized.

"The mother was just devastated," Ms. Ratliff said. "I told them, 'You've enjoyed this dog for 14 years and he's asked very little of you. This is the one time your dog needs you to be strong.' "

Ms. Ratliff said she has not obtained approval from the society's governing board for a hot line, but she sees a need for a telephone service. "During the day, people call me a lot," she said. "Sometimes [they call] just to cry and talk for half an hour."

Her idea is that the Humane Society could take calls during working hours and perhaps Ms. Chaney could return calls in the evenings through an answering service referral system.

Ms. Nilsson said grief counseling for pet owners "will never be the type of program that attracts a lot of people." It takes $$TC certain type of person to attend a support group, she said.

In the two years the Arundel group has conducted monthly meetings, the largest attendance was 16, Ms. Nilsson said. It usually ranges from one to five.

The Anne Arundel group always has a mental health professional on hand, Ms. Nilsson said, to identify anyone who may need professional help. She has found that people grieving over their pets sometimes are also hurting in another way.

One woman whose cat died in its sleep kept saying, "I never got to say good-bye," Ms. Nilsson recalled. It was only after several months that it emerged that the woman's mother had died in an earthquake in Italy.

The Montgomery County Humane Society has sponsored bereavement counseling for pet owners for about five years. The monthly meetings usually draw up to 12 people, said Mary C. Knippmeyer, a medical anthropologist who leads the sessions.

People usually come only to one or two sessions, Ms. Knippmeyer said.

Ms. Chaney, who has three Labrador retrievers, found that people needed help to deal with guilt. They felt that if perhaps they had done something differently, their pets would have survived.

"People become so bonded with animals because they love you so unconditionally," she said. "Whether you're sick or stupid or you make bad mistakes, they love you."

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