Grieving the loss of a pet
Counselor offers services to bereaved pet owners
When Maggie, a research assistant at Stanford, had to euthanize her beloved cat Noel, she was devastated. Noά had suddenly fallen ill, and within five days Maggie was forced to put her to sleep. The sudden bereavement of her cat left her emotionally shattered, and she fruitlessly searched the Peninsula for emotional support.
At times, she thought she was crazy.
"I didn't eat for a week," said Maggie, who asked that her last name be withheld.
She was finally referred to Bonnie Goodman, a Palo Alto pet-loss grief counselor, who helped legitimize her feelings and told Maggie that her reaction was perfectly normal.
Goodman is the only counselor on the Peninsula who specializes in pet-loss grief. After practicing child therapy for 10 years and career counseling for 20 years, she decided to also do grief counseling.
"I just knew with all the losses in my life that I needed to connect deeper with people," said Goodman, who lost 10 family members before she was 25 years old to heart disease and cancer.
It was Rusty, her golden retriever, that inspired her to work with pet-loss grief in addition to traditional grief counseling. Goodman foresaw her own grief over Rusty's death when he was still a puppy.
"This dog felt like a child to me very soon on," she said.
Eventually, Rusty became sick with cancer and died. It was his death that Goodman says puts her in a unique position to empathize with bereaved pet owners.
"What people will say to me is, 'I have a therapist, but I can tell that therapist doesn't ‘get dogs’. That's why I came in here. You get what it means to lose a pet,'" said Goodman, who has a certificate in Grief Counseling from U.C. Berkeley.
The majority of Goodman's practice is done one-on-one, but she also offers group sessions -- both of which, she emphasizes, are not psychotherapy because there is no analysis. Rather, she reassures her clients that their grief is a natural reaction to the loss of any loved one.
There is no typical length of counseling, and Goodman's clients attend anywhere from just one session to weekly appointments for months.
Maggie was helped through her bereavement the same way Goodman helps all of her clients: by letting them express whatever it is they are feeling, validating those emotions and acknowledging their pain.
"It let me get out what I needed to get out and helped me realize everything I was going through was normal," Maggie said. "A lot of people don't understand. They're like, 'It's just a pet,' and they don't get it.
But to Goodman's clients -- all of whom own cats or dogs -- and the throngs of pet owners she speculates are seeking her type of service, their pets are members of their families.
"My pets are my kids," said Maggie, who owns four cats and a dog. "They're very important to me."
Those who don't own pets -- and those who do but may not be as intensely bonded to them -- are often bemused by the traumatic reactions of owners to the death of their animals and may consider such strong mourning to be irrational, said Barbara Kollin, Goodman's veterinarian.
"Sometimes people find that people in their lives don't understand the enormity of the loss, and they may not take it seriously, or feel like the person who lost the pet is foolish or overreacting," Kollin said. "They may not have ever bonded with an animal, they may not understand the depth of the relationship. And there are a lot of people who just aren't animal people and they just don't get it."
"Pet loss is a disenfranchised loss," Goodman said.
The death of a pet commonly opens old wounds or stimulates other issues in a person's life, both Goodman and Kollin said. For Maggie, the death of Noά signaled the end of an epoch of school and marriage.
"She was connected to that era of my life, and it was almost like that era was gone," Maggie said. She also said she had a very "traumatic" upbringing and her sessions with Goodman allowed her to examine things with which she'd thought she'd already dealt.
Goodman said the situation is not unusual, recalling a friend of hers who had lost two parents and a brother earlier in life. When her dog died, she was more anguished than before and had no idea why.<> "Sometimes it's safer when the dog dies to finally let yourself grieve, even if you're not terribly bonded with the dog," Goodman said. "Sometimes that's when all the grief will come up, but it may not only be about the dog; it' can be about these other unresolved losses.
"Grief waits for us. We can tuck it away, and it's OK to ‘put it away’ when we don't want to deal with it. But it will rear its head in our lives in some form."
For Anna, a therapist who also asked that her last name be withheld, grief from her parents' divorce and being separated from her two childhood dachshunds lay dormant for 30 years, silently manifesting itself in her reluctance to get pets all her life.
"It was having to leave our home, our school, everything -- plus our two dogs," Anna said.
The first time she knew something hadn't been addressed occurred when she had to leave for choir practice while she was dog sitting and felt guilt reminiscent of her childhooed experience.
"If the issue had been resolved earlier, I could have gotten a pet for my children," she said.
Goodman is trying to promote her service to veterinary hospitals, where veterinarians everyday are confronted with the guilt of pet owners who have no choice but to euthanize their pets.
Maggie, along with Goodman, hopes that other pet owners experiencing grief will easily be able to find help, while at the same time not worry about being regarded as foolish by those who don't understand what it means to lose an animal.
"I'd like to see it so it's more understood and people don't have to hold it inside or feel ashamed if they're grieving a pet deeply," she said.