Undeniably, the hardest part of having a pet is when it comes time to say goodbye. Some pet parents are faced with losing their loved one suddenly, while others may be faced with the difficult decision of putting their pet down. However it happens, losing a pet is an extremely sad time and the grief can be akin to the loss of a family member. To help those who are grieving the death of a pet, the San Francisco SPCA holds a pet loss support group that offers monthly grief counseling for pet parents in the community. We spoke with the group’s leader, Cori Bussolari, licensed psychologist and professor at the University of San Francisco, to find out more about how pet parents can get the support they need after the death of a pet.
Q: How did you get started with the San Francisco SPCA’s pet support group?
A: I’ve always been a big proponent of the strong human-animal bond and I’ve had pets my entire life. Culturally, we are just beginning to come to a place where we understand and can talk about the strong attachment that occurs between people and animals. There has been recent research that shows that we can bond with animals similarly to the way we bond with other people. In my research, I found that people grieve the loss of their animals similarly to the loss of people in their lives, but it’s much harder for them to receive sympathy and understanding when a pet dies instead of a person. I became involved with the SF SPCA’s pet loss support group when the founder, Dr. Betty Carmack, and I began collaborating on research at USF and she asked if I would like to get involved. There are other pet loss support groups that have popped up since then and it can be a very grounding place for people who have lost a pet.
Q: What are some of the common experiences that people have after they lose a pet?
A: After the death of a pet, often people don’t feel that their grief is valued by society. They don’t feel like they can talk about their loss and when that grief lasts for a few weeks or months, many times other people in their community don’t understand why they don’t just “get over it.” In this case, the person who has lost their loved one feels like they can’t talk about it because they will be judged and that they have to grieve by themselves, which we know is not a helpful thing. People grieve in communities.
Q: What causes people to connect with their pets similarly to the way they connect with humans?
A: To start, we often have a lot of physical contact with our pets from petting and holding. We get excited to see them when we come home and they see us and jump around. We take care of them and they are dependent on us, but they also show us unconditional love. Your pet doesn’t care if you had a bad day or you don’t look good. When we’re lonely we connect with them and there’s a lot of research about how pets can alleviate anxiety and depression for people. We develop these really beautiful, relationships that are important to us.
Q: How can a pet parent prepare when they have to make the decision to put their pet down?
A: In our culture, we don’t have a frame of reference for the decision making that has to happen when a pet is put down. We don’t get to make this choice with humans, only with animals and we often aren’t prepared for the confusing feelings that surround this choice. I have never met anyone who feels good after having their pet put down, but some are able to feel gratitude for the chance to say goodbye.
I recommend that beforehand, pet parents talk to their vet and maybe even talk to a few other vets to get as much information as possible. Most vets won’t tell a pet owner that their pet should be put down, they will say that it’s up to the owner. This causes confusion and quite often pet parents feel a lot of doubt about their decision. They worry that they waited too long or that they didn’t wait long enough. Other people worry that they made the wrong decision and feel like they were misinformed. However, not all pet parents have time before they need to make this decision. In that case I recommend that they come to a support group session and surround themselves with people who can understand and be sympathetic, to help them work through their feelings of grief and guilt.
Q: What would you recommend people do after losing a pet to take care of themselves?
A: People should do whatever they need to do. If they can take time off of work and that’s what they need, they should do it. Sometimes work can be a tricky situation if their manager doesn’t understand. If this is the case I encourage people to use their sick days or vacation if they have them and take some time for themselves. During this time, it’s also really important to connect with people who will be supportive.
Q: What is the group therapy for pet loss at the SF SPCA like for first timers?
A: We have many people who come for the first time immediately following the death of their pet. At this time, they’re often in the throes of grieving. What I think they experience is having a place to tell their story and really be heard and valued. They talk about their relationship with their pet and their feelings about the loss of their pet and it’s an opportunity to share that with a group of people who will totally get it and won’t minimize their experience. This helps them begin their grieving process in a healthy way.