A woman sits inside a modest chapel in Zephyrhills, and her voice is shaking. She’s describing the loss of a loved one, and the guilt she feels about that loss.
A chaplain and a therapist sit with her and listen, then try to comfort her by sharing their own perspectives.
Her grief is natural, they say, and a normal part of life. Beginning that afternoon, she takes important steps on her journey of mourning and healing.
It’s a scene that plays out all too often at Gulfside Hospice, 5760 Dean Dairy Road in Zephyrhills.
But this time it’s different.
Mary Ann Polom isn’t grieving over the loss of a human family member. It’s her beloved toy poodle, Annie, who was put to sleep just a few weeks before.
For Polom, and many others with pets, a dog or cat isn’t like family. They are family. And the loss they feel when their pet dies is just as real and valid as other losses.
Friends and family sometimes don’t see it the same way.
They will say things like “it’s just a dog,” not realizing the depth of the connection the two shared. That can leave a pet owners feeling confused, embarrassed, and guilty over their feelings, which compounds the grief.
Shelley Schneider, vice-president of counseling and advocacy services at Gulfside Hospice, said their reaction is actually a perfectly normal response to the death of a loved one.
“Sometimes people don’t quite understand why people are grieving so hard for losing an animal,” Schneider explained. “We just really want to validate that what they’re going through is appropriate, normal, and common.”
Gulf Hospice provides that validation with a free monthly pet loss support group, and the organization is hoping to reach anyone in the community mourning a pet’s death who needs to share and be heard by people who understand.
Word of the group reached Polom in her time of grief, and she attended a recent meeting.
‘My Little Partner’
Annie’s problems started about a year earlier, when she broke her hip. A heart murmur was also detected, and after hip surgery she never healed properly. She lost her appetite, and after a long struggle the veterinarian said it was time to put her down.
Polom made that tough decision, and a month later she still felt guilty.
“I can’t seem to forgive myself,” she admitted. “She was like my little partner.”
One thing that sticks in her mind is how Annie seemed to be doing better right at the end of her life. It’s a common occurrence, even with humans, for the sick to experience a rally of sorts even as their condition worsens. Polom experienced the same thing with her father when he passed away.
But seeing Annie behave normally, even for a short time, makes her question if she did the right thing. And after losing her husband to cancer a decade ago, letting Annie go has left her alone.
The parallels between human and pet loss aren’t unique to Polom’s situation. According to Schneider, the grief and loss can be similar, so helping those in mourning can be similar as well.
“A lot of what we do in the pet group is what we do with families, because
we live in a society that really doesn’t educate, and doesn’t really like to talk about death and dying,” she said.
In the session, Schneider, a licensed clinical social worker, and Michael Merritt, a chaplain, offer advice and comfort. But they also do a lot of listening, from stories about Annie’s loving personality, to the guilt and grief Polom feels about losing her closest companion.
Just knowing that those feelings aren’t unusual, and being able to share their story can be extremely beneficial to those who have lost a pet. Especially when they know they’re talking to people who share that love of animals, like Schneider and Merritt, and understand the degree of closeness that owners feel.
Polom said attending the group was beneficial for her.
“I think it’s part of the journey. I think it’s a good part for me,” Polom said. “It makes me feel normal, like I’m in my element.”
Pet Peace of Mind
Schneider deals with issues related to pets outside the bereavement sessions. Gulfside Hospice received a grant for the Pet Peace of Mind program from Banfield Trust, which enables them to assist Hospice patients and their pets.
That assistance might include providing food, boarding assistance or basic veterinary care. It’s not unusual for patients to be concerned about the welfare of their pets, Schneider said, and the Pet Peace of Mind program helps alleviate those concerns. In less than two years they’ve cared for more than 80 animals, and found new homes for more than a dozen.
Knowing that Hospice will be there to assist them with anything from grooming to dog-walking to providing food and kitty litter lifts a burden from patients, and provides comfort with the knowledge that someone will step in and help care for a pet if and when an owner cannot do so anymore.
Again, Schneider notes the similarities in concern for pet welfare, and that of human family members.
“One of the great things about the Pet Peace of Mind program is that they want us to come up with an individual plan of care for the pet, just like we do for our patients,” she said.
Just like with humans, consistency of care is considered important. If a pet sees a certain veterinarian, efforts are made to ensure that relationship continues.
The pet loss support group is free, but they do accept donations to keep Pet Peace of Mind funded and active.
Whether it’s reading a pet-related poem, offering thoughts as a fellow animal-lover, or just listening to a grieving owner’s stories, Schneider wants the pet loss support group to be available for anyone in the area who needs to know that their feelings are normal, their sense of loss is valid, and they’re not alone in forging special relationships with their pets.
“It’s really to bring peace of mind and decrease their own emotional and spiritual pain and suffering,” Schneider said.
The next group is scheduled to meet Oct. 29 from 3 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. For more information about the pet loss support group, call Schneider at (727) 484-7995. For information about the Pet Peace of Mind program, call (800) 561-4883 or visit GHppc.org.
Published October 28, 2015