Losing a cherished companion animal is difficult enough, but finding emotional support for the grief you're feeling may be even harder, especially when family, friends and co-workers don't understand or accept the attachment you had to your pet or the significant role your animal played in your life. To help you decide whether a pet loss support group would be helpful to you, here are answers to some commonly asked questions:

Why would a pet loss support group be helpful? Many of us feel awkward or self-conscious about expressing our grief when an animal we love is terminally ill, has gone missing, or has died. Some of us aren't even sure we have a legitimate right to grieve the loss of our pets. Our culture doesn't help very much with this kind of loss, either. When pet death occurs, there is no automatic time off from work, and there aren't any formal, public, socially accepted rituals where sorrow can be shared and support can be obtained from others. Yet studies show that the more support and understanding we have around us, the better we'll cope with our grief and the sooner we'll come to terms with our loss. Whenever two or more people share the painful experience of coping with the loss or death of a cherished companion animal, there is a place for a pet loss support group.

Is a pet loss support group a form of group therapy? It's important to note that group support is not the same as group therapy. Support groups aren't meant to cure long-standing emotional problems, alter people's personalities or change their basic values or beliefs. Neither are they just social gatherings designed to introduce people of similar interests, although friendships may develop outside the group as members get to know one another. As its name implies, a pet loss support group is meant to help members bear up under the heavy burden of pet loss without giving way. It provides a safe, structured place where normal, healthy people with similar experiences can come together on a regular basis to share their stories of pet loss, learn more about the grieving process, express and work through their feelings, and reflect with one another on the meaning of it all.

Who runs the pet loss support group? Most pet loss support groups are facilitated by volunteers who've lost pets themselves, worked through their own grief and are committed to helping others get through the experience. Although some groups are fortunate enough to have the added assistance of a professional bereavement counselor and a veterinarian (each of whom can offer expertise, educational and medical information not otherwise available), the facilitator's role is the same: to provide structure and to make certain that everyone in the group feels safe.

What happens in a pet loss support group? Everyone sits in a circle. The facilitator usually starts by stating the purpose of the group and its "ground rules". (For example: Group begins and ends on time. Information shared in the group stays there. When outside the group, members aren't free to talk about another member by name without that member's permission. Members can exchange telephone numbers if they wish to do so. Members may share as much or as little as they so choose. A person who isn't ready to talk can "pass." One person speaks at a time. Everyone gets equal time to share, so no one monopolizes the time. Suggestions may be offered, but unsolicited advice is not given.) One by one, people then are invited to introduce themselves and to tell as much or as little of their stories as they wish. Experiences, thoughts and feelings are openly expressed, and painful as well as pleasant memories are recalled. Oftentimes photographs of pets are passed around. Sometimes poems, eulogies or tributes are read - but whatever is shared is held in the strictest confidence by everyone there.

How does a pet loss support group help? When we lose a loved one, we need to acknowledge our loss, express our grief and work through our pain. Friends, family members and co-workers may not understand or appreciate the attachment we have with our pets and the pain we feel when we lose them. And our need to talk about our loss may outlast the willingness of others to listen. So a pet loss support group may be the only place where we can come to be among others who understand, and where we can still talk about the pets we have loved and lost.

How does one find a pet loss support group? You can look for pet bereavement services in your Yellow Pages or newspaper, or listen for announcements on local radio and television stations. Ask your veterinarian, pet cemetery or pet crematory representative, or your local humane society agent or pet grooming specialist if they know of any pet loss support groups in your community. Many organizations maintain directories of individuals and organizations specializing in pet loss throughout the country (call The Pet Grief Support Service of The Companion Animal Association of Arizona at 602-995-5885, or The Delta Society at 425-226-7357), and listings are posted regularly on the Internet ( for example, visit Moira Allen's Pet Loss Support Page). Once you've found a pet loss support group, make certain it's made up of grievers with whom you can identify, whose facilitator is not only comfortable running support groups, but also knowledgeable about the human-animal bond and the grieving process.

Copyright by Martha M. Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC    All rights reserved

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