Disenfranchised grief. That’s how Bojena Kelmendi, clinical counsellor at OVC, describes what many pet owners experience when their companion animals die or become seriously ill. “Grieving over an animal is often not socially acceptable,” she explains. “People are afraid of being judged or criticized by others if they are upset.”
Those who have not had that kind of special bond with an animal may not understand how painful the loss can be, she says. Even those who do recognize the sadness often expect the grieving person to get over it quickly. “As a society, we have less and less patience, we want a quick fix. So people are told to get over it, move on, get on with your life. The reality is that we need to stop and allow ourselves to process so that we really can move forward and grow from the experience.”
Kelmendi, who is a registered social worker trained in bereavement and grief counselling, works with OVC clients who are dealing with a pet that is very ill or the loss of a pet. She also works with OVC veterinarians and students who are looking for guidance in helping their clients or who need support to deal with stress and anxiety.
Besides counselling sessions, Kelmendi offers a support group which met for the first time last spring. “This is an open group that provides a safe place for people to express their pain, emotions and concerns,” she says. “It is very encouraging to see others who are going through the same things you are. You might be wondering if it is normal to still cry and miss your pet so deeply after weeks and months have gone by since his death. In the group others will reassure you that this is normal and they went through the same thing.” She encourages people to attend a few individual sessions with her before joining the group meetings.
Through private sessions, Kelmendi can also provide support to people who are making difficult decisions about a pet’s care. She points out that most clients don’t have a medical background, so they may find it hard to understand the veterinarian’s recommendations, which is compounded because the pet owner may be in shock about the potential loss of a beloved animal.
“I work with people in different ways,” she adds. “Primarily, it’s about helping people discover the strengths they have in themselves and finding the resources they need.”
Most of her work with staff and faculty is also one-on-one, but Kelmendi has provided one group workshop on relaxation and stress management, and is planning more for the fall. Besides helping them manage stress or “compassion fatigue,” she offers information about how clients might react to receiving bad news and how to communicate effectively during these emotional times. “A person who has lost a pet or has been told that a pet is likely to die can be in shock and have tunnel vision,” she explains. “They can’t really process information.”
During group or private sessions, Kelmendi provides people with lists of resources and ideas to help them deal with their pain. Some of her tips include:
- Allow yourself to feel the pain and grieve in a safe and supportive environment.
- Talk to people who understand and try to avoid those who are critical of your grief.
- Memorialize your pet by making a collage of photos or a video or writing about him. There are websites that allow you to post photos and videos as a memorial.
- Write a letter or keep a journal of your memories of the pet you have lost.
- Change your daily routine if it brings back too many painful reminders. For example, if you took a daily walk with your pet along a certain route, consider changing the route you take. At some point, you may want to resume some of your routines because they can be comforting, and you may miss some of the people and pets who you met in familiar places. When you feel strong enough, head back out and be prepared to answer questions about what happened to your pet.
- Consider taking up some volunteer activities, such as fostering a pet from a local animal shelter. You may consider volunteering to walk dogs for the elderly or people with disabilities, or volunteer at a groomer or kennel. You may not feel ready to have another pet but may find enjoyment in helping other animals in need.
- Take care of yourself: eat well, get enough sleep and be physically active.
“If you do feel you are still having trouble coping after taking these steps, look for some professional support,” says Kelmendi. Her services are available to anyone whose pet has been cared for at one of the OVC clinics or centres.