BRATTLEBORO—When I sat at the kitchen table where the Brattleboro Area Hospice’s Pet Loss Support Group meets, I thought I had come there for a fairly straightforward interview about the group, how it formed, and some attendees’ experiences with it.
My plan was to first gather the information, then go home and write the article, just as I always do.
I didn’t realize until partway through the interview that I was actually participating from within, not reporting from afar.
That I would become part of the article.
Although it has been more than 20 years since the death of Tasha, my beloved Pekingese, I found I still had some grieving to do. I just didn’t realize it until Cheryl Richards, the group’s leader, and two support group attendees started talking about their own experiences.
But then my memories came flooding back — so much so that my eyes got watery.
* * *
From time to time, Hospice would get phone calls from people asking about support groups for people whose pets died, said Bereavement Program Coordinator Connie Baxter.
The nonprofit organization offered no such program. Regardless, “I’d always spend time talking to that person, validating their grief,” she said.
Last summer, after a Hospice board member suggested the organization revisit the idea, officials found funding in the budget and last October hired Cheryl Richards, a former employee, to return as a consultant to lead the new Pet Loss Support Group.
For years, Richards said, she wanted to do something to address the needs of people dealing with the loss of their companion animals. And then she heard that her former employer was prepared to do just that.
“I said, ‘Don’t you dare do it without me!’” said Richards.
“You were the only choice,” Baxter assured her.
“Animals have been a vital part of my life since infancy,” said Richards. She described a photograph of her as a baby, with her family’s boxer puppy tugging on her diaper.
“Grief and loss and dying have also been a vital part of my life,” she said.
* * *
When asked why she worked to help start the Pet Loss Support Group, Richards answered with one word: “Passion.”
For people who are bonded to a pet, the loss can be “devastating,” she said. “For some people, it’s more devastating than with a human loss.”
“The loss of an animal companion can be life-altering, especially for people who live alone or are elderly,” said Richards. Animals, she said, “know an aspect of us that nobody else knows. And they do it with absolute equanimity. They’re there for whatever.”
For older people, having a pet can help them go outside for a little gentle exercise or motivate them to get up in the morning to care for the animal, Richards noted.
She was very clear that the grief over a pet isn’t confined to those who had dogs or cats. People can grieve the loss of “anything finned, scaly, or feathered.”
The deep grief from the death of a pet is often a child’s first major loss, said Richards.
“Their world is shattered as they know it, and they have to put the pieces together,” she noted. Moreover, “they often do it alone,” because the family is busy, distracted, or doesn’t recognize the bond between the child and the pet, she added.
Animals are a part of our individual identities. Richards said a common question those grieving ask themselves is, “So, who am I now?”
Sometimes, she said, attendees of the support group feel guilty about grieving the loss of an animal, especially if a certain amount of time has passed.
Adding to that sense of grief is a lack of understanding from others. “Some people don’t get it. They say, ‘It’s just an animal,’” Richards said.
* * *
Darby Patterson recently joined the support group. Her dog, Lily, died seven months ago.
She admitted she felt anxious going in. “When I left, I felt a lot lighter. I was very grateful,” she said.
Patterson didn’t know the group existed before her friends told her about it after noticing how sad she was. Now she wants others to know about this dedicated space that, she said, offers “undivided attention where you can say how deeply this creature meant to you.”
For Laurel Powell, her dog, Vera, “taught me to love deeply again, especially after losing my husband.”
Powell recently put Vera to sleep — in a planned ritual, surrounded by friends, with Richards’ help and the services of a vet who came to her home — after it was clear her animal companion was at the end of her life.
“Cheryl suggested calming herbal essences for me, the dog, and my guests. We created space and energy. Another dog was there. It was a calm place,” said Powell. “The vet was wonderful and calm, and she described the process. Vera was lying on her bed, calmly.”
After the vet administered the euthanasia medication, “Vera stood up, and walked to everyone and greeted them.”
Then Powell lay with Vera on her bed. She “held her and spoke to her and told her all of my deep feelings,” said Powell. “Then she was at peace. She was a calm being. I didn’t want to give her anything but that,” she said.
* * *
Powell had attended the Hospice’s Spouse/Partner Loss Support Group eight years ago, several years after her husband Charles died.
“When I lost my dog, it was a given that I’d be a part” of the Pet Loss Support Group, said Powell.
“It was a relief. I’m not alone. I have a source to go to,” she said, and noted that in between meetings, “I know I have this support even when we’re not together and I think about the things we’ve discussed,” said Powell, who added, “I love these people for helping me.”
“I guess that many people feel embarrassed to be so raw and honest about when a pet has died,” said Baxter. “My favorite bit of wisdom about grief is that it needs hospitality and sanctuary.”
“Sometimes, we go partway with friends” and other loved ones, said Baxter. “But there’s often a holding back. Here, we can go deep without shame,” she said.
“Cheryl is good at asking deep questions, then she gives you time to process,” said Powell.
When asked how Richards facilitates the support group, Patterson said, “She listens.”
Richards noted she’s not the only one listening.
“We all hold ourselves in this group,” she said. “It’s incredibly healing, being listened to. It moves us on this journey to who we are now, and learning who we are because of this animal.”
“Your animals listen, too,” said Patterson, who noted, “You can talk to them all day and they don’t get bored!”
In the support group, Richards often leads the attendees through exercises. In this group, you will write an obituary of your pet or a letter to your pet, or “you’ll draw a picture of who you were before your pet came into your life, then a picture of who you are now that your pet is gone,” she said.
Richards encourages group members to bring photographs of their pets, or their toys, or other memorabilia.
“We talk about that animal like it was a person. What were they like? What was their personality? If your animal could talk to you from beyond the grave, what would they say? What would they want you to know? Why do you think your animal came to you when they did?” said Richards.
* * *
That last question from Richards made me teary-eyed. I’m no stranger to crying. I cry at the end of nearly every movie I watch, even comedies.
But crying while on duty during an interview?
I found myself telling my story to the people I was supposed to be interviewing. I wouldn’t exactly say the tables had turned, but I was sitting at the table where the Pet Loss Support Group happens.
My dog Tasha came into my life when I was 18 years old. I was briefly living with my father, Harold Levy, during a very challenging time of my life. One day, my dad came home from work with a little fluffy dog.
“I got this for you because you’ve seemed so sad, and I thought it would cheer you up,” he said.
A co-worker of his owned the dog and was considering putting her to sleep because, he claimed, Tasha was destructive. My father, in a double act of mercy, told the man he would take the dog home.
Tasha wasn’t destructive. Tasha had been traumatized by a neglectful owner.
We learned the hard way that the dog had periodic epileptic fits. After a panicked visit to the vet, we came home with a diagnosis, a bottle of Phenobarbital, and instructions to regularly dose the doggie. After a few months and a lot of love, we stopped drugging Tasha every day and kept the pills around for the occasional seizure, which, in time, decreased and finally stopped.
When I left my father’s house and moved back to Vermont to resume my college education, Tasha came with me to my apartment on Elliot Street. She quickly became a neighborhood celebrity.
She would sit on my second-floor porch, paws hanging over the edge, watching the people and cats go by. Friends who normally loathed small dogs would fall in love with her. How could you not, when she’d greet you by flipping in the air like a circus dog?
One friend told me he had a dream about her: Tasha was a priestess.
She sure was. She saved my life.
I was still in the throes of a bleak adolescence, still learning how to interact with people — and usually doing a terrible job at it. But Tasha was always glad to see me. When I parked my car outside the apartment, I would hear her barking her “happy bark” as soon as I pulled into my spot. When I would sit on my bed crying, she’d jump up onto my lap.
One day, when she jumped off the bed, she yelped. I took her to the vet, and the news wasn’t good.
Although she was only about 7 years old, she had a degenerative spine condition, and the vet advised against surgery. After a few weeks of medication to see if it helped — it didn’t — the doctor said euthanasia would be the most humane option.
I wasn’t strong enough to stay with Tasha as they administered the shot that would end her life. Instead, I drove home, crying harder than I have at any other time in my life, before or since.
Home was worse. There was no hilarious little dog to greet me.
What did I just do? I killed my dog.
* * *
“Some of the power and purpose of this group is about how to have self-forgiveness about the very fraught decision of euthanasia,” said Baxter.
Richards noted the group also discusses people’s experiences with losing a pet due to human error, violence, or the animal disappearing.
“It’s related to our culture’s difficulty with death and dying,” she said.“When people feel like they need to support that animal in dying through euthanasia, there’s almost always regret and self-blame.”
“We have so much trouble saying, ‘I can let you go now,’ even to the point where it’s beyond that animal’s comfort,” Richards said.
In our culture, grief is not honored, she said — “but it’s a life-support.”
Richards pointed out that “by going through grief, it gives us the potential for being so much more than before we went through it.”
“There’s so much beauty in this,” she said.