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An Interview with a Pet Loss Counselor

By: Stephen Sawicki

Read By: Pet Lovers
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Jane Nathanson, a consultant to Angell Memorial Animal Hospital for grief counseling for the loss of a pet, speaks about her work.

PetPlace: What does your role with pet owners involve?

Nathanson: I'm a consultant to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Angell's mother organization) assisting with client issues about approaching loss and coping with loss of a pet. I provide direct telephone consulting to individuals who are seeking information, guidance and support. I also conduct group programs as well as professional in-service training for issues like how to communicate effectively with clients who are going through stressful situations.

PP: What problems do grieving pet owners struggle with?

Nathanson: Of course, there's the unique aspect in veterinary medicine of having to decide on euthanasia. This is extremely troubling for many people - whether this is their moral right to intervene in this way. I try to help them find their own sense of what is right for them and their animal.

After an animal has died, an individual's grief is often fraught with what you might call a desire to rewrite the script. They think: I shouldn't have put him down, or I put him down too soon, or I waited too long - anything to take back the time, to reverse the decision. That's a very natural guilty response that can occur in people who are grieving. It's usually your most conscientious animal caregivers who go through the most intense periods of feeling guilty.

We feel more responsible with regard to the medical treatment of our animals. We're much more involved with the actual dying and death than we are with human loss. With human loss, it's almost as if the medical establishment and the funeral system all enter the action. But with our animals, we're it. We are so much in that decision-making role. We have far more control over our animals. Often that's quite awesome for people. We go along quite well with it, up until the animal dies or is dying. Then it strikes you: My goodness, who am I to make this decision?

PP: Friends often encourage those who've recently lost a pet to get another. Your thoughts?

Nathanson: If we're talking about people who consider their animals like members of their family, then each animal represents a unique, irreplaceable relationship. But I encourage people when they're grieving to look at what brought them to opening their hearts and homes to this animal. What is it about the "dogness" of the dog or the "catness" of the cat? It's not a consolation to say, "Well, you can have others." But it is a reality that those of us who like to be in the company of animals can enjoy the essence of an animal again by eventually building another relationship.

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