Beyond the Bridge Pet Loss Support Group

by Tara Caimi for Pawsitively Pets magazine ~

Many pet owners have heard of the “Rainbow Bridge,” and for those whose companion animal has passed over that bridge, the term can hold significant meaning. Maureen Casey, client care coordinator at Metzger Animal Hospital, understood this when she started Beyond the Bridge Pet Loss Support Group.

In four years with Metzger Animal Hospital, Maureen has guided more than a few people through the circumstances leading up to euthanasia. Though contacting clients after they’d said goodbye to a beloved pet was not a formal part of the process, she often followed up to help ease the emotional toll.

“The death of a pet can be equally significant as the death of a family member,” she said, “but we don’t give it the recognition we give to human loss.” Maureen should know. She lost her golden retriever to bone cancer in May 2009. The experience changed the path of her life.

“When Daisy got sick, she was five years old,” Maureen said. “I knew absolutely nothing.” She found information through online groups as well as through Metzger Animal Hospital, and Daisy lived for another two years. Though her career was in sales and marketing, after learning of Daisy’s illness, Maureen needed an outlet that involved helping animals.

She began volunteering at Centre County PAWS, a non-euthanasia pet rescue organization, where she helped with animal medical work. Shortly thereafter, she decided to make a career change. Maureen entered the Purdue University Veterinary Technology program, leaving behind the expense accounts and company cars of her previous job and welcoming the opportunity to help people on a different level.

“It’s been a transition,” she said with a smile, “going from business suits and heels to scrubs that might be adorned with dog poop. I enjoy working with the clients and animals.”

She started Beyond the Bridge two months ago as an informal extension of the work she does in her role as client care coordinator. “Euthanasia is a hard decision and not the type of decision people are used to making,” Maureen said. “People struggle with it, and no matter when they make the decision, they second guess and feel guilt.”

These are the issues a support group can help to address. While Maureen is careful to point out she is not a therapist, she does offer counseling and resources to help people deal with the loss of a pet.

Prior to starting the group, she researched various factors involved in losing a companion animal and completed training in pet loss therapy. Several years ago, she attended a conference on pet loss through the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB). The APLB offers a course in grief counseling, and at the conference, Maureen learned from people who have direct experience with different aspects of the process.

“Usually, there are other things involved besides just the pet loss,” she said. “A lot of times, these pets signify something else in their owners’ lives.”

Kaitlin Taylor, certified veterinary technician with Metzger Animal Hospital, lost her Belgian Malinois, also named Daisy, in July 2013 when the dog was hit by a car. “I would take Daisy running with me, and that’s what helped me to quit smoking,” she said, “because I had a running partner.”

Though the pet loss support group did not yet exist, Kaitlin turned to her coworker Maureen for emotional support. “She told me I had to get out there and run again. If it makes me happy,” Kaitlin said, “it would make Daisy happy.”

Another factor often overlooked is the isolation of losing an animal. There is no memorial service or celebration of life with the loss of a pet. “Family doesn’t come around and show support, and friends don’t come over,” Maureen said. “It’s not a socially acceptable sort of grief.”

As such, people may be confused or embarrassed by the depth of their feelings after losing a pet. “I’ve had so many people say, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me; I know it’s just an animal,’” said Maureen.

For Kaitlin, who witnessed the accident and saw Daisy take her last breath, the grief was beyond anything she’d experienced. “I felt worse pain than when I had a human who was close to me pass away,” she said. “I had Daisy since I was 19 years old. We grew up together and matured. She was like my child.”

While Kaitlin did, at times, wonder if she was overreacting, Maureen’s support got her past those feelings. “A big part of the group is validation of their grief—letting people know it’s O.K. to feel that,” said Maureen.

Though the groups have been small as Maureen works to get the word out, she has been able to help several people work through their loss in the few meetings that have run. “I don’t think I’d be as strong as I am now if I didn’t have Maureen’s help,” Kaitlin said. As for participating in a pet loss support group, she said, “I just think it’s the best thing you can do to help yourself.”

As the group’s facilitator, Maureen encourages members to tell their stories. “It truly is a support group,” she said, “not therapy. My job is to get the conversation started and let it go wherever people want to take it.”

Maureen hopes to settle into a format in which each participant has a chance to tell his or her story, then she’ll guide the conversation around any themes that emerge. “A lot of people get teary eyed,” she said. “Crying is totally normal, and even if I don’t have some earth shattering way to help, they feel better just to have someone listen and take an interest.”

According to Maureen, members of a pet loss support group may benefit by participating in just one or two sessions. She also suggests activities that can help people work through their grief. “I encourage people to think about what would be meaningful to them or their pet,” she said. “My dog was named Daisy, so I planted a garden with all kinds of daisies in it.”

Other activities include making a donation, volunteering, holding a memorial ceremony, and writing a letter. “It’s a way for people to celebrate their pets’ lives,” Maureen said, “and to honor them.”

Beyond The Bridge Pet Loss Support Group meets once a month at Centre County PAWS. More information is available on the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/beyondthebridgepa.

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