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Group support for grieving the loss of a pet

Jeanne Myers doesn't cry every day anymore, but she can still hear that last, doleful moan that came out of her beloved cat Kute.

Frank Lucas, a Wynnewood architect, recalls his dog, Bailey, who was almost 17 when he died of a brain tumor. Lucas brought photos to Penn's Pet Loss Support Group. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)
Frank Lucas, a Wynnewood architect, recalls his dog, Bailey, who was almost 17 when he died of a brain tumor. Lucas brought photos to Penn's Pet Loss Support Group. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)Read more

Jeanne Myers doesn't cry every day anymore, but she can still hear that last, doleful moan that came out of her beloved cat Kute.

It came minutes before Kute died June 18 - after days filled with oxygen treatments and blood transfusions, and a race through red lights to get to the emergency room.

"They opened the chamber so I could pet her, and she made this awful wail," Myers said. "Now, I have this terrible cry that I keep remembering."

For Myers, a biomedical researcher, it was the rock bottom of a dreadful two years. She lost her father. She shuttled to wintertime Wisconsin as long-distance caregiver for an Alzheimer's-afflicted uncle. Within eight months, both men were dead. Then Kute (pronounced Cutie), the stray she had rescued from a shelter cage 14 years before, developed a rare blood disease.

"I had nobody. I just had my cat," Myers said, crying. "I always said she was my family. All these things were going on, but I knew I could just come home and say, 'This is good. I've got Kute.' "

At the monthly Pet Loss Support Group at Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital, Myers is finding solace. So have more than 2,000 other grieving pet owners in the two decades the free group has been offered.

On a recent evening at the hospital on the University of Pennsylvania campus, 17 people gathered to talk about their struggles with losing pets - some rookies, some regulars. Anthony Cozzi of Center City, who received 40 condolence cards when his Yorkie, Rocky, died, was a newcomer. Anne Pugh of Haddonfield has been attending on and off since 1985.

In the center of the table, there was a Dunkin' Box o' Joe, a box of doughnuts, and a box of tissues. Around the perimeter, feelings began to spill out:

Anxiety: A young man worried that he couldn't fully bond with his young daughter because he was still grieving the loss of his cat.

Pressure: "I've called the mortgage company and told them, 'Guess what. It's going to be late this month. I'm paying for chemo.' I don't tell them it's dog chemo," a woman said.

Pride: One woman, who names all her dogs after writers, riffed about Thurber the Wonder Dog, a total diva.

Anguish: A woman recounted the day they put her dog down: "She got up on the table. She sort of sensed it, because she'd been there before and had gotten shots."

Depression: "I'm here for my best friend, Dale," a young man said. "I lost him in August. . . . I took a really big step backward last week. It was his birthday."

Inspiration: "Candy's mom," who sobbed so heartily that she could choke out only a few audible words at a time, said, "When I volunteer now or I donate, I do it because she'd want me to do it, because that's the dog that she was."

Grief counselor Michele Pich, whose previous job was running cancer support groups for humans, began moderating the pet-loss group in March. It deals with a kind of "disenfranchised grief," she said, "a certain level of taboo that pet owners are expected to get over their loss more quickly than people actually do."

"We start out with a room full of strangers that come from so many different backgrounds, and, over the course of a night, they really come together to share what they're going through and listen to each other and cry on each other's shoulders . . .," Pich said. "This is one place where people can be there for each other through these hardships that the people who you'd ordinarily depend on may not have the understanding that you need."

Her counseling sessions, which take place monthly, have drawn as many as 30 people a night. Participants say Pich seems to know exactly what they're going through. She does; her dog is being treated for tumors.

"Once it does come to the point that I know I'm going to have to say goodbye to Cleopatra," she said, "it's good for me to know there's a place where I can go and know that people are going to be able to understand that bond."

The bond between human and pet has changed since the years when Fido was tied to the backyard doghouse. New studies link pet ownership to lower blood pressure, fewer doctor visits, and less depression. In turn, owners are treating pets more like best friends. Americans will spend an estimated $47.7 billion on their pets this year, compared with $17 billion in 1994.

A ripple of laughter went around the conference table when Gus Dibble of Alloway, N.J., told the group that he and his wife, Betsy, would take their sick pup to Wendy's drive-through for a special treat. ("Hold the buns.")

When a woman brought up how tough it was to get her ailing dog to take multiple pills, Pich suggested using what she uses: Pill Pockets, dog and cat treats with a hollow interior for hiding medications.

Laurel Garrison, a church secretary from Collingswood, discovered the support group in November 2009, about a month after her Lhasa apso, Abigail, died. "At first, when you attend the group, you are so thankful that there are people there that are so compassionate. . . . You don't feel alone or crazy for being so upset," she said. "I have a lot of family and friends that loved her, but after a while, they really don't want to hear about her anymore."

Frank Lucas, a Wynnewood architect, used to peek through the kitchen window to see what his Jack Russell terrier was doing while he was away at work. Invariably, Bailey was just sitting there, waiting for Lucas to take him on his walk.

Bailey was almost 17 when he died of a brain tumor. Lucas' family and friends comforted "Bailey's dad." The dog sitter and the vet sent cards. The neighbors came around. But Lucas was still missing Bailey when they stopped asking about him.

"I think about him all the time, but after a while, you don't want to burden anybody with it. My friends are there to support me, and they've done a great job, but after a while, everybody goes on with their own lives," he said, "and you still have a need to talk about it. That's why this is a good forum."

Joe Pugh, an associate professor of business at Immaculata College, and his wife, Anne, a tutor, had benefited from the group each time one of their rescue dogs died. Now, they go to support novice grievers as others supported them.

Glancing toward two small groups of participants who had lingered hours after the meeting ended, Joe Pugh said, "Anyone who has lost a pet or is in the process of losing a pet should take advantage of it. It is very supportive."

"It really does bring healing," said Betsy Dibble, a homemaker, "when you come here and you can see that other people are further along in the healing process and you can see that the pain is going to stop. You're not always going to feel like you're dead yourself."