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'A Huge Loss': Program Helps Families Grieve Pets Who Pass

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Anyone who has ever lost a dog or cat knows the heartache that follows. Stacey Cleveland of Bowie, has lost two cats just in the past year. Moses was 17 years old, Toby was 20. 

"He was like my first child. He came before my kids and was my precursor to motherhood," Cleveland says. "It was a huge loss."

To deal with the grief, Cleveland and her family attended a Pet Loss Grief Workshop organized by Prince George's County. It's not always easy for families of deceased pets to realize they need to grieve, according to Rodney Taylor, with the Prince George's County Animal Management Division.

"They need somewhere to go where they can grieve and learn how to deal with grieving," Taylor says.

Providing for pet owners' grief

When the county agency was looking for a new program to engage pet owners who have recently lost a furry friend, Cathy Cooper stepped in. She's a grief counselor with Capital Caring. Her role in the Pet Loss Grief Workshop is to supply a safe place for folks who are in mourning.

"To validate their feelings that that you have lost a member of your family, you have lost someone important to you, and that it is ok you feel the way you do," she explains.

Cooper asks attendees to bring in a photo of their pet, and encourages them to describe the animal -- habits, history, characteristics and quirks.

"There's something really healing in being able to introduce who your pet was," she says. 

Missing Toby, a part of the family for two decades

Cleveland describes her late friend as "wicked smart." 

"Toby, we always joked, if he was a person he'd be college professor," she says. The cat was a part of the family. 

"I actually got Toby when I was engaged to my husband so he was really the fabric of our family; he had been with us since before we were married, before we had children," she says. 

During the grieving sessions, Cooper also encourages the bereaved to address feelings of guilt that may surround the difficult decision to euthanize a pet. 

"There's something about making that decision that makes you feel like you're playing God and I didn't like that feeling," says Cleveland. The ordeal of bringing the cat to the vet was heartbreaking, she adds.

"He was very smart, and he knew," she said. "As the vet was putting the tourniquet on … he cried out," she says. "So that was very difficult." 

Owners shouldn't feel shame in mourning pets

Cooper encourages participants to embrace their feelings during the hour-and-a-half-long session.

"You've got to mourn and get it out," she says. "That's how the healing happens. That's when I tell people, 'it's normal. We need to fall apart.'"

Cleveland felt an overwhelming feeling of loss, a disconnect even, when Toby passed away. Her whole family attended the Pet Loss Grief Workshop, and got a lot out of it.

"It was nice to be in a room with other people who wouldn't look at you like 'it was just a dog, it was just a cat,'" Cleveland says. Cooper stresses to support group participants that pet loss is important and needs to be respected.

"There's no time limit in the grieving process," she says. "It's normal and it's okay to have people by your side when you're really struggling." 

For more information on the Prince George's County Pet Loss Grief Workshop, call (301) 883-0866.

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