Credit: Mel Valentine Vargas

“I’m sorry if I cry,” says Leslie Dinsmore. We’re getting ready to discuss her dog Stella’s death two weeks earlier. She laughs then wavers, holding back tears, and says she hopes she won’t burden me much. “There’s a beautiful line in Harold and Maude where Harold goes ‘I love you,’ and Maude responds, ‘That’s great, now go out and love some more.'” Her smile starts to break. “That’s what I want to do. I want to go out and love some more.”

Dinsmore is not the only one seeking love after loss, and she’s not the only one looking for guidance. Counseling for pet bereavement is becoming more widespread. Therapists help clients handle grief the same way they’d help them deal with loss of friends or family.

“There’s a level of responsibility we have with pets that we don’t necessarily have with people,” says Arryn Hawthorne, a clinical social worker at Hawthorne Tree Psychotherapy, LLC. “With pets, you can choose euthanasia and when you’re given that choice, it’s a huge decision. It comes with a lot of guilt and questioning about whether you made the right decision or not.”

Though friends and family may not understand a pet owner’s grief, the need for support is important. Language is key when approaching someone grieving, and “It’s just a dog” or “Why don’t you get another pet?” are, unsurprisingly, not helpful responses. Kristin Buller, a licensed social worker and leader of the PAWS Pet Loss Heal support group, recommends instead that people consider their words carefully. “In general, people find these phrases dismissive,” she says. Instead, say “I don’t understand what you’re going through, but I’m here if you need me.”

Buller sees healing as a two-step process. She uses the dual-process model to help her clients handle emotions, then get back on their feet. Loss-oriented responses are the first step. They include grieving, crying, and other expressions of sadness. Restoration-oriented responses follow. This step includes helping people learn new skills to adapt to life after their pets’ death.

“We talk a lot about the dual-process model and how to find ways to move in to the pain and sadness, whether that’s journaling, creating some kind of ritual, talking with people, or coming to group,” says Buller, “We teach how to have respite from grief too, if that’s watching a bad TV show to [take a break] from crying or going out for a walk. If you give yourself space from it at times when you need to, that’s good.”

Support groups provide refuge. Buller’s group meets the third Tuesday of every month; the Anti-Cruelty Society also hosts its own monthly pet loss support group. The sense of community can be incredibly beneficial for those isolated in their grief, says Buller. ‘The most common phrase we hear in group is ‘I know this sounds crazy,’ and everyone says, ‘whatever your heart is telling you, listen to it.’ It’s knowing other people on Tuesday nights feel terrible too, and knowing you’re not alone.”

Grief may also be accompanied by guilt associated with euthanasia. Pet owners often wonder if they waited too long, or not long enough, to pull the plug, leaving owners feeling complicit in their pet’s death. Hospice exists to help ease the process but, depending on the situation, some cases may hurt more. “If it’s a behavioral issue, it’s quality of life for the pet and the family,” says Dinsmore, who works as a veterinary technician. “If they have cancer or something, euthanasia may be easier to reason than, say, neurological disorders.”

Dealing with death can result in trauma. A friend mentioned resorting to cutting, while another referenced a deep depression he experienced after the loss of his pet. As someone who has recently lost her own dog, Dinsmore urges others going through the grief process to be kind to themselves. “You have to learn what life will look life after they’re gone,” she says. “Find new hobbies to fill their absence. For me, it was crafting.”

“When the value of the life grows, the value of the loss also grows,” says Hawthorne.

Stella’s death was expected, but it hurt nonetheless for Dinsmore. There’s no way to soften the blow of losing a loved one other than holding someone else’s hand through it. “I came with a list of things written down I want to say to anyone going through it,” she says. She pulls out her computer and looks at the screen. “Letting go doesn’t mean you’ve failed them. I need people to know that letting go doesn’t mean you’ve failed them.”   v

Pet Loss Support Group
First Tuesday of the month, 6 PM, Anti-Cruelty Society, 157 W. Grand, 312-644-8338,  F

Pet Loss Heal Support Group
Third Tuesday of the month, 7 PM, PAWS Chicago Adoption Center, 1997 N. Clybourn, 773-687-4724,  F