Animal Shelter Reach Out to Grieving Pet Owners

People who have recently lost a pet are finding comfort and understanding through support groups at animal shelters.

When a pet dies, the Seattle Animal Shelter sends a bereavement card.

The cards are the brainchild of shelter volunteer Connie Starr, who also helps lead the weekly pet bereavement group at the Seattle Animal Shelter. “It’s a grief that society doesn’t recognize or support,” Starr said.

Kathy Herbert was surprised when she received a card in the mail from the Seattle Animal Shelter, a sympathy card over the loss of her beloved 13-year-old dog.

“Our loved companions never really leave us. They live on in the happy memories of the times shared together,” said the card, sent in the memory of Herbert’s dog Alex.

Tucked inside the card was an invitation to attend a weekly pet-loss support-group meeting at the shelter, which Herbert attended with her partner.

The Queen Anne residents were still mourning the loss of Alex, a golden retriever-mastiff mix that died after a tumor was discovered.

Many who attend the pet-loss group talk about how hard it is for friends to understand the loss when a beloved pet dies.

“It’s very isolating,” Herbert said. “It’s so difficult to talk to people who don’t understand a relationship with a pet, if you’ve never suffered the same loss.”

Since last March, the Seattle Animal Shelter has been sending out about 35 cards each week, at a cost of about 84 cents each. All of the money has come from donations, said Kara Main-Hester, with the animal shelter. The shelter learns about the pet deaths when the owners return a license-renewal notice to say their pet has died.

“We know pets are often the only family members people have,” said Don Jordan, who heads the animal shelter. “We needed to do something extra and bring about great sense of closure by having someone else acknowledge how important pets were to them.”

Jordan said the cards and condolence groups are not meant to persuade people to adopt another pet. “By no means do we want to dupe people into coming here and adopting, but that would be fantastic since many need homes,” he said. “We just want to let people know there are people who care. It’s just a way of acknowledging the important role pets play in their lives.”

The cards are the brainchild of shelter volunteer Connie Starr, who also helps lead the pet bereavement group. Starr had a 5-year-old Siberian husky who died suddenly, and she realized there was no support group for those who lost their pets; no one brought over casseroles.

“It’s a grief that society doesn’t recognize or support,” Starr said. “You come to work and are devastated and people say they’re sorry, ‘Now get to work. Get over it. It’s a cat.’ You know your pet was not just a cat.”

Starr put together a volunteer group to lead weekly sessions.

Bruce Friend is one of the leaders, volunteering at the shelter after the death of his cat Richie in 2007.

“People think it’s not normal behavior to grieve over a pet,” said Friend, but he said he was so devastated he called the Seattle Crisis Clinic, which put him in touch with the shelter’s pet-loss program.

“It was a godsend,” he said, “the best antidepressant I ever had. This was a lifesaver for me.”

Sarah Yeager lost a dog — an Australian shepherd — and received a condolence note from the shelter.

The death “was absolutely devastating to me,” Yeager said. The dog was one of the last links to her husband, who died several years ago. “You think of the city being a faceless institution,” she said. “This felt like a real personal thing.”

Chris Northcross attended a pet-loss meeting after his 13-year-old rabbit died last year.

“She was a house rabbit. She ruled the roost,” Northcross said. “She knew her name and would come when I’d call her.”

He said he spent several thousand dollars trying to prolong Hyjinx’s life. “I took her to every vet I could find,” Northcross said. “She’s a family member, somewhere between a pet and a companion. She was somebody I talked to, depended on every day. I would always expect her to be waiting for me when I came home from work.”

When Hyjinx died, Northcross looked for places where he could talk about his loss and found the Animal Shelter program. “I wanted someone who could take me seriously. It helped me, that I’m not alone in my feelings. People are going through parallel feelings.”

The Seattle Humane Society also runs a free condolence group for those who have lost pets. It meets at 10 a.m. Saturdays and is run by volunteers. After each session, the volunteers send sympathy cards to everyone who attends.

Herbert and her partner have since adopted another dog from the shelter, an English cocker spaniel that was rescued after it was found wandering the city.

“It’s been an amazing healing process,” Herbert said. “You can’t replace a pet, but we are caregivers of a new animal.”

By Susan Gilmore

Seattle Times staff reporter