When most people think of pets, cats and dogs are often the first animals that spring to mind. Pets though come in many forms from lizards, cows and even in some cases spiders. Pets create empathy, love, and the opportunity to have a non-judgemental companion, in many ways, pets complete our lives. Growing up I always had animals and I was particularly fond of my pet rabbit – Rabby. I trained Rabby to come to me when he was called, he would ride on the back of my bicycle in a bucket that he was not strapped into. Rabby’s proudest moment by far was when he won the Supreme Champion award at the local A&P show for two years running. Yes, a rabbit in a pram dressed like a baby beat all of the fancy cows and lambs that Wanganui had to offer. I was only twelve when Rabby died and it was my first but not my last encounter with losing a loving, loyal, fun, cuddly mate.
As time went by, I had several strong relationships with beautiful pets. I know and understand the pain losing such a friend can bring which leads me to wonder, if this can bring so much sadness then why do we own them. The answer to that question is actually very simple and well explained in the following quote:
“It came to me that every time I lose a dog, they take a piece of my heart with them and
every new dog that comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart.
If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog and
I will become as generous and loving as they are. – Anonymous ‘Dogs’ lives are too short.’
Though this beautiful quote pertains to dogs, I feel it can easily be applied to any of our loved furry friends.
Each of our lives is a tapestry made up of many threads. Multi-coloured, they are the stories we weave and that weave us.
These are some of my threads. They answer the question people often ask me: “How did I come to have a pet cremation service?”
As a child I had numerous pets, including ailing and injured birds, hedgehogs and other wildlife that I endeavored to save. When my animals inevitably died, I’d bury them in my pet cemetery beneath the macrocarpa hedge at the back of the garden. Each pet had a little named cross and I’d decorate their “sacred place,” with coloured stones, shells and flowers. I was usually the only one at the ceremony – my younger sisters being reluctant mourners.
There would be tears and a wondering, “where are they now?’ The smell of macrocarpa still brings the remembrance of that grief.
Grief re-visited me as a young mother. At 22 my first child, Melissa, died at 4 months of age from congenital heart defects. It was an abyss that took a long time to climb out of. Writing was my solace –a way of purging the turmoil of feelings that I feared would send me to madness or suicide.
Though others grieved around me, mostly it wasn’t talked about, for those who loved me didn’t want to add to my pain. I had little understanding back then of emotions or an “inner life” and the silence and aloneness I found myself in was at times unbearable.
The other significant threads in my tapestry are training then working as a counsellor, followed by the establishment and running of boarding kennels. Melissa’s life – and death – is the thread that stands out the most brightly. It’s the blue of sorrow, yet intertwined are jewels of glistening yellow. This most precious thread reminds me that out of darkness comes light; out of pain comes joy and that death and sorrow can be the backdrop that shines the light on how to truly live. The breaking of our hearts can also be the opening.
Our animals are treasures. They grace out lives and families with their unconditional love, passion, forgiveness and humour. I often wonder how different we might be – life could be – if we lived their values.
Michael graduated from the University of Queensland in 1991 and spent 10 years in companion animal veterinary practices in Australia and then in United Kingdom before returning to the University of Queensland in 2001 to complete an Honour’s degree in Psychology. His 2004 Honour’s thesis was about exploring and better understanding the human-animal bond using human-relationship theories.
Educator & Counsellor
In 2005 Michael was employed as a casual academic and helped develop UQ’s School of Veterinary Science curriculum teaching veterinary students non-technical veterinary competencies and topics such as the human-animal bond, grief and euthanasia, communication skills and ethics and morality. From 2006 until 2011 Michael completed a PhD about veterinary communication. In 2011 he travelled to Canada and up until the end of 2014 he was employed as a full time academic at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph teaching veterinary students in the “Art of Veterinary Medicine” program. During this time, he was the head co-ordinator of the OVC Pet Loss Support Hotline. He trained veterinary students in fundamental counselling skills and how to manage calls to the hotline. Michael returned down under and across the ditch in 2015 to continue working with veterinary educators and organisations in helping veterinarians and students to improve their communication skills. He also returned to companion animal veterinary practice where he is able to also provide counselling to clients.
At the Grief Centre, we provide support, advice and counselling to help those affected by all forms loss and grief.
Losses or changes can shift the whole foundation of our life. Nothing is as it was. Even what was most familiar, seems in a strange way unfamiliar.
It is as though we have to learn a new language, a new way of being, a new normal.
The Grief Centre
The Grief Support and Education Charitable Trust (Grief Centre) is a Registered Charity established in 2009 to assist and support those affected by grief and loss.
Loss and grief are issues facing many in our communities. Until now little has been available to truly help those needing assistance.
Thanks to a Pets & People initiative, grieving animal lovers can now call a national hotline to be connected with a qualified and experienced counsellor who can help them cope with their loss.
Dr Michael O’Donoghue established the service so that people could call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and arrange to talk to a specialised pet loss counsellor about the loss of any kind of companion animal.
Location and Service Area
At the time of launch there were 10 service counsellors based across Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane – with the service continuing to expand and offer connections with more and more professionals. As of August 2018 the service now extends to New Zealand with a dedicated hotline established for local NZ callers.
Calls are answered by a receptionist 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and transferred to a suitable counsellor if there is one available on the line, otherwise the caller will be contacted by return phone within 24 hours.
The hotline is a toll free number, but once connected with professional, their counselling rates will vary according to the service provider. These charges will be discussed with the caller before proceeding. Dr Michael O’Donoghue has also curated a list of free and donation-based options on the Grief & Bereavement Support Services page.