By J.D. Moor
Editor’s note: Brookhaven writer J.D. Moor attended Georgia Veterinary Specialists’ pet loss support group after his cat, Jem, died last December.
For many of us, our pets are like family. They provide constant companionship, unconditional love and joy.
I was my cat’s caregiver for years. He needed two insulin shots and two other medications each day. He was nearly 20 years old when his kidneys shut down.
Suddenly, caregiving meant the emotional whiplash of choosing euthanasia instead of sustaining his life. Novelist Carol Anshaw once wrote that “taking on a pet is a contract with sorrow.” With Jem’s final illness, my own contract with sorrow had come to fruition.
Luckily, I found a place to talk. Retired psychologist Robin Chisolm-Seymour leads a pet loss support group at Georgia Veterinary Specialists in Sandy Springs. “Painful memories, including ones of guilt, will slowly turn to recognizing the gifts that Jem gave you, both in life and in death,” she said.
Her own cat’s death offered such a gift in disguise. Chisolm-Seymour was in the GVS waiting area, while seeking care for her ailing cat, Ming. By chance, she met the clinic’s marketing manager, Kim DeMeza.
“I discovered that Robin had a passion for helping people and pets. We started the conversation about a group that day and, after several months including much research as well as Ming’s passing, we had a plan that we felt was kismet,” DeMeza said.
Since 2008, some 170 people have attended the 90-minute meetings. The gatherings are held every week on Wednesday evenings; they are free and anyone can attend multiple times.
For optimal comfort and discussion, the group usually numbers four to six people.
Aleida Oehlke of Buckhead had two bichons and a cat die within nine months of one another. “My heart will never be the same with them gone,” she said. “Robin’s words taught me skills to cope. She has the heart to understand how deep the pain is with each loss.”
Other participants say the group discussions helped them, too.
Chip Little of Brookhaven lost his beagle, Charlotte, when she was 16. “Robin recommended the book, ‘The Loss of a Pet’, …and we cried a lot,” he said. Four months later, he adopted a rescue beagle. “We named him Charlie in Charlotte’s honor,” he said.
Darla Yamaato’s dog, LeiLei, died of pneumonia when she was only nine months old. “It felt like the life had been sucked right out of me,” the Sandy Springs woman said. “It helped me to hear how some other members (of the group) were working through their grief.”
Nahum Nicholas fosters many cats until they are adopted. When two of her own elderly cats died six months apart, she sought out the group.
“It helps just to have a place where I can talk about my pets and spend time thinking of them, since other people in my life may not welcome my need to grieve them, especially after the first few days or weeks after their passing,” Nicholas said.
Many group members learn to channel their grief in positive ways.
Some people write journals filled with warm memories. Others create memorials on Facebook, plant a tree or erect a birdhouse. And some do volunteer work with shelters and trap-neuter/spay-return programs.
Group facilitator Chisolm-Seymour acknowledged the degree of pain reflects how much love was felt for the pet, but the group’s magic is in commiseration.
“The most rewarding thing to see is not only how each person begins the journey toward healing,” she said, “but also how many are able to reach out to help the others.”
GVS isn’t the only place offering grieving pet owners a place to face their losses.
There are a number of pet bereavement groups available online and in person.
-A pet loss support group meets at the crematory facilities of Deceased Pet Care in Chamblee. These sessions began in 2012 and are led by Counselor Jennifer Wilmoth, a licensed associate marriage and family therapist. They meet for 60 minutes, but only once a month on the first Tuesday. This group also is open to the public and free.
“The group is a great place for people to learn about the grieving process in a supportive environment after the loss of their beloved family pet,” Wilmoth said. For more information, call 770-457-7659 or visit www.deceasedpetcare.com.
-The Paws, Whiskers and Wags pet crematory offers an in-person 90-minute session the first Tuesday of each month. Free and open to the public, the meetings are held in Decatur. For more information, call 404-370-6000 or visit www.pawswhiskersandwags.com.
-The ASPCA website has help on various pet loss issues, including a hotline. Visit www.aspca.org/Home/Pet-care or call 877-474-3310.
-The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement has a wide range of online services. Visit www.aplb.org.
For more information, call 770-642-3665 or visit www.gvsvet.com.