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Published: Sunday, 1/23/2005

Support group helps pet owners cope with death

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Claudia Lamanna cuddles a cat at Sylvania Veterinary Hospital. She helps owners grieve over the loss of a pet. Claudia Lamanna cuddles a cat at Sylvania Veterinary Hospital. She helps owners grieve over the loss of a pet.
DIANE HIRES / BLADE Enlarge

Carol Austin returned home and found Mattie s lifeless body on the floor.

Ms. Austin had been through the pain before. A few years earlier, she had lost Austin to cancer and then Tasha to old age, only months apart.

It was an intense sadness, one that she knew would bring on plenty of tears. And it was a grief that she knew some people would never understand.

I went through the loss of my husband and people will be there constantly for you, said Ms. Austin, 60, who endured the deaths of three Great Pyrenees dogs within two years.

But when you lose your pet, it s an I m sorry and you go on and that s the difference.

Psychology and lifestyle experts say this is an attitude that is slowly changing, however. As more people are choosing to marry or have children later in life, Fido and Fluffy are taking on even more important roles in the American home.

About 36 percent of all American households have at least one dog and about 31 percent are home to one or more cats, according to Census data. Dog owners are likely to spend an average of $180 a year on each animal s veterinary expenses while those with cats will spend an average of $85 annually for vet care per animal.

But until 1999, pet owners in the Toledo area were often forced to deal with the death of their animals on their own.

Facilitated by Claudia Lamanna, the Pet Loss Support Group was created to give grieving pet owners a place to share stories and tears without fear of embarrassment and anxiety. Men go, women go, as do single people or those with children, Ms. Lamanna said.

They are old and young and each attend the monthly meetings between two to eight each time looking for a place to share their sadness over the death of their pet.

I think that, more and more, people are giving themselves permission to really feel a grief process with the passing of a pet, said Ms. Lamanna, who worked as a veterinary technician before she was trained to help pet owners grieve. People who hear about it and think it s ridiculous may hear more and more about it and maybe one day will better accept it.

The Toledo group is not unique. Since the mid- 80s, pet-loss support groups have been organized throughout the country. A support group had been available through the Toledo Area Humane Society but has since disbanded. The organization is trying to reinstate the group as part of its 2005 goals, spokesman Susan Maxwell said.

For those who live where there isn t a support group to help them through the grieving process, the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement Inc. offers live Internet chat rooms four times a week when trained facilitators are available.

Started in 1999 by Wallace Sife, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit organization offers guidance for those experiencing pet loss and training for those who want to help others through it.

Mr. Sife, a trained psychologist and author of the book The Loss of a Pet, established the organization after looking for help following the death of his miniature dachshund, Edel Meister, from congestive heart failure in 1987. He said he soon learned that those grieving the loss of their pets had few places to turn.

I panicked. I looked around to try to understand better what I would be going through, but there was nothing on the subject except information about human bereavement, said Mr. Sife in a phone interview. So I went through the stages of human bereavement and applied them to the stages of losing a pet. There is a difference.

And there are similarities, Mr. Sife found. Some owners bury their pets in cemeteries Reith Pet Cemetery on McCord Road in Springfield Township is home to nearly 8,000 animals while others purchase bricks for memorial gardens.

Karnik Memorial Garden in Waterville, which cremates more than 200 animals a month, returns the ashes of animals to about 70 percent of its clients, said owner Ryan Bauman. The remaining ashes are spread in a garden on the company s grounds, giving owners peace of mind, he said.

Gloria Mueller, a lab technician at Sylvania Animal Hospital, realized that psychologically, she had never really gotten past the loss of Teddy, her Alaskan malamute who was put to sleep in 1985. But it wasn t until meeting Ms. Lamanna 14 years later that she realized she didn t allow herself to mourn properly.

It really helped. It made me realize that others went through similar feelings, similar grief, she said of the support group. It gives you a shoulder to lean on. It lightens your burden.

Ms. Austin, whose dog, Mattie, died Jan. 6 while trying to escape her portable kennel at home, said that relief of that burden is what has helped her with her heartache.

I ve lost three of these dogs in a two-year time frame and it s terrible, Ms. Austin said. It s just very helpful to sit with people that understand and have gone through it.

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-724-6076.



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