Monday, August 3, 2015

Losing a Pet Part 1: Berkeley Humane's Pet Loss Support Group

Once upon a time I had the best cat ever. His name was Beeper.

His death from kidney failure at age 17 was devastating. It doesn’t matter that he died four years ago; I can still cry as freely today as I did then.

Registered Nurse, Clinical Social Worker and Grief Recovery Specialist Jill Goodfriend had her own best cat ever.

In her June 2012 piece To Honor Aja Katrina:The Creation of Pet Loss Support Groups, Goodfriend describes the way her cat Aja’s death inspired the creation of her long-running pet loss support group:
“The apartment felt hollow, empty. Her toys were still scattered around, food and water bowls untouched, wisps of her hair everywhere. I needed to talk and cry. I needed a compassionate someone, who understood our unique bond, to listen. Gratefully I found Betty Carmack’s support group in San Francisco, and another in Marin, but surprisingly none in the East Bay. I vowed that when my grief healed sufficiently I would create a pet loss support group to honor Aja Katrina. And I did.”
Jill has offered groups at various Bay Area locations and finally found a home at Berkeley Humane ten years ago. Each month on the third Tuesday, the group welcomes anyone to drop in and share their loss, no matter how recent or distant. It's also an excellent resource for those preparing for a pet's imminent death. 

“Berkeley Humane has been so supportive,” says Jill. “Another location started at the same time put us in a windowless, hot room without a fan after the air conditioning had been turned off for the night, and failed to advertise the group, so no one came. But Berkeley Humane welcomed us from the beginning, rent-free, and has included our group on their website. They’ve been great to work with.”

Candles to honor the pets we miss
One evening in June I headed to Berkeley Humane. As a volunteer I’m familiar with the shelter’s front room, but Jill and her co-facilitator Sylvia Wenninger transformed it into a welcoming place to grieve. Jill organized a centerpiece of softly glowing electric candles. No matter which seat I chose in the circle, a box of tissues was close at hand to absorb tears. Stuffed animals offered comfort and a bittersweet reminder of the pets we’d lost.

Attendance varies: over the last year the group welcomed an average of seven mourners each month. The evening I attended was an intimate affair that gave us all a chance to share our stories, ask each other questions, and receive counseling on healing actions that might help us.

Stuffed animals and tissues.
Each month Jill or Sylvia select a new piece dealing with pets and loss. This reading, followed by a moment of silence, opens each meeting. Soon I was passing around my pictures of Beeper and sharing stories about my best cat ever. My audience listened intently (in fact, one of the rules is no interrupting while someone speaks) and passed me tissues when I dissolved into inarticulate tears.

Two things struck me that evening. The first is how comforting it is to speak of the loss of a pet openly and without judgment, which is precisely why Jill created the group.

“Although our society is uncomfortable with the whole topic of death, and certainly doesn’t know how to deal with people who are mourning their pets, at least there are some socially accepted cultural or religious rituals to acknowledge and honor a person’s passing and to offer support to the bereaved family,” she says. The pet loss support group lets us mourn our beloved companions in a supportive environment.

“The mourning pet owner finds that his grief may not be recognized or accepted by society, that it is disenfranchised grief. From well-meaning friends and co-workers he might hear ‘It was just a dog,’ ‘Aren’t you over him yet?’ or ‘Why don’t you just adopt another one from a shelter?’ as if pets are simply interchangeable. Many group attendees admit to experiencing more difficulty recovering from the loss of a pet than from the death of a parent.” - Jill Goodfriend

Monk, a very good cat. He is missed.
The second thing that struck me was how helpful perspective is in the healing process. Another attendee lost his cat Monk earlier this year. Learning about friendly, unflappable Monk reminded me that I’m not alone in missing my pet. Grief doesn’t have to be a solo journey.

Jill brings resources to suit all needs: handouts on self care after loss, help lines, regional pet loss groups, even copies of a book written for bereaved cat owners: Soul Comfort for Cat Lovers by Liz Eastwood. No one leaves without useful information on positive next steps. For instance, Jill felt I might benefit from writing letters to Beeper. (That the prospect unnerves me is probably a clue to its therapeutic, if tearful, value.)

The pet loss support group left me in tears, I admit. After the discussion I missed Beeper more than I’d allowed myself to in years.

Yet I felt unquestionably better: by revisiting my grief I’d reassessed it, an emotional check-in that made it easier to move forward.

Beeper, my very best cat.
If you’re mourning an animal, consider sharing your story at the pet loss support group each third Tuesday of the month from 7-8:30pm. Sharing is not required but the confidentiality rules make it a safe place to do so. The group is run by Jill Goodfriend and Sylvia Wenninger, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and RYT. The group meets at Berkeley Humane, 2700 9th Street. Find out more about the group here.

Part two of this series shares recommendations and resources for those who have lost a pet or are readying themselves for the loss.


  1. Yes, very useful group. thanks Jill and Sylvia!

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  4. When my beloved Argo passed away, I do attend some support group to cope and to have a normal life again. Because it's very painful to me and I always remember the time that I'm calling for a help to pet cremation houston . Even I got new buddy right now, he's always in my mind and in my heart.