By Cappy Tosetti
How can a heart hurt so much? Will the tears ever stop? So many questions and emotions surface when saying good-bye to a beloved pet.
“The feeling of emptiness and despair when grieving the loss of an animal can be devastating,” explains Christy Gunther, MA, LPC, with Woodfin Wellness. “Often a person experiences an overwhelming range of emotional responses that can last a long time, including the inability to accept the situation, shock, disbelief, intense tearfulness, disorientation, insomnia, loss of appetite, anger, guilt, isolation, depression, and the thought that one cannot tolerate the pain.”
Christy has witnessed this herself with her own animals and in her work as a family therapist specializing in bereavement and depression. While working in Florida in the 1980s, she was asked by another therapist to cofacilitate a pet loss support group. It was there that she realized the importance of sharing feelings with others going through similar circumstances. It can be a comfort to openly talk about one’s loss in a safe environment where others understand. Often family, friends and coworkers may grieve differently, finding it difficult or too painful to be supportive.
Soon after moving to Asheville and setting up her practice in 1993, Christy decided to start a support group here. It’s been going strong for 22 years, meeting on the first Wednesday of every month at 6 p.m. at one of the houses owned by Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Asheville. There is no cost to attend.
“There is definitely a need for this type of support,” says Christy. “We’ve had people drive from Charlotte, Greenville, and other areas in Western North Carolina. Some might visit just once, while others return often and then again to lend support to others. I’ve noticed a common thread over the years: 99 percent of the participants are either childless or have no children living at home. Their animals take on more of a significate role, becoming the center of their lives. It’s a very special bond. This doesn’t mean those with family members under one roof care less about pets or don’t need support in the grieving process. It simply shows that they have an immediate circle of loved ones to help work things out together.”
During the monthly get-togethers, individuals have an opportunity to share and listen. At first, some might be overcome with such raw emotion they’re unable to express themselves, but after a visit or two, words and feelings come pouring out. Christy is there to guide them, providing gentle advice and reassurance with helpful handouts on ways to cope with loss and a list of resources for all ages, children and adults.
One suggestion from her list is especially comforting: Pick a meaningful way to memorialize your pet. Create a scrapbook, keep a journal, plant a tree, write a poem, or donate money in your pet’s name to a charity for animals. If so inclined, work out your feelings in clay or on canvas with paints or collage. Imagine planting fall bulbs that blossom into bright yellow daffodils in the spring. What a glorious tribute to a cherished pet.
“Each time we gather, my heart fills with emotion,” says Christy. “Helping others heal is my way of honoring the bond that humans and animals share. Unconditional love that never fades.”
For more information on the Pet Loss Support Group, call Christy Gunther at 828.258.3229 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.