All pet parents cope with pet loss at some point. But if and how you get pet loss help can make all the difference.
We’ve helped many Tripawds members cope with all sorts of stress and grief over the years. But that’s not easy when everyone copes differently. From dealing with a cancer diagnosis or major surgery, to end of life care, grief affects all pet parents at some time.
On this Tripawd Talk Radio Episode #116, we are honored to have clinical psychologist and Director of the Veterinary Mental Health Initiative (VMHI). She’s here to talk with us about grief and loss of dogs, cats, and other pets.
Learn How to Get Pet Loss Help That Makes a Difference
Download our Tripawd Talk Radio Pet Loss Help podcast here, or watch the video below.
Want to read about it? A transcript of our conversation with pet loss help expert Dr. Lawlor follows.
Watch Dr. Lawlor and Tripawds co-founders Rene & Jim on Tripawd Talk Radio
Dr. Katie Lawlor is a clinical psychologist interested in veterinary medicine especially when it comes to the human-animal bond, grief, and loss. She also helped co-found the Pet Loss Community offering grief support to pet parents. You can learn more at PetLossCommunitySupport.com.Prior to her career in clinical psychology, Katie held positions with NBC News in Beijing and New York City, the U.S. Department of State in Washington DC, and the Governorâ€™s Office of California.
Transcript: Get Help for Pet Loss and Grief Support from Community
Let’s talk a little bit about you. Why did you decide to get into this, this area?
Of course. Well, I think growing up as the very introverted, awkward middle sister of two outgoing, lovely socially graced, women, I just from a very early age, always felt more comfortable in the presence of animals. growing up, we always had a myriad of animals around. My grandma was kind of the neighborhood rescue lady. so people would drop animals off on her porch at all hours of the time. And I just really grew up helping her.
I think it was when I was in grad school for, for my doctorate, that I realized there wasn’t, a very large research base there. There wasn’t a lot of work being done around this. And, really asked my advisors, you know, what I could do to start making a mark in this field? The literature, the work just didn’t exist.
I feel so fortunate that they were so incredibly supportive. They let me write my dissertation on a related topic, and I just tried to get as much experience as I could volunteering at different assisted therapy, organizations and, and things like that both through, the VA and through Stanford Hospital, which is where I was in grad school. So, yeah, just this is such an important, the area that doesn’t give the attention that it deserves.
Are there others like you who do this?
There are. I think right now it’s, it’s very individual. It’s very one-off, especially for those that do pursue a master’s that do pursue a doctorate. There are efforts being made. I think it’s a matter of, this topic, getting the attention, the recognition, and then the funding to do the research that it deserves. I think we’re right at the cusp. And I think the more that we normalize it, the more that we validate it, the more that we have these type of conversations, people will be able to, to share the grief that they’re going through. you know.
I talk to so many very prominent professionals who say, you know, the loss of my pet hit me harder than Cuban loved ones. Is that normal? Is something wrong with me? I I, I can’t go and tell my boss I can’t take time off of this. Or from work for this. And, you know, it’s the whole range of, thoughts and feelings that come with the loss of a pet. And I, I think, yeah, the more that we bring it to light and, and create these types of communities, the more we can help each other.
Let’s talk about the different kinds of grief. And what you’re doing to help pet parents.
I’m so glad you brought up anticipatory grief, because I actually think anticipatory grief, and I’ve, I’ve heard this with the people that I work with, is, is almost more difficult than when they do pass. but I, I wanted to share, so there’s a, a clinical definition of grief that really resonates with me. And it’s by Mastrangelo and Wood. and it says, you know, if we look at grief, it’s a reaction to any form of loss that encompasses a range of feelings from deep sadness to anger. And the process of adapting to this loss can vary dramatically from one person to another. You know, depending on their background, their cultural belief, their relationship to what was lost, and so many other factors. And I think it’s important, I’m gonna read a list of symptoms that are very common in grief, first and foremost to normalize them.
It’s really the if and the when and the how we experience them is what makes our grief unique from human to human.
So we might experience shock and disbelief. We might feel numb, even denial that this is happening. Maybe, you know, like with that diagnosis, how can this be, I take such great care of my pet, we might feel sadness, despair, loneliness, emptiness, guilt, regret, shame, anger, resentment. Those are what I call the sticky ones. Iâ€™m happy to dive, more into those, those are the really tough ones.
And then with those, those are one we might consider therapy or, or higher level of care, we could feel really anxious or insecure. Fear of the future. Fear of the unknown. And then I also wanna point out that we could feel a lot of physical symptoms as well. So fatigue, nausea, sickness ignites with heart palpitations, panic attacks, and insomnia. Those are really common in grief as well. And so, again, I say that to normalize, to validate grief looks so different in, in everyone. and that’s due to, because we’re all unique individuals.
When we are feeling grief, how do we know what we are feeling is normal?
That’s an outstanding question. So I think, and I, I put normal in my hand air quotes, because I think when I hear the word normal, we might think expected, predictable, normal kind of equates to healthy, more of that universal hu human experience than it is really healthy to grieve. You have, you have to grieve when we start stuffing things down or, or distracting ourselves or numbing ourselves out, I like to say that everything that’s on the inside is eventually gonna find its way out. And, and grieving is the healthiest process for that.
Now what, what that process, whether it’s talking to other people, spending time in nature, you know, what, what the grieving process is gonna be unique. But, I think there is, you can say that there is a normal grief. there’s a really good, I think he’s brilliant, but, his name’s William Warden and he has, four tasks of mourning.
And I always share these, with the people I work with. And the acronym is Peter, and I’ll go through it really briefly, but he says that to really Process normal grief, the tea is to accept the reality. We have to somehow accept what’s happening. Either the, the pet has received this grave diagnosis, the pet has passed, we’ve gotta accept the reality of the loss, ease for experience. It, we can’t, again, distract it, numb it out, stuff it away.
We have to go through it. The A is for adapting to our new environment, whether that’s the loss of the limb or, or the loss of the pet, adapting to that environment when that loss is not, when the loss is there or when the pet is not there. And then r is to reinvest in our new reality without them or, or with that loss. And if we can go through that, that’s the healthiest way, to process that grief in a, in a normalized way, if you will.
TRIPAWDS: I like the reinvestment framing. Because it does, does take effort and time and, and money and, and things to, and, you know, lots of effort to get there rather than just getting over it.
DR. LAWLOR: You know, it’s interesting too, the reason I really am glad you asked this question is that, in the latest version of the DSM five, which stands for the, any mental health clinician will know, that stands for the Diagnostic and St. Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They came out with the latest version, version in March, 2022. And there is a diagnosis in there called Prolonged Grief Disorder. I’m happy to give an overview for that, but that’s the first time recently that grief has shown up in this manual of, of mental disorders.
I think it can be helpful if, you know, let’s say if you were going to a clinician, what they might consider as, as a concern as compared to what we just discussed, more normal grief. And, according to the DSM five, prolonged grief disorder is present when, after the death of someone close, at least a year earlier.
I certainly would count animals among this, the person who’s grieving experiences intense yearning or preoccupation plus at least three of the following eight symptoms I’m gonna read. So an identity disruption, not knowing who you are without your pet, disbelief that the loss has happened. Avoidance, you don’t wanna go near your feelings or thoughts. intense emotional pain, difficulties moving on, numbness, a sense that life is meaningless and, loneliness. And those would have to last for at least one month. that’s when we might start as a clinician to get a bit concerned about your well-being. If we were, if you were coming to me and I was seeing that we might make a plan for, for therapy.
How do we know when we need pet loss therapy?
Well, of course, and I think this, again, another very outstanding, helpful question. I think it depends on how aware support resonates with you. So I think, you know, for some of us in those first few surreal days and months, either after the diagnosis or after the loss, some of us might find introverts among us, might find comfort and soulless in doing things that we love, being outside, being in nature or just in that, in amongst our real closest loved ones. But for some of us though, especially if we’re, you know, if we really crave that human contact or we’re more extroverted, we, we find our strength in our peace than others, then that’s my, that’s maybe where I might recommend a support group for that validation, the normalizing aspect, because everyone will have that shared experience.
If you’re finding yourself really stuck in your grief, you know, perhaps you aren’t able to move on after that year long period, or you’re not functioning, you’re not able to take care of yourself personally and professionally, you’re not able to go to work.
Or even let’s say the loss was traumatic or it was sudden and unexpected, maybe you’re feeling guilty cuz you didn’t recognize the symptoms. And I have a whole, you know, other thing to say about that, animals are so stoic and with all the vets that I’ve worked with, it’s, it can be so difficult, to recognize these things. Or perhaps, you’re feeling, guilt because you couldn’t afford a higher level of care. Maybe they needed all these medications and surgeries or, you know, maybe there’s ambiguity around the, they went missing, or you weren’t there when they passed and so you don’t know fully what happened.
That’s when I think therapy can be really be helpful because in therapy you hone in on the aspects of your grief that are causing you the most suffering. you know, whether it’s unhelpful thinking patterns, you know, the term for that is cognitive distortions or intrusive thoughts or image images, maybe some trauma there. panic attacks. That’s when a therapist would use evidence-based treatments and gold standard coping skills, to really help you, to help you in the process. So I hope that might be helpful, just kinda differencing out, when support versus seeing a licensed clinician.
Can everyone benefit if they get pet loss help from others?
Absolutely. So I think that with these support groups, you know, you’re showing up, loss is so vulnerable, right? Sometimes our closest loved ones may not fully understand the impact that this diagnosis or the amputation or the loss is, is having on us. And I think this is a tough one to hear because, you know, if we reach out to those, those friends, those loved ones who don’t get it, I have a, a very close friend and she is, you know, she’s not an animal person. And if I went to her, she wouldn’t understand and she wouldn’t be able to give me what I need in that moment.
I think part of, reaching out to a support group, going to a support group is understanding the help that you’re, that you’re seeking, that you’re searching for, and, and people that can meet those expectations. If we go and we’re around people that don’t get it, or, you know, like you said, they’re with someone that said, when are you gonna get a new dog? then we’re reeling our really setting ourselves up to be hurt even worse. so I think the best the court groups are, you’re surrounding yourself with love and understanding, validation by people who’ve been there. And, and that can really give you what you need.
Is there a difference between just going to Facebook and, and baring your soul? Hoping that people will get it? Versus getting support with people who understand?
Well, there’s been, you know, social media who’s thinking about this last night? because Facebook came during my senior year of college, and so I feel like I’ve had, you know, those 20 plus years now with, with Facebook. and I think you really named the word that I would use too. superficial, there’s been a lot of studies done that social media actually in the long term can be quite, can make us quite depressed. People often, you know, show, only one side, to themselves on, on social media.
Certainly people can post kind things, but do you know that person? Are you forming a real connection with them?
I would also question what are their motives? You know, is is it someone you don’t know, in, in reaching out or, or making this larger display? Sometimes that can feel really empty. I would imagine, I, I think when, certainly when I’m grieving, I, I want those more quiet moments. And I want a real connection with someone that, seems to understand, even if it’s just listening, they really don’t have to say anything at all. But that I just know that I can open up to and feel really safe. I think sometimes social media does not feel safe.
TRIPAWDS: I’m guessing it could actually be harmful and detrimental to the person if they’re putting out like a real heartfelt plea for help in what, you know, someone just sees in the dooms scrolling as another post and gives them the superficial, oh yeah, you’ll be fine. You know, he, he’ll be, he’s by your side. Whereas you turn to a community of support and, and you get the help from people who understand.
DR. LAWLOR: No, I think that’s exactly it. If, if you share, you know, the depths of your devastation, you know, my animals are my soul. If I’m going on it and bearing my soul and it doesn’t get met, with the support that I’m clearly looking for in that moment, that’s just gotta feel. I would think that would, exacerbate any kind of loneliness, emptiness, isolation that you’re feeling. I think social media is wonderful for so many things, but, but a real grief connection, that, that would be difficult.
Tell us about the pet loss community that you’ve been involved with
Of course. So how the pet loss community came to be, I think it actually was, a product of the pandemic. and certainly there’s no silver linings to a pandemic where so many people passed away, but before, you know, I didn’t even know what Zoom was. At the start of the pandemic, now we live our lives on it, right? But I had, facilitated the, support group for the Sacramento SPCA. they are wonderful. this was before COVID, it was in person and, it was once a month and we had such a response.
It was just such a beautiful community that was so supportive. And, you know, we had new members every month, but then we also had people that had been coming for more than a year just because of the, the camaraderie and the trust that we were able.
Obviously when, when the pandemic, happened, we weren’t able to do that anymore. and there was such a need, you know, loss is just so isolating, right? It’s so lonely. We just, that’s what it, we want to isolate. We, we, you know, we don’t know how we’re gonna be able to go on with our lives. And so this was a platform that let people come together. And I think it was done in a very well-intentioned way that, that kept the group very small, kept it at a, you know, a cap of 10 so that those who wanted to speak could share. There was quality time, there was, there was ways to build those connections.
In addition to the groups, there is a, a private to think, to your point, exactly, a private Facebook page, that people could share on. But it’s really, when you have those, those conversations, those very human dialogues, that I think that’s what brings, brings healing. Certainly not the, you know, the, the small, the one-off or the, the emojis or the hope you feel better soon.
When it comes to pet loss versus human loss, how are they different?
I think it’s just the way our, our society, especially in, in the United States, deals with, with loss. I think that, you know, when we lose a human loved one, there is such an outpouring of, of concern and of, of help. We have human rituals, you know, usually there’s a memorial service or a funeral or, you know, some sort of religion, religious or spiritually based processes that, that we go through that are, you know, tied to morning, that are tied to bereavement.
There’s bereavement leave for humans. There’s not bereavement leave for animals, even though so many of us would benefit from that, you know, and I think that we feel I’ll be really, I’ll be really honest. I’ll, I’ll offer an example. I had a rabbit, and he passed away very unexpectedly, in August of 2020.
And I remember, there was no way that I could have come into work that week and served even though I’ve had so much training, and experience. I could not be there for the, the women that I worked with. But I was too nervous to tell. There was a barrier to me telling my boss that my rabbit had passed away and I was gonna need the week off.
I just don’t think it is, it has reached a level where it’s recognized as a true, devastating, profound loss, at least not in this country. Just in society in large, you know, exactly to what you were speaking to the US is a very, it, it, it’s very focused on the good and the happy and the best. And I think that ties into exactly what we were talking about with social media as well. That’s, that’s what people we’re not comfortable with grief in this country. let alone the, the grief involved with losing a pet.
Just especially being based in Palo Alto, the hub, you know, Silicon Valley. And, and, some of the clients I worked with were very recognizable names, and they were saying, you know, I, with these massive companies, and they’re saying, “You know, I, I’m devastated. I lost my parakeet. This is, this is my best friend. This is who I came home to every day!”
Wou know, with humans, even our closest loved ones with our partners, with, you know, our siblings, have very best friends. Those relationships are very complex and dynamic, with our animals. It’s unconditional love, it’s stability. They have been with us through the highs and lows, the job losses, the divorces. we really come to rely on that unconditional love. And again, even in the best human relationships, there’s highs and lows and, and, and, you know, different personality types. It’s, it’s a, it’s a different dynamic than what we experienced with our animals.
How can we support people as they’re going through the loss of their pet?
Absolutely. I think to speak first to that, I think, there are a few things that you can say and, and I do wanna caveat, you know, I think some of us are so afraid of saying the wrong thing. we don’t wanna make it work. but I think if you really think about what your loved one is going through and, and wanting to be there for them, I, I really don’t think you can go wrong, but if people do want examples, here are some. So, you know, things you can say are, my favorite thing about your animal was, or this must be so deeply hard for you. you were a great dog dad. You were a great cat mom. I’m here for you. do you wanna talk about it? Things not to say:
When are you gonna get another pet?
It was just a dog. It was just a cat, it wasn’t a human.
You know, this is, this is one that surprises people, but:
Did you try this? did you try that?
I get it, but it’s totally, it’s not helpful, because it’s gonna make the, the pet parent, you know, push in their own actions or, or re ruminate on it in their head. it’s time to move on. Let’s talk about something happier. oh gosh. I know, and you’d be surprised, I think too, if you are afraid of saying the wrong thing or you don’t know what to say.
Little acts of kindness go such a long way.
Leave a meal outside on their porch, leave a a potted plant, a gift card, anything. And, and my, I’m a huge fan, again, in the context of me being a huge introvert of sending a text that says, you know, no need to text me back because you, you know, text texting is so transactional. you know, a text goes unanswered and you feel all this pressure to, to, to write back, but something you could do is no need to text me back. Just wanna let you know I’m thinking about you and I’m here If I can be helpful in any way, it’s as simple as simple as that. Or slide a, you know, write a card and slide it under, slide it under their door.
I think the greatest action we can give to someone that’s grieving is just to be there and not say anything at all.
Just to, to let them share if they want to. you know, about the memories about, about their pet. And so many, so many people think that those memories are gonna fade. They’re not, you’re gonna have people get someone scared, I’m gonna forget this. I’m gonna forget that. I can promise you you’re not. And it can be helpful to write them down or to make a, you know, a little video diary on your phone. No one ever has to see it if you are concerned about those memories going away. But they won’t. I, they, they won’t.
How do we know when getting another animal is the right thing to do?
I think this is a brilliant question, and this is the question I get asked the most second only to guilt. There seems to be so much guilt, when it comes to loss of our animals. And I think a large part of that is cuz we can’t talk to them. We haven’t figured out a way how to talk to them and ask, you know, their final wishes or, or reassure them. And that’s on us. and I’d love to discuss that too cuz I, I think we’re right.
Science is right on the cusp of fully recognizing how sentient and brilliant animals are. so with regards to knowing when is the right time, this is absolutely unique to every individual. I think as animal lovers, we have so much love to give and our animals are a huge part of our core identity and our, our value, in life.
Some people go to the shelter (the next day) and they bring home a new love. And some people wait years.
I think it, as long as you’re not doing it as a band-aid, this is not going to erase or get rid of the pain of the previous loss. Certainly it can help, but it’s not going to, I think a lot of people do it to just distract from, from the pain. And that you have to process that at some point. and I think you have to also realize that this is an entirely different creature.
This, this animal’s gonna have its unique personality, it’s quirks, it’s it’s mannerisms. And I have heard, you know, occasionally that when someone adopts too soon, they’re almost angry at the new pet because hasn’t replaced the pet. They, they wanted it to be that that replacement or they, they don’t understand where they’re still sad about the loss of the previous pet.
I think cognitively we know that this is, you know, again, a unique, a unique animal, but the feeling wise in our heart and our soul, our body, it won’t have dealt with the loss yet. so that’s my, that’s my caveat to bringing in a new love to just make sure you really have processed the pain from, from the previous pets loss.
You’d mentioned guilt. Let’s touch on that.
TRIPAWDS: I know that a lot of people, myself included, felt terrible for not catching my dog’s limp. And, and I saw it too late. there are people in our community who are part of the, the veterinary community. I tend to see that they take it even harder. And I think it’s when you know too much the, the reality of a situation like this hits you even harder.
DR. LAWLOR: Sure. I think the, the main component with guilt is this feeling or these thoughts that we should have been able to recognize the symptoms or, or we, we could have, we should have, we should have been able to stop the diagnosis from happening or stop the death from happening. And so what happens is when we look at the event through that kinda painted distorted viewpoint, oh, I should have been able to do something more. we get really stuck. because that’s not the reality of this situation.
So how we get out of that is we have to go back to that time. And most of us don’t wanna do that cuz it’s so painful. We don’t wanna go back to those last final months, or we don’t wanna go back to the final day, but we need to have a realistic recollection of what actually happened.
You probably were paying very close attention. And you probably did your absolute best. You probably spent as much as you as you could on treatment. But we, we really, as humans, I think berate ourselves and just really are cruel to the point, where we just kind of decimate ourselves. because in a really twisted way, it’s, it’s easier to be mad at ourselves than it is to deal with the grief that they’re no longer here. They have the diagnosis. But, that’s where the guilt comes from, this kind of distorted viewpoint that I should have been able to be superhuman or I should be able to recognize this.
I think for vets and, and vet techs, yes, it’s even worse because this is their clinical training.
This is what they’ve devoted their lives to. They know all the science, they know too much. They know everything. We could try this, we could do this, we could try, you know, this treatment. but at the end of the day, we’re all just humans, doing our absolute very best. But I, I do think that’s where guilt comes from that a lot of times it’s just easier to be so much mad at so, so mad at ourselves than it is to, deal with, with the loss and, and adjusting to that.
What is the Veterinary Mental Health Initiative doing aside from raising awareness?
Veterinarians, veterinary technicians, everyone in the VetMed community, they, they go into this profession because they love animals. They love caring for animals. They love, and, and in that way they care for us, right? The, the parents. But a lot of times they’re on the front lines of abuse and neglect. veterinary medicine is very different from human medicine. There is a cost aspect upfront. You know, when I was working, did two years of training on an inpatient unit, we would never turn away anyone because of their inability to pay. That is not the case in, in several vet practices. They, they can’t, these, it costs money to do these procedures and these medications cost money. you know, they’ve really devoted their entire lives to being able to help animals.
And there’s so many barriers to that that are really outside of their control. I think that can lend itself to, we do see higher rates of anxiety, of depression, of suicidal ideation in the VetMed community compared to the, the general population. And I really think it stems from them wanting to be of help. there are limitations to that because this is a human society.
How the VMHI actually came to be was in the fall of 2020. A very good friend of mine who is also a veterinarian, reached out. I was still, in private practice at the time at a women’s clinic in Palo Alto. And she said, “I have a client who unfortunately her dog was just killed in a hit and run accident. She’s having a very difficult time. Could you see her for therapy?” And I said, gosh, Kathy, the suspect’s name is Kathy. I said “I would be honored to. But because you know of the dual relationship in human medicine, I’m friends with you, she’s your client. That’s a dual relationship. Ethically that would not be a good fit. But let’s, let’s jump on a Zoom. We’ll get her connected to care. Let’s do that.”
And so it was in that, coffee zoom date that, Kathy, this very experienced veterinarian with decades of experience, highly, highly regarded in the VetMed community, really started saying, “You know, I, I tried my hardest. I feel like I I failed you. You know, I, I’m doing everything that I can.” And the client was very understanding and she said, “Gosh, Kathy, I know you’ve been my vet for 30 years.”
Of course I know this. And it was then that the client who is, a well known philanthropist in San Francisco, who’s able to make things happen very quickly. They said, “Gosh, you have to do something about this. There has to be a supportive place for, for vets!” So we started with a pilot program in the spring of, of last year. And what we offer are, support groups, for vets. And we also now have them for everyone in the VetMed community. they’re fixed consecutive weeks for an hour. and they’re on Zoom. They’re open for the first two weeks, but then closed for the reasons we discussed to really build that trust and camaraderie. They’re not recorded again because with the social media and the technology, we, it’s harder to create that safe, safe. and then we also offer individual sessions or private sessions, for vets.
The vet community is really small. There’s only, about 120,000 vets in this country.
When you think of all the animals and all the people! Yeah, that’s not very much. We get some very prominent vets where their presence might, be difficult for others to share and fully disclose. Maybe they sit on a board or, or a foundation. And then oftentimes it’s the first foray into any kind of mental health services.
We hear a lot, that vets are supposed to be able to, to do their job. Just like you said. In exam room one, they have a new puppy and the family’s just bubbling over with joy. And then in exam room two, they’re doing a humane euthanasia for a cat they’ve known and treated for 20 years. Then in exam rooms three, they have to give very grave, prognostic results. And then maybe an exam room four, they have a pet who showing up with the symptoms that their own pet passed away with. They have maybe 30 seconds in the hallway to regroup. I think it’s just, bringing public awareness of, the very, complex aspects of the VetMed community.
Where can people learn most about the community support for pet parents and this health initiative? The mental health initiative for vets and techs?
Anyone can email me. The Veterinary Mental Health Initiative is a, program of Shanti. This is a beloved Bay Area institution for almost 50 years. They can reach me there. And then, for purposes of connecting, because I do think that’s what social media is great for. @PetLossPsychologist or at Veterinary Mental Health is, the webpage. And then I know the parent loss community, you were kind enough to share the, website earlier. They have their own, Instagram page as well @petlosscommunity.