A unique program at VCA South Shore (Weymouth) Animal Hospital in South Weymouth, MA not only supports clients when a pet passes away, but provides support in the difficult weeks, months or years afterward. It’s a different perspective in animal health that extends care to the humans forever changed by relationships with their pets.
Recognizing a need
VCA South Shore Weymouth is a full-service medical facility that offers primary, emergency and specialty care. After witnessing a tragic situation in the emergency room one day, Kelly Drescher Johnson, M.Div., CTP, a client services representative at VCA South Shore Weymouth, had an idea for a program that would support owners not just during a pet loss, but afterward as well.
Together, Kelly and Susan Holt, DVM, PGRS-C, a veterinarian at VCA North Main Street Veterinary Clinic in Brockton, who is certified in grief counseling for pet loss, created the pet loss support group at VCA South Shore Weymouth. The group offers support for anyone struggling with the loss or imminent loss of a pet in a judgement free space. They meet one night a week as well as one Friday afternoon a month. Meetings are open to everyone – not just VCA clients – extending the care beyond the hospital’s walls and into the community.
“Our relationships with our pets have changed over the last 20 years,” explains Dr. Holt. “They used to be backyard pets, and now they sleep with us and we even plan our vacations around them. When we lose a pet, we go into shock – they are family members to us.”
Kelly is now a certified pet chaplain and trauma professional, and she serves as the hospital’s grief care counselor, offering support to clients throughout a pet’s life. Kelly’s services include visiting pets and offering blessings during inpatient care, providing support during euthanasia, and counseling clients leading up to and after a loss. Dr. Holt brings a medical perspective to the group, addressing questions that only a medical professional can answer.
When Cheryl’s beloved dog Nunzio – companion of nearly 13 years – passed away, she initially felt very alone. According to Kelly, this is a common feeling for people who are grieving the loss of a pet.
“About two weeks after a loss, the support tends to drop off,” explains Kelly. “And because our society tends to view our relationships with our pets as ‘less than’ other relationships, there is a stigma around grieving that loss.”
Cheryl was thrilled to learn about VCA South Shore Weymouth’s pet loss support group through a Facebook event promotion.
“I immediately felt very safe and validated in the support group,” says Cheryl. “Kelly and Dr. Holt are so welcoming and made me feel very comfortable. I never felt like anyone was looking at me strangely.”
Gloria, another support group member, found that it was sometimes difficult to find the words to express how she was feeling after she lost her chocolate lab, Teddy Bear.
“Sometimes hearing others speak helped me to find the words I needed to describe something that hurt so much,” says Gloria. “The support group is a community of people who understand how the love and support that pets give us can change our lives.”
In Gloria’s case, losing Teddy Bear forced her to face trauma from her past. Empowered by the positive words of wisdom she was hearing in the pet loss support group, she found the courage to break ties with an abusive family member.
“For some of us, pets gave us the unconditional love we didn’t get from people, so part of our grief journey is learning to find that love within ourselves,” explains Gloria.
Both Cheryl and Gloria say they appreciate the consistency the support group offers, since it’s one of the few that meets every week. The program has been running continuously over the last two years and lost only one week at the start of the pandemic while Kelly and Dr. Holt found a way to transition it to an online service. Most members attend weekly when they first join, then less frequently as they heal. But everyone is welcome back anytime.
“For me, it’s comforting to know that the support group always holds space for everyone to feel the pain of loss and the joy of life,” explains Gloria.
Supporting our clients
“The job of a veterinarian doesn't necessarily stop when the patient has passed,” says Dr. Holt. “We have a duty as a profession to make sure that the client is doing alright, answer any questions they may have and give clients the resources they may need to get help such as referring them to a pet loss support group or recommending books and articles to read.”
Kelly and Dr. Holt hope to eventually be able to offer continuing education seminars for veterinarians and their staff on how to approach the grieving client. Dr. Holt stresses the importance of following up with clients after a pet has passed.
“Not only is this a good way to tie up any loose ends since clients often have questions about treatments that were performed on their pets or questions about the euthanasia process itself, but it also shows that the veterinarian cares, which creates a trusting relationship between the veterinarian and the client,” she explains.
VCA Animal Hospitals is proud to provide the funding that makes the VCA South Shore Weymouth pet loss support group possible and complimentary to any pet owner in the community. If you live in the South Weymouth area and are interested in joining the group, please visit the VCA South Shore Weymouth website.
Dr. Holt has compiled a list of resources to help anyone coping with the grief of pet loss, including websites, books and articles.
““The support group is a community of people who understand how the love and support that pets give us can change our lives.””