Animal Grief Support Group Helps the Healing Process
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Anyone who has experienced the agony of grief knows that it’s harsh and unrelenting, especially during those first several weeks and months when you are trying to find steady ground in an upended world. Typically, what gets us through those difficult days is the support we receive from friends, family, colleagues, counselors and maybe a support group. But what about when we have to say goodbye to a beloved pet? It’s not that society is unfeeling, but sometimes grief is discounted when the loss is “just an animal,” and there is no animal grief support.
“Grieving animals is a form of disenfranchised grief, which occurs when your loss goes against cultural norms and therefore isn’t seen as valid, understandable or acceptable,” says Reverend Joel Tishken, a part-time minister at Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Hendricks County (UUCCHC).
In the summer of 2021 Tishken took part in a training through the Association for Veterinary Pastoral Education. In March of 2022 he started a monthly Animal Grief Support Group (sponsored by UUCCHC) to provide a safe space for anyone who is grieving the death of a pet, and for individuals who work with animals on a regular basis.
“In the case of disenfranchised grief, some people have choked down a story for decades because when they tried to deal with their pain, they got hurtful reactions,” Tishken says. “As a result, they keep choking down that hurt and grief for a long time because they don’t feel there is a soft place to land that story.”
This is precisely why Tishken wanted to offer an animal grief support group.
“This is a grief that is otherwise going unaddressed,” he says. “The goal with this group is to provide a pastoral service to the community that you’re not going to find anywhere else.”
The idea was conceived by animal chaplain Reverend Russell Elleven, who trained a handful of chaplains in this area. The support group follows a small-group model, meaning that each participant takes a turn to speak, saying whatever is on their heart. The rest of the participants do not respond, but rather just provide a listening ear.
“The idea is simply to be a supportive and loving presence to the others,” Tishken says. “It’s for people to be able to speak their heart without any judgment. You don’t have to stifle or qualify what you are saying.”
Tishken notes that when it comes to animal grief, society often mutes or minimizes it. As a result, the grieving person is hesitant to open up.
“It’s hard to be vulnerable when you know you’re going to get hurt,” Tishken says. “In this case, people don’t have to have any of those worries because we simply thank them for sharing their heart.”
Following the death of either a human or a pet, many people are prone to offering remarks like, “It’s God’s plan,” or, “They’re at peace now.”
“The problem is that if that isn’t your worldview, it’s not helpful at all,” Tishken says. “In fact, it can be hurtful.”
Anyone who works with animals, such as veterinarians or those at animal shelters or humane societies, are also welcome to attend the support group to help them process their work, which can be emotionally taxing. As Tishken points out, suicide rates among veterinarians and vet technicians are high.
“People often take their anxiety out on veterinarians in a way that they don’t with human doctors,” Tishken says. “People have weird expectations like that they should get a price break on a certain procedure, and if the vet doesn’t agree, they accuse the vet of not loving animals. Plus, vets see humanity at its worst when they see starving or clearly neglected animals.”
Tishken, a huge animal lover himself, owns 14 adopted critters including nine cats, four guinea pigs and a bunny. As a minister and chaplain, he has led his fair share of human support groups during his career.
“Dealing with people when they are hurting – those skills are clearly transferrable to this group,” he says. Support groups can be helpful because being among a group of people, even if they are not sharing your identical situation, is healing because they can empathize in a way that others cannot.
“There is power in speaking your truth,” Tishken says.
Tishken’s Animal Grief Support Group takes place virtually on the fourth Wednesday of each month from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.