(MNN) -- My sister's dog served as our feisty family mascot for more than a decade. Her death from a seizure earlier this year felt as if someone ripped a branch from our family tree, and the loss still hurts. That's why I was intrigued when Paws, Whiskers and Wags, the Georgia pet crematory that handled Daisy's remains, introduced monthly group grief counseling sessions.
Licensed clinical social worker Christy Simpson facilitates the group sessions with a dose of Southern charm and plenty of compassion as attendees share their stories. Eventually, most walk away realizing that they are not alone. Even Simpson has a tale of loss -- coupled with the need for help coping with pet grief.
"I've spent 20 years in the mental health field and I saw a dearth of these services," she says. "I'm also an animal lover and I had a euthanasia experience with a beloved cat. I wanted help, but could not find a counselor in Georgia that specialized in this."
To expand her private practice and help other pet owners, Simpson is studying to be a pet loss counselor through the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. Psychologist Dr. Wallace Sife, author of "The Loss of a Pet," founded the organization and runs the certification program, which explains how people grieve the loss of a pet.
"For the most part, the stages are similar; you deal with shock and denial, anger and distancing, guilt, depression," Simpson says. "But the final stage is not closure, it is resolution. You grieve and want to move forward in a way that memorializes them."
She also notes that everyone handles the loss differently. For many, the grief can be more acute when a pet has been euthanized.
My friend William of Atlanta felt guilty at the very thought of having his dog, Jerome, euthanized -- even as he watched his faithful companion of 12 years endure a dramatic, two-year decline.
"He had given me a lot of joy for many years, and I owed Jerome when he was not at his best. I was paying him back for all the good years," William said of the decision not to euthanize. (William asked that only his first name be used for privacy reasons.)
William and his partner witnessed Jerome becoming more fragile. A dog that never soiled his bedding suddenly had accidents on a daily basis. At night, Jerome paced the hardwood floors nonstop. He had to be carried up the outdoor steps. But on nice days, Jerome seemed happy sunbathing on the porch. William and his partner adjusted to the new normal -- until someone slipped a note under their door.
"It said, 'Put the dog out of his misery,'" William says. "I booked an appointment the next day. We thought we were sacrificing for Jerome for being so good to us, but we didn't have the guts to do what he needed us to do."
If you are suffering with the loss of a pet, here are some tools to find relief.
Find a support group
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement offers a list of pet bereavement support groups in several states. Most humane societies also offer group sessions. Psychotherapist Marcia Breitenbach recommends this approach because it allows pet owners to see that they are not alone. If your community does not have a pet grief group, she suggests attending bereavement group sessions, which typically are offered at churches or hospitals.
Give yourself permission to grieve
Even if others do not understand the loss, Breitenbach and Simpson say that it's important to take time to grieve.
"One of the things that astounds me is when people say, 'It's just a cat, you can get another one.' But they would never say at a funeral, to a widow, 'there's more fish in the sea,'" says Breitenbach. "It's hilarious to think about that, and yet we do say that to someone who lost a family member -- they just happened to be furry or feathered or slithery or whatever."
Ask loved ones for space to heal
Feelings of guilt and isolation can fester if loved ones are not supportive. Breitenbach notes that many mates are simply uncomfortable with their partner's grief.
"They want it to go away and they want it like it used to be," she says.
Be honest with your employer
If the grieving process extends to the workplace, Breitenbach suggests open communication with supervisors. It helps to be specific about what you need. It might be as simple as saying that you may need a bathroom break to have a good cry, or it may be that you will have a funeral tomorrow and would like time off.
Use the loss as a teaching opportunity for kids
Most children under the age of 5 do not have a real concept of death, so the loss can be a teaching opportunity. Simpson recommends that children be part of the grieving process, as long as it is age-appropriate. That may mean allowing children to participate in the burial or help select a memorial.
"So many of us want to shelter our children from suffering," she says. "They know what's going on. When you let them say goodbye to the remains, you normalize grief in general."
Step out -- even if it hurts
Breitenbach suggests enrolling in activities that you could not pursue when you had a pet. Try a new cooking class or continuing education course that takes you out of the house at least once a week.
In time, consider another pet
Simpson says that you will know when it's time to adopt another pet. To avoid feeling disloyal to your deceased pet, she suggests approaching the process slowly. Visit an animal shelter or a foster organization, but don't commit.
"It's a subjective feeling," she says. "Most of us know when it's time to go back out there. You can't push. "
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