Even Candi Nilsson, an avid animal lover, was skeptical a first. A pet bereavement support group?
Although she had mourned her share of beloved pets, Ms. Nilsson, director of humane education at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Annapolis, had trouble picturing people sitting in a circle sharing their grief over departed schnauzers.
But she wasn't about to dismiss the idea, either. After all, the SPCA had been getting calls for years from veterinarians seeking help for clients who had slipped into depression after a pet died or was euthanized.
After consulting with people who ran such groups in Virginia and Montgomery County, she became convinced it was a good idea. Now the SPCA of Anne Arundel County offers a group once a month, with sessions conducted by a licensed clinical social worker.
The first 90-minute session was held early this month and attracted 10 people.
The next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 14, at the SPCA shelter on Bay Ridge Avenue.
It sounds like the continuing Oprahfication of America. But Ms. Nilsson, the owner of a bullmastiff and three cats, said: "There is a need out there, but people don't like to talk about it."
To many people, "the pet is a member of the family," she said, and the death of a pet may prompt severe feelings of loss.
Yet pet owners often find friends, family members and co-workers rather unsympathetic. Bereaved pet owners are not likely to receive sympathy cards, consoling phone calls or visitors -- rather, perhaps suggestions that they justget another animal.
"In this society, we're not allowed to grieve for pets," said Ms. Nilsson.
Linda Collard of Annapolis had two dogs die in 1990. She said the pain when a pet dies can be as deep as losing a friend or family member.
"The feelings are so similar, yet the outlets [for grief] aren't there," said Ms. Collard, who does volunteer work for the SPCA in Annapolis.
"Lots of times very intense feelings come up and it scares people," said Christine Larragoite, the social worker who runs the sessions. "They think they're a little crazy."
That thought crossed Ms. Nilsson's mind when she found herself bursting suddenly into tears, months after her dog, Buster, died.
"I would be driving and something would trigger a memory of Buster and I would start crying," she said. "I'd say, 'You're a jerk.' "
Suzanne Lemitch, an administrative aide at the Humane Society of Montgomery County in Rockville, said: "I was surprised at how hard I grieved" after the death of her cat, a companion of 14 years. "I was surprised at how long it took to get over it."
Ms. Lemitch said the monthly support group started in Montgomery County about two years ago and usually draws fewer than 10 people to each session.
The Washington area's first pet bereavement group formed in 1987 in Fairfax County, Va. Carol Taylor, humane education specialist at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter, said the monthly meetings attract five to 20 people.
"Some people want to know 'Is what I'm feeling normal? I never expected to feel this bad,' " Ms. Taylor said.
Because pet owners don't usually go through outward expressions of grieving, it can be harder to accept the loss, said Ms. Larragoite, who specializes in bereavement counseling.
She urges people to conduct a grieving ritual for a lost pet and keep a journal of their thoughts and feelings, as a way to face "the reality of it."
Ms. Larragoite, who owns two dogs, said in some cases the loss of a pet merely unleashes pent-up emotion from a previous trauma. But she does not dismiss the anguish that can accompany the loss of an animal's "unqualified love."
The sadness in many cases is deepened by guilt when the owner has been compelled to have the pet euthanized.
The process of watching a pet's health decline, then facing the decision about euthanasia, is agonizing, pet owners say.
"It was probably one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make in my life," said Ms. Taylor. She turned to the support group after having her dog euthanized in March.
Ms. Collard said a woman in the Fairfax group told the gathering that for months after having her dog euthanized she could not shake the image of the animal's eyes, in the last moments, looking up at her for reassurance.
Ms. Collard recalled her husband, John, returning home from the veterinarian's office in 1990 after having his dog of 21 years euthanized. He immediately began throwing away the dog's bowls and toys.
He did not want to talk about it. He said he had just watched his friend die.