A grief like no other: Why I became a pet bereavement counsellor

·5 min read
Pet bereavement counsellor Wendy Andrew with her dog Miss Pixie (The Faithful Hound Photography)
Pet bereavement counsellor Wendy Andrew with her dog Miss Pixie (The Faithful Hound Photography)

Dogwalker Wendy Andrew picked up the phone and immediately heard the distress in the woman’s voice at the other end of the line.

"It was one of the owners of a lovely cocker spaniel called Belle who I’d been walking since she was a puppy," says Andrew, 45, from Glasgow. 

"She was very upset because Belle had somehow broken into a packet of ibuprofen and was at the vets and it wasn’t clear or not whether she would pull through.

"The owner was clearly very shocked and I stayed on the telephone hoping that I was saying the right things and giving comfort but I wasn’t sure if I was saying exactly the right kind of thing. 

"Thankfully, Belle did pull through but I knew from that moment if I was ever in that position again, I wanted to help in the best way I could."

Andrew signed up for a Pet Bereavement Counselling Course with the International School for Canine Psychology and Behaviour (ISCP) and has now set up the Scottish Pet Bereavement Counselling Service, helping pet owners grieve for their beloved animals.

Read more: Celebrities and their dogs: Why our pet pooches mean so much to us

Wendy Andrew says people suffer grief differently when their pets die (The Faithful Hound Photography)
Wendy Andrew says people suffer grief differently when their pets die (The Faithful Hound Photography)

"Unfortunately dogs don’t live as long as humans, so it’s sad and inevitable that they will often die before us and I’ve had several clients lose their pets over the four years I’ve been dog walking," says Andrew. 

"But the grief we experience as pet owners is often what is termed ‘disenfranchised grief’ meaning that it’s not supported or acknowledged by society.

"So often, people will say: ‘Oh it’s just a dog or cat’ and ‘Will you get another one?’ They don’t take into account the incredible human-companion animal bond that people feel and it makes the owners feel invalidated. 

"If my own dog Miss Pixie died tomorrow, I couldn’t think about getting another dog so soon. Besides, you wouldn’t say to a newly widowed person: ‘Will you marry again?’"

Read more: Who gets custody of the dog? Couples urged to sign a pet-nup

Andrew is one of a network of pet bereavement counsellors across the UK who offer sessions to bereaved animal lovers. 

Charging £35 per hour, she conducts her sessions across Skype or WhatsApp and says most clients book block sessions of six hours. She says people suffer grief differently when it comes to animals.

"There are all the normal stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – but with pet loss there is also a lot of anticipatory grief because often owners themselves will choose to put their pet down so they will know that their pet is about to die," says Andrew. 

Read more: Dog theft on the rise: Simple steps to protect your pooch

"This can actually be a beneficial thing. You experience a crash course of emotions before the animal has actually died and this can mean that the person is more ready for the inevitable grief that comes afterwards.

"It also means that you can say goodbye properly to your pet, take them to their favourite place, give them their favourite food and make lots of memories.

"But with euthanasia also comes the guilt and that is something that many of my clients struggle with after a pet has been put down. 

"I try to give them coping strategies. I’ve qualified as a meditation therapist and I’ve studied nutrition, because even simple things like drinking less caffeine can help reduce the heightened feelings of grief in a person."

Watch: Things to do when your dog dies to help you through the transition

During the pandemic Andrew decided to write a book for those affected by pet loss. 

"I knew that people were losing their jobs and their pets and this was a really low-cost alternative for people to access counselling," she says. 

"It’s also a way for someone to support someone who is grieving. If they don’t know what to say, they can simply give them this book."

Wendy Andrew says even simple things like drinking less caffeine can help reduce heightened feelings of grief (Vera Cloe Zebrowska Photographer)
Wendy Andrew says even simple things like drinking less caffeine can help reduce heightened feelings of grief (Vera Cloe Zebrowska Photographer)

One important chapter in the book covers how to handle pet grief with children. As someone who lost her own dog – Honey – in a terrible accident when she was just a child, Andrew says she has some insight into how to handle grief with youngsters.

"Often a pet death is the first death that a child experiences and it’s so important to deal with it correctly," she says.

"My biggest tip for children is to never use the phrase ‘put to sleep’ about an animal. This can lead to anxiety for the child when it comes to their own sleep or their family falling asleep. 

"Instead, be age-appropriate and as honest as possible. Lead by example. Show them that it’s ok to be emotional about losing the family pet and that it’s ok to cry and talk.’

Unfortunately over the last year, Andrew has seen an increase in owners who are bereaved – but not necessarily through the death of their pet.

"There’s been an increase in pets being stolen and that means owners are bereaved but with the added stress of not knowing what has happened to their pet – whether it’s being kept in a loving home or being kept for dog fighting or breeding and I see owners who are torturing themselves with guilt," she says. "My aim is to help as many of them as I can."

Watch: Companies now offering pet bereavement leave for employees

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