Michigan woman tackles the pain of pet loss with support group
Livonia man Brady Walker is certain he’ll see his soulmate — a sheltie named Sully — again one day.
Until then, Walker lives with the undercurrent of grief over Sully’s death two years ago at age 13.
“I think about him every single day. The grief is terrible and there’s something deep in your heart, you know this isn’t the way God planned it. This kind of love should not be separated,” Walker said. “There’s a spiritual bond between a pet and its owner that transcends beyond that between humans.”
There are many people who understand that bond Walker references, and there are other people who just don’t get it at all. But losing a beloved pet can be emotionally and physically debilitating, often equal to the grief of losing a human loved one.
Micky Golden Moore of Oakland County does get it. She started Beyond the Paw Print Pet Loss Support Group in 2009. She wanted to validate the grief and let grieving owners know they’re not alone.
The support group continues to grow in popularity, even though the monthly meetings have been conducted on Zoom rather than in person since the pandemic began. She has also now penned a book on the topic: “Tails from Beyond the Paw Print.”
“I know people have greater losses during their lifetime than the loss of a beloved animal, but that is why there’s this group because people understand that other people don’t understand,” Golden Moore said. “We don’t have to compare losses or how big the wound is in each of our hearts. We’re both grieving and need a hand to hold.”
Last Sunday, Prince William and Kate Middleton announced their dog, Lupo, passed away earlier this month. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge posted on Instagram a photo of the dog and wrote, “He has been at the heart of our family for the past nine years and we will miss him so much.”
The duchess’s brother, James Middleton, also shared a tribute via his own account, saying, “Nothing can ever prepare you for the loss of a dog. For those who have never had a dog, it might be hard to understand the loss. However for those who have loved a dog know the truth: a dog is not just a pet; it is a member of the family, a best friend, a loyal companion, a teacher and a therapist.”
Golden Moore said the royal couple’s openness about their feelings over the loss of Lupo helps bring awareness to the pain of losing a pet.
“It gives us tremendous legitimacy and it’s a tremendous validator to our group,” Golden Moore said. “He was a little boy when Princess Diana died and he was so loved. So for him to express his grief — because he lost his mother — to say he’s heartbroken for having lost his animal companion, what can be more legitimizing?”
Grieving in silence
For Lindsay Hadden of Livonia, the royal couple’s story resonates.
Hadden adopted her dog, Knuckles, as a puppy in 2007. A military wife at the time, Hadden quickly made Knuckles her daily companion as her husband was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. In the royal couple’s case, they adopted Lupo so that Middleton would have company when Prince William was away, published reports said.
Hadden, who now works for the Michigan Humane Society, formed a deep connection with Knuckles during their decade together. He was her companion, child and protector all in one. So when she had to euthanize him in 2017 at age 11, she was heartbroken and eventually hit a point where she “was so exhausted from the loss and grieving, I didn’t want to live anymore with the pain.” So she did something about it.
Her therapist suggested she find someone who specialized in pet loss grief. In 2018 she started going to Beyond the Paw Print meetings. She said they helped her accept the loss and embrace her emotional capacity to love again.
“I’m not scared of adopting another dog someday. It helped me work through the guilt that I had of, ‘Should I have done this?’ ” she said, referring to her decision to euthanize Knuckles. “But I realized I loved him so much and I couldn’t have given him a better life.”
So when she saw the royal couple’s announcement, she read it and cried.
“I am glad to see it promoted because there are so many people grieving in silence,” Hadden said. “I was in the animal rescue world and I didn’t know this support group existed.”
Class study turns real
A pet loss support group was nearly nonexistent in the fall of 2007.
That’s when Golden Moore was enrolled at Madonna University in Livonia studying hospice education and palliative studies.
Golden Moore, who is a chaplain at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland hospital, had lost both of her parents. Her father died in 2003 after a long hospice stay and her mother in 2006 to a heart attack. She enrolled in the program at school to better understand bereavement.
“I started to find my way and then my soulmate and best friend in the whole world, Pablo, my cat, was starting to suffer from senior maladies,” Golden Moore said.
In 2008, Pablo died and shortly afterward so did her other two cats, Nellie and Isabella. They were all around age 16.
“Before they died I had no idea of pet loss grief,” Golden Moore said. “I was shocked at the lack of interest, compassion or care. I couldn’t get over the way people minimized and dismissed, ridiculed and rejected the idea that a human would grieve over an animal companion.”
She talked to her professors about it and she started researching pet loss grief.
“I attended every support group I could find to observe leaders and how the group was run, but I couldn’t find a support group for pet loss anywhere,” Golden Moore said. “I went back to my professors and they said, ‘Don’t you see that through your research, you’re meant to provide the support group.’ ”
Providing a safe space
Golden Moore got busy knocking on doors to find a place where she could hold a monthly meeting for people struggling with grief over the death of a pet. Even that wasn’t easy, she said.
“You can imagine the reaction I got from the churches and synagogues asking to rent space,” she said. “People said, ‘You’re going to spend all this money and you don’t know if anyone will come?’ So it was disheartening.”
But then she called on Orchard United Methodist Church in Farmington Hills and, “without missing a beat they said, ‘We’d love to have you. We have many animal lovers in our congregation.’ “
On March 9, 2009, Beyond the Paw Print Pet Loss Support Group had its first meeting at the church with about a dozen attendees, thanks to a couple of local news stories on it and several flyers that Golden Moore spread around town.
The meetings are free, and Golden Moore provides attendees with a bereavement package she made and she pays to rent the space with her own money. She declined to say how much she spends. Her book is self-published, and it sells on Amazon for $19.95. She’s sold about 650 copies, she said.
The sign-up and meeting details are on her website. She limits the meetings to 12 to make sure everyone can share their story. Then she highlights the lessons learned from the stories. There is also a Facebook page with about 800 members. It is invitation-only, but people can share stories of pet loss there, too.
“I wanted a safe haven for people from all walks of life to come to unburden their grief without judgment,” she said.
Anger and grief
Karen Irwin of Plymouth credits the group for helping her work through the entanglement of anger and grief in 2012.
About three years earlier, in 2000, Irwin had adopted her first puppy, a golden retriever named Scout. He was 7 weeks old and she had big plans to make him a therapy dog.
They had about 3½ years together when in June 2012 Scout was killed instantly when a car hit him in front of her home. She was at work at the time, her sister was watching him.
“I had quite a bit of anger at my sister, besides the grief — which complicates your grief — so I had to overcome that as well,” Irwin said.
In October 2012, Irwin went to a Beyond the Paw Print meeting and has been attending ever since.
“It’s the best way to help you work through your grief,” Irwin said. “You really need to talk about it with people who understand.”
It also helped her forgive her sister, who participates in the online support group.
“She deals with that loss every day,” Irwin said. “I have to forgive her and I hate for her to have that memory.”
Irwin now has a German shepherd and a golden retriever, Casey, who has been a therapy dog for the past eight years. Casey has done over 200 visits at the retirement and assisted-living facility Abbey Park at Mill River in New Hudson.
In some cases, people go to the meetings without a pet death — yet.
In 2012, Shari Deeken was living in Beverly Hills when she saw a flyer at Starbucks for Beyond the Paw Print meetings. Her yellow Labrador retriever, Annie, was 14, alive and well, but Deeken decided to go to a meeting anyhow.
“In my childhood, I grew up with a Collie. I was 3 or 4 when we got her and when she died, I was a junior in high school,” Deeken said. “I was so grief stricken, I didn’t go to school for two weeks. I laid in my room with my shades down and cried.”
Deeken said that Annie was the love of her life, so she was determined to not let Annie’s pending death debilitate her the same way her childhood pet’s passing had.
“Micky said I was going through anticipatory grief. I would come with a photo of my dog and I would clutch it to my chest and be sobbing and knowing some day she’d be gone and how would I prepare,” Deeken said. “I was searching for help in advance.”
About a year later, around Valentine’s Day 2013, Annie died.
“It was very peaceful. She was ready. I was ready. It was really something how preparing with anticipatory grief helped,” Deeken said. “I was able to get up and go to the grocery store the next day. She was the love of my life. But I wasn’t sobbing or bereft when I got her ashes. I just had part of my girl back with me.”
The stages of grief
One of the first organizations to recognize the human/animal bond was the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement Inc. in Kawkawlin Township, north of Saginaw.
The national organization was formed in 1997 to provide online grief support, remembrance activities, online counseling sessions and a listing of pet loss support groups across the country, said Colleen Rolland, the group’s president.
Rolland said the association was ahead of its time in understanding that pet loss grief would be misunderstood and people would need that support.
“There are two types of people in the world: People who see animals as part of their family and they are very, very important to their happiness and people who just do not get that relationship at all,” Rolland said. “If that latter person is friends with an animal lover, they can cause disenfranchised grief if they say, ‘Oh come on, it was just an animal. Get another dog.’ They don’t realize they push that person into a deeper state of grief.”
The association’s founder, Wallace Sife, worked with “thousands of grieving pet parents” to identify the five stages of grief, Rolland said. They are emotions associated with shock, then anger, guilt, depression and, finally, resolution.
“The person can bounce back and forth through stages two through four until they reach resolution,” Rolland said. “They have to go through those stages though to process the grief. The amount of love you felt for that animal, is equal to the grief you feel.”
Beyond pet loss support groups, there is a rising use of animal hospice services, Rolland said. She has first-hand experience with one.
Her golden retriever, Lily, got cancer in August. Rolland was told Lily, 11, would have six months to live.
“She was my heart dog and a hospice vet got in touch with me to talk about anticipatory grief for her clients, who were getting diagnoses like mine, so as we talked about it, we became pretty close and I worked with her with my dog,” Rolland said.
The vet provided Rolland with morphine syringes in case she couldn’t get to a vet quickly. The vet taught Rolland the signs for when Lily was getting close to the end of her life and, “walked me through the death process.”
It turned out Lily didn’t get six months to live, she made it only five weeks.
“I knew when Lily was getting close and the vet came and euthanized her in my home and it was so lovely,” Rolland said. “Hospice vets provide that level of care that you don’t get in a regular vet practice.”
Sharing the faith
Brady Walker continues to go to the monthly Beyond the Paw Print meetings ever since the first one he attended in 2018 after the loss of his sheltie. Then, he was often crying and had lost 40 pounds.
Now he goes to share his strength and provide others with hope.
“My story is a story of faith,” Walker said. “Many ask, ‘Will I see my pet again?’ And I say, ‘Absolutely you will see your pet again.’ I think my story can help them get through this because the pain will never go away, you’ll see something in life that reminds you of them, but you will be able to continue on.”