I was forced with a decision to put my ten-year-old black cat, Midnight, to sleep after being told that what I thought was an infection turned out to be an inoperable tumor. The pain was indescribable. My heart was breaking, and life was still going on. Finals around the corner, practicum is still a thing, and the realization that not many people understand, left me feeling very void of a safe space to grieve. Research shows that openly grieving over the loss of a pet is deemed societally unacceptable, as majority of our society doesn’t see pets as legitimate family members. This often leaves those grieving, feeling like they have to silently grieve. Thank goodness for my support system, and their understanding of my bond with my pets. However, for those who don’t necessarily have such an understanding support system, it’s easy to see just how those grieving over the loss of their pet can turn into disenfranchised grief.
Aside from that, most employers are much less understanding when an employee feels they need time to grieve and manage self-care over a pet, as opposed to, over a human family member. With that in mind, I felt like I had very little space to properly grieve, knowing the obligations I had and my responsibilities to be present for my clients and to get all my paperwork completed in time. I also found myself in an awkward space to navigate, attempting to live life normally and knowing that I needed to speak out about my immediate ability to be present with my clients. If it hadn’t been for my clinical coordinator, who took the time to explain to me that we were human beings first, and counselors second, I would probably still be trying to navigate silently mourning the loss of a pet whom I woke up to every morning, fed every day, cuddled with while watching tv, and even chasing around the house for fun, all the while, still attempting to maintain my everyday normal life.
As a future counselor, I take this experience with me and I’m using it as a lesson to take heed to the many variables within my clients lives that they are managing and maneuvering through. Now, I can empathize much deeper with a client grieving through similar experiences and I can be more cognizant of the fact that because most people may not understand grieving the loss of a pet, my client may not disclose this to me right away. I can also be more cognizant that when utilizing family genome mapping with clients to understand their family life and structure and relationship patterns, I can inquire about pets and help encourage clients to identify the ways in which their pets help them cope, in an effort, to utilize this within their treatment plan to help my client reach their desired treatment goals.
Poonam “Poo” Ethakotu is a counselor- in- training at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and is working towards specializing in marriage and family counseling, along with sex therapy.