Pet grief leads some to seek therapy, support groups

Janet Iagnemmo's dog, Butch Cassidy, suffered from seizures. For 12 years, she cared for him around the clock in her Fairfax home, providing him with medicine, special food and everything else he needed to thrive.

Then, Butch Cassidy died from congestive heart failure.

"When he died, all of a sudden the next morning I said...what do I do now?" she says. "Where do I go from here?"

In Ashburn, Pam Swoape-Bland gave 15-year-old Winkie, a cat with one eye, a place to live out the final six months of his life before he died.

"I couldn't eat," she says. "I had a hard time sleeping. (The) grief was so great."

Pam and Janet have never met, but they share one quality - they both sought help for the grief they suffered after losing a pet.

Many people keep it inside and are too scared to share their burden with others. They're concerned that society doesn't accept the loss of a pet as legitimate grief.

But counselors like Robin Norris are out there to help pets cope with the death of someone they consider a part of their family.

"Some people say...just get another dog, get another animal," Norris says. "You can't replace an animal. People out there don't understand that somebody out there has had a loss."

After Butch Cassidy passed, Janet began going to a support group in Fairfax County every month and found those who had experienced her grief.

"Thank God," she says. "I'm not the only one who's feeling this way." Now, four years after her dog died, her goal is to help others.

In Pam's case, she had to make the decision to put Winkie down.

"My heart was breaking; I was devastated," she says. "How can people feel that this part of me that has been ripped away matters so little?"

Norris says that some people go to the length of telling their bosses that they lost a human being to get bereavement time off to take time off to grieve a pet's death.

Getting another pet doesn't always make up for the loss, either, Norris says. But for Janet, who adopted more rescue dogs, and Pam, who still has three other cats, the healing begins with the animals they love.